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There are too many lawyers in politics. Here’s what to do about it.

Graduating Harvard University Law School students stand and wave gavels in celebration at commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Graduating Harvard University Law School students stand and wave gavels in celebration at commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Robert Spencer/Getty Images

The US has a dubious distinction among advanced industrialized nations: We have the highest share of lawyers in our national legislature. We also have the highest share of income going to the top 1 percent. Coincidence?

Adam Bonica

(Adam Bonica)

The chart above comes from Stanford political scientist Adam Bonica. The correlation is astounding. The higher the share of lawyers in a national legislature, the more unequal the society. And the US is an extreme outlier on both axes.

But what explains it? Are lawyers uniquely pro-top 1 percent?

Lawyers know lots of rich people. That helps them run for office.

Running for office now entails raising ridiculous sums of money, and fast. Therefore, first-time candidates with powerful fundraising networks are at a tremendous advantage. And going to an elite law school gives you access to an impressive fundraising network, since graduates of elite law schools tend to be very rich. As Bonica writes in a new paper, "Professional Networks, Early Fundraising, and Electoral Success":

"Candidates should expect to depend almost exclusively on personal acquaintances to raise the early funders needed to jumpstart their campaign. Second, success in fundraising early is seen as a crucial test of a campaign's viability by donors outside the candidate's personal network...On the other hand, even the most compelling candidates will struggle to keep pace if their personal networks are devoid of anyone who fits the typical profile of a political donor."

Moreover, to raise money from very rich people means focusing on issues and positions that rich people want to support. Rich people, for example, are not interested in wealth redistribution or taxing the rich more, even if most voters are.

In short, running for office these days requires that many very wealthy people both know you and like you. Of all the professions, lawyers, especially those from elite law schools, are by far best positioned to do this. That's because they are most likely to be both rich themselves and connected to other rich people.

Consider, for example, the following chart from Bonica's paper, which looks at the fundraising of non-incumbent candidates in their first 90 days. It's pretty clear that lawyers, especially those with elite law school degrees, blow everyone else away in this crucial metric of early fundraising. And as Bonica notes, the candidate with more money in a contested primary wins 79 percent of the time.

(Adam Bonica)

Lawyers are not typical Americans

Bonica argues that lawyers contribute to inequality by enabling tax loopholes and marginalizing the need for affordable legal services, and says that "the legal system has been increasingly implicated in driving inequality."

Singling out lawyers is also a way to highlight a deeper structural issue in our politics, which is that it's very hard for candidates who are not personally wealthy and don't know other wealthy people to run for offices, and lawyers are just disproportionately likely to glide among the networks of concentrated wealth.

Here's another directly observable consequence of this narrow, gold-plated pipeline to public office: More than half of members of Congress are now millionaires. As Duke political scientist Nicholas Carnes notes in a new paper, "Casting a Wider Net": "Millionaires make up less than 3% of the country but make up majorities in all three branches of the federal government."

Carnes has done considerable research examining the consequences of members' backgrounds. And it turns out that members' backgrounds do shape their perspectives. Writes Carnes: "Former businesspeople in government tend to think like businesspeople, former lawyers tend to think like lawyers, and (the few) former blue-collar workers tend to think like blue-collar workers."

But there are very few blue-collar workers in politics. They don't run, because, unlike rich people, they can't raise the money. And they can't afford to take time off to run, either.

These are not new problems. Carnes sent me the following graph, which shows that workers have always been underrepresented.

Source: Nick Carnes

(Nick Carnes)

Likewise, lawyers have always been overrepresented.

Seed money or political scholarships could diversify Congress

Both Bonica and Carnes makes a pretty compelling case that a candidate pipeline privileging wealthy, elite lawyers and businessmen also privileges the friends and associates of wealthy, elite lawyers and businessmen, and thus exacerbates inequality.

This leads both to conclude that maybe we need a new pipeline to public office. Both have similar promising ideas about how to create one.

Carnes proposes "seed money" for aspirants who lack the initial startup Rolodex to tap for money. He argues, "Increasing the economic diversity of our governing institutions will probably require interventions that aren't currently part of the standard political equality reform playbook, like seed money and candidate recruitment programs that target lower-income and working-class people."

Bonica proposes "political scholarships" for a similar class of marginalized aspirants, making an analogy to education: "Access to office today is very much like access to higher education was a hundred years ago (or, some might argue, still today). The primary determinant of whether one could attend college was based on class and socio-economic factors." To solve this problem, colleges offered merit-based and need-based scholarships. More people of diverse backgrounds got a college education.

One great appeal of this general approach is that it doesn't require new legislation. It can be done privately, by organizations or individuals convinced that the lack of class diversity in Congress is a big problem.

This approach is different from traditional campaign finance reform because it puts politicians themselves at the center of the action. Rather than treating politicians as mere conduits for the interests they hear from, this approach argues that politicians' own judgments and priorities matter most, and that these judgments and priorities are shaped by their experiences.  As Carnes notes, responding to campaign finance reform proposals that focus primarily on donors, "The rich aren't just the ones doing the talking. They're also the ones doing the listening."

Certainly, some politicians act like ciphers for their most prominent donors. But most get into politics because they want to accomplish particular things, and those things they want to accomplish are shaped by their life experiences. Regardless of whether you spend time raising money in small increments or big increments, everything you hear still gets filtered through your own values and experiences.

Here, it's worth wondering whether there'd be a Donald Trump backlash right now if Congress had a contingent of working-class representatives who would have been more attuned to the economic and social identity conflicts brewing in the country. Maybe they could have done something about it before it got so bad. Or at the very least, maybe they could have made some marginalized people feel a little less marginalized by their sheer presence in the legislature.

The unavoidable truth is that considerable numbers of voters do feel that their political institutions don't represent them. And they are angry about it. More and more, political institutions need to take these concerns seriously. And improving representative diversity by looking beyond elite law schools and well-connected rich people might be a great place to start.

Note: Both of the papers discussed were presented at a recent conference, Purchasing Power? The Next Generation of Research on Money and Politics.

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