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Why are so many politicians lawyers?

Johan Richter writes the following query to me:

As the primary elections are coming up is is interesting to note that so many of the contenders are lawyers, something that is also true of the members of Congress, where I believe half are lawyers. Why are so many US politicians lawyers? It seems odd considering that A) Legal training seems unnecessary for performing the main job of a politician, regardless of whether one takes that to be courting public opinion or governing the country. And there is hardly any deficit of lawyers in Washington to ask for advice if legal knowledge turns out to be needed. B) Being a lawyer isn't very prestigious as far as I know. Being a military, doctor, police officer, businessman or perhaps even a academic would surely be regarded by many voters as more respectable professions than being a lawyer. C) Other countries don't have nearly the same over-representation of lawyers in their parliaments as the US does.

I thought Google would yield a paper on this question but I can't find it. My guess is that lawyers are good at fundraising and good at developing personal contacts. This helps explain why fewer politicians are lawyers in many other countries; money is more important in American politics. A lawyer also has greater chance to exhibit the qualities that would signal success in politics, such as the ability to persuade and the ability to speak well on one's feet. Not to mention that many lawyers have ambition.

My wife Natasha, who is a lawyer, adds that law generates an outflux of people to many other fields, not just politics. There is also a path-dependence effect, by which a previous presence of politicians in law breeds the same for the future. What else do you all know about this?

A similar version of this post can be found at www.marginalrevolution.com.

Bama 1L:
Tocqueville has a rather heady chapter on this. He presents lawyers as the natural aristocracy of the United States.
1.23.2008 6:24pm
Anonn:
I'm reminded of this quote from Bryan Caplan: "To get ahead in politics, leaders need a blend of naive populism and realistic cynicism. No wonder the modal politician has a law degree."

But more seriously, in addition to the "nation's aristrocracy" point which is also valid (and may be the reason why there is a "path-dependent" effect at play here), in the past, I think there was also a great likelihood of intelligent young people who are clearly interested in politics to see law as the the one thing they could

Unless one as a science background, going into medicine or the hard sciences as an academic seems unlikely(I would also argue that, generally speaking, the type of people who are interested in politics as a career are interested in educational fields other than the sciences).

I think military experience is common, but I assume Richter is talking about career military?

As for police work, while I have tremendous respect for the men and women and blue, I don't think many of America's extremely intelligent, or wealthy, youth (the kind you see interested in going into politics) see that as a major career path.

Also, to be cynical here, lets not forget that law school is still the great babysitter of America's young and confused. No matter how much we law students try to fake it, there is still some truth to the "what the hell do I want to do with my life? Hey, law school will let me put that decision off for 3 more years, I should try that" view. Combine that with the sheer number of individuals who attend law school, and its not surprising to see law grads in high numbers in various unrelated fields, including politics.

This may be changing in modern times, with more of these confused individuals going into consulting or some other area of business, but we won't know about that till the next generation of politicians emerge.
1.23.2008 6:47pm
Joel (mail):
C) Other countries don't have nearly the same over-representation of lawyers in their parliaments as the US does.
Canada, with its relatively restrictive campaign finance laws, is certainly dominated by lawyer-politicians.

In the 20th century, there were only three Prime Ministers without a law degree -- diplomat Lester Pearson, Joe Clark (who attended two law schools without graduating), and Robert Borden, who was a lawyer but never received formal legal education.
1.23.2008 6:49pm
A.S.:
Legal training seems unnecessary for performing the main job of a politician

I would have thought the main job of a politician is to make laws or execute laws. My bad.
1.23.2008 6:54pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
Debate class.
1.23.2008 7:05pm
Dave2L (mail) (www):
A couple of thoughts:

1) Your title question is phrased wrong. The issue is not why so many lawyers are politicians, it is why so many politicians are lawyers. And, yes, that is a lawyerly distinction, but it is also one likely to be made by an economist.

2) In order to be a successful politician, you need to convince people you will be good at the job. Convincing voters is obvious, but you also need to convince a variety of backers: fundraisers, party leaders, special interests. These people are concerned with the type of legislator you will be, rather than the type of person you are (ultimately, the benefit to them translates into what kind of legislation is passed or not). There is obviously going to be a strong correlation between your understanding of the law and how it works and your ability to be an effective legislator (particularly since political compromises are often worked out in the details of a bill).

3) People with law degrees correlate with three traits: intelligence, strong work ethic, and an interest in policy and government. Presumably, those traits correlate strongly with successful politicians, as well, regardless of whether they are JD's or not.
1.23.2008 7:08pm
vol:
I would think young people interested in becoming a politician would generally have an interest in law and policy, so it seems natural that they would go to law school in anticipation of later going into politics. And once in law school, a large portion of them will spend SOME time as a lawyer or a lawyer-like substance. So if they later become politicians, it's not that they became politicians because they were lawyers; they were lawyers because of their interest in law that first led them to want to be politicians.

Seems our legal profession is a lot less structured than most other countries', so that law school and being a lawyer are seen as helpful to other career paths; in several other countries, it sounds like the decisions you make early on have a stronger lock-in effect. E.g. choosing whether to train to be a judge or a lawyer.
1.23.2008 7:09pm
gregh (mail):
A.S.
No one will ever be elected on a platform that says, "Send me to Washington, and I'll make a bunch of new laws."

Since laws are designed to affect the behavior of groups of people (who, having been targeted, become a "special interest group") I would think we'd want representatives from those groups who can actually inform Congress what the hell their new laws will actually do, as opposed to just lawyers who have no real idea what they are talking about. The last time I saw Bill Gates hauled before a Senate committee it was clear none of the interrogators had any idea what a browser was.
1.23.2008 7:11pm
Hans Bader (mail):
At www.openmarket.org, I had a post on January 2 that explains how excessive numbers of lawyers in American legislatures has resulted in bad law in areas such as divorce and family law. (By the way, I am a lawyer).

You can find the post using google if you can't find it easily by visiting OpenMarket.org.

The post was linked to by a number of blogs, including Overlawyered.

The post is at www.openmarket.org/2008/01/02/
anti-business-freakish-divorce-
laws-result-from-
too-many-lawyer-legislators/

Overlawyered discusses the subject at
www.overlawyered.com/2008/01/
divorce_law_in_the_northeast.html

By the way, I am not divorced.
1.23.2008 7:13pm
Robert S. Porter (mail) (www):

Canada, with its relatively restrictive campaign finance laws, is certainly dominated by lawyer-politicians.

In the 20th century, there were only three Prime Ministers without a law degree -- diplomat Lester Pearson, Joe Clark (who attended two law schools without graduating), and Robert Borden, who was a lawyer but never received formal legal education.
I'll post my comment from Marginal Revolution over here as well as it pertains to this point.

It's not quite half if you look at the numbers. 37.2% of the House of Representatives are lawyers. 58% of the Senate. Overall it's 41.1%.

You are probably correct to assume that that is higher than most places. Canada for example: 15.3% of the House of Commons are lawyers. 25.7% of the Senate. For a total of 17.9%. So that makes the US have more than double the amount of lawyers.

Strangely though, 77.2% of Canadian Prime Ministers have been lawyers, while only 59.5% of American Presidents were lawyers.

Is it possible that the United States simply has a higher rate of lawyers in total as compared to other countries?
1.23.2008 7:17pm
A.S.:
No one will ever be elected on a platform that says, "Send me to Washington, and I'll make a bunch of new laws."

Really? I look at the platforms of Hillary and Obama, for example, and they are filled with new laws. A new health care law. A new energy law. A new global warming law. A new tax law. Etc.
1.23.2008 7:20pm
Dave2L (mail) (www):
Funny that, A.S. I checked out the republicans, too. There were a lot of proposals for legislation making tax cuts permanent, bans on partial birth abortions, stricter immigration laws, and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

And all this time I thought the best way to get elected was to say "vote for me, and I'll collect the paycheck and do nothing!"
1.23.2008 7:27pm
FWB (mail):
About a decade ago, I emailed Dr. Volokh and asked my question which is, "When an attorney, who is an officer of the court, serves in a legislative capacity or executive capacity, is that not a violation of the separation of powers of our system?" His response was that we can't split hairs that finely.

I have "discussed" my question with many others. A lawyer/talk show host in SoCal responded that an attorney serving in one of the other branches wasn't a violation of the separation of powers but the the lawyer could just quit the bar to settle the issue. My response: Point!

I still hold that a member of the judicial branch, i.e. officer of the court, is in violation of the separation of powers foundation of our governmental system if that attorney holds a legislative or executive office. It may not illegal or unconstitutional but it is suspect.
1.23.2008 7:37pm
Shawn Levasseur (mail) (www):
You will also find that Real Estate and Insurance agents are disproportionately represented in politics, at least at the more local levels.

These professions (along with practicing law) provide the career flexibility for would be politicians to put their jobs on hold or scale them down a few degrees while pursuing elected office or serving is such an office.

This flexibility also is what attracts people who wish to be career politicians, so that they have a job to fall back on between election seasons that won't trap them into long term obligations, keeping them from the next election cycle or serving if elected.

These careers also give would be politicians a good place to get recognition and network within their communities.
1.23.2008 7:39pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
I second A.S.

I know the general outlines of lawmaking, possibly more than most people remember from their civics classes (wait.. they don't have those anymore). But as for actually drafting one that did what I wanted it to, or deciding how to interpret and implement a law? I'm trained in math, not in law.
1.23.2008 7:43pm
Dave2L (mail) (www):
FWB-

The correct honorific for Eugene Volokh would be Professor Volokh or a simple Mr. Volokh. While the JD is a doctorate, lawyers do not use the honorific (as I understand it it is partially so as to not confuse people).
1.23.2008 7:50pm
pete (mail) (www):
After doing a quick Google search it looks like 25 presidents have been lawyers:

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton.

I did not know about Jackson or FDR. I think lawyering would be a natural fit for reasons the other commentators mentioned. General seems like the next most common profession of presidents with twelve generals who have become president with Washington, Jackson, William Harrison, Taylor, Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Eisenhower.

Jackson, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison were both generals and lawyers, which is probably a fairly rare combination even though all 5 except Jackson were civil war generals and none were career military.
1.23.2008 7:53pm
ChrisIowa (mail):
I think Shawn has the answer.
1.23.2008 8:00pm
Craig Oren (mail):
Dave 2L,

This may be a urban legend, but I believe that the ABA has stated that lawyers may use the title "Dr."

I have served on National Academy of Sciences committees. The non-lawyers are inevitably Ph.Ds, and are referred to as Dr. I have to beg the staff not to call me Dr.
1.23.2008 8:08pm
whit:
"As for police work, while I have tremendous respect for the men and women and blue, I don't think many of America's extremely intelligent, or wealthy, youth (the kind you see interested in going into politics) see that as a major career path"

what makes you think that the extremely intelligent are more likely to choose politics vs. law enforcement (or any # of professions)?

i've seen no reason to believe (is there data out there to support or deny) that politicians are "very intelligent" or that very intelligent people generally seek out jobs as politicians. certainly, some ethnicities do (thomas sowell has done some research on this) seek certain careers over others, on average, to include politics.

i've also seen no evidence that intelligence (beyond a certain minimum) results in better politicians. in my understanding the two smartest presidents in recent history were carter and nixon, neither of whom i would consider particularly successful.

i have a sneaking suspicion (conspiracy alert) that legislators (not all politicians are legislators of course) purposefully write vague and poorly worded laws so as to keep their trial lawyer friends in business. maybe nonlawyers on the whole would do better?
1.23.2008 8:19pm
TerrencePhilip:
Shawn Levasseur has a great answer, to which I would only add that lawyers in states where the judiciary is elected often find themselves (happily or not) donating and fundraising for judges; and lawyers naturally have an interest in local and state legislation which leads them to interact with local pols. The practice of law has a greater "surface area of contact" with politics than most other jobs and it's natural for people with skills allowing them to interact with politicians to try their own hand at a run.
1.23.2008 8:32pm
Dave2L (mail) (www):
Democratic presidential candidates with JD's:

Hillary Clinton - Yale
Barack Obama - Harvard
John Edwards - UNC
Joe Biden - Syracuse
Chris Dodd - Louisville
Tom Vilsack - Albany

Without:

Bill Richardson - None (But has M.A. from Tuft's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy)
Dennis Kucinich - None
Mike Gravel - None

Republican candidates with JD's:

Mitt Romney - Harvard
Rudy Giuliani - NYU
Fred Thompson - Vanderbilt
Sam Brownback - Kansas
Duncan Hunter - Thomas Jefferson
Tommy Thompson - Wisconsin

Without JD's:

John McCain
Mike Huckabee - but for what it's worth he has an honorary LL.D from Ouachita Baptist University.
Tom Tancredo
Alan Keyes

My highly unscientific conclusion: there is a correlation between "presidential candidate without a JD" and "slightly nutty"
1.23.2008 8:36pm
Dave2L (mail) (www):
Craig Oren-

My understanding is the same. I believe I read an article in the ABA Journal on it, and that the official rule is that you can use Dr. so long as it does not lead to confusion on the part of a client that you are also a medical doctor (for example, it might be problematic if you had a med-mal practice). I would hunt for the article, but after tracking down all the law schools of the presidential candidates, I am a bit weary of chasing useless data on the internets.

I think going by Mr. or Ms. is very cool. Washingtoniesque, you might say.
1.23.2008 8:43pm
Fin Fang Foom (mail):
Craig Oren, I don't know about what the ABA says, but really just an interest group and information clearing house. Unlike state bars, it can't actually do anything directly to a lawyer. It does have important persuasive power (e.g. law school accreditation and promoting and developing national ethics standards for lawyers), but it is not binding.

As a reason for lawyers' ambitions to become politicians, the practice and study of the law is the only place where one comes into daily contact with the law and problems with the law as it stands. Nearly every other profession is only going to run into things they don't like about the law with respect to the narrow aspect of their profession.
1.23.2008 8:53pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
Since when has Tom Vilsack ever been a presidential candidate? Some people were speculating that he would run, and I'm sure he considered it, but he was never a presidential candidate.
1.23.2008 9:08pm
Elliot Reed (mail):
Don't lawyers consistently notoriously low rates of job satisfaction? Perhaps doctors, academics, scientists, police officers, etc. just find their jobs more satisfying.

While the JD is a doctorate, lawyers do not use the honorific (as I understand it it is partially so as to not confuse people).
As someone who will (hopefully) be a J.D. in a few months, I've got to disagree with this story about how the J.D. is a doctorate. The name notwithstanding, a J.D. is nothing more than a glorified master's degree, or maybe a second bachelor's. You take a bunch of classes and you graduate and that's it. It's not for nothing that it was called an L.L.B. until a couple of decades ago, and still is in most of the rest of the world.
1.23.2008 9:13pm
nnn (mail):
The interesting contrast is with nations where technocrats -- especially engineers and economists -- are more heavily represented in politics than the US. I believe this is true for France and for many countries in Asia.
1.23.2008 9:14pm
anon legislative aide (mail):
To me it's fairly obvious. I work with members of a state legislature (but am not one myself). The lawyers know what's involved in the law, and the non-lawyers don't. Lawyers know about things called "statutes," and "codes," and "administrative regulations." To non-lawyers this is a foreign language.
A non-lawyer will have an idea for a bill that needs to be passed, but will have no idea of what's involved in actually drafting a bill with language that's appropriate. Nor will a non-lawyer understand when you explain to him or her why the proposed bill is unconsitutional, or violates case precedent, or intrudes upon the power of an executive agency.
You need lawyers to be politicians, when you consider that their primary function is creating or administering the law.
1.23.2008 9:15pm
Dave2L (mail) (www):
Jeremy Pierce -

Vilsack filed with the FEC on 11/9/2006, and announced he was withdrawing in February 2007.
1.23.2008 9:17pm
Eli Rabett (www):
Why are so many politicians lawyers in the US but not in other countries.

Most other countries have political parties
1.23.2008 9:19pm
Chris Smith (mail):
I'll venture, as a computer geek, that, for society, politics is the execution model, and the law is the programming language, albeit an ambiguous one.
In other words, the two vocations aren't all that dissimilar, and if fact have a peanut butter/chocolate relationship, especially as seen from the standpoint of the allergic.
1.23.2008 9:27pm
Bored Lawyer:

Why are so many politicians lawyers?


Because law is the best preparation for what a politician will be -- despised.
1.23.2008 9:32pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Although the ABA may permit holders of the J.D. to call themselves "doctor", the J.D. is not generally considered by those with "real doctorates" as equivalent. The J.D., like the M.D., is generally considered equivalent to a Masters degree, although law professors are regarded as being at the same level as faculty in other disciplines in spite of their nominally lower degree. The whole business is really odd since the J.D. is typically considered a "terminal degree" even though the LL.M. follows it, as does the rarer J.S.D.
1.23.2008 9:32pm
pete (mail) (www):

As for police work, while I have tremendous respect for the men and women and blue, I don't think many of America's extremely intelligent, or wealthy, youth (the kind you see interested in going into politics) see that as a major career path


That just reminded me of this classic news story:


Robert Jordan, a 49-year-old college graduate, took an exam to join the New London police, in Connecticut, in 1996 and scored 33 points, the equivalent of an IQ of 125.

But New London police interviewed only candidates who scored 20 to 27, on the theory that those who scored too high could get bored with police work and leave soon after undergoing costly training.

Mr Jordan launched a federal lawsuit against the city, but lost.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld a lower court's decision that the city did not discriminate against Mr Jordan because the same standards were applied to everyone who took the test.


I suspect a lot of very intelligent people are attracted to police work because there are a lot interesting problem solving situations in investigating crime where they can use their intelligence in real world situations.
1.23.2008 9:36pm
whit:
the afterstory to the Jordan affair is that he was inundated with offers from OTHER police dept's to come work with them, and that new london police became a laughingstock because of this incident.

i think their reason given is only part of the rationale for their (ridiculous ) policy. also, generally speaking, people with lower intelligence (iow within relatively narrow deviation from the mean) are more likely to "go along" without causing problems, fit in better, etc.

imo, new london police should have been even more of a laughingstock than they were for that ridiculous policy. i work with a few PhD's, JD's, MS' and a lot of smart d00ds who have BA or no college training in my agency, and its absurd to want to purposefully limit IQ's among cop applicants. very understandable that cop-o-crat administrators who are threatened by intelligence and thinking outside the box WOULD do that, but still ridiculous. i once read a study that said that the average cop with 5 yrs on in a busy dept. had roughly the same knowledge base in regards to his job as a 2nd yr medical resident. it certainly does not require a 125 IQ to be a good cop, but discouraging people with such IQ's is disgusting.
1.23.2008 9:49pm
Buckland (mail):
I agree with Shawn Levasseur on politicians that start at the bottom and work their way up -- the law tends to be a profession that allows some flexibility.

One other group that tend to be lawyers and politicians are children of old money. Kids of families that have had money a while go to law school because it's a degree that is flexible enough to be of help in a number of areas for the family -- running a business, administering trusts, etc. Lots of these kids may want to go into "public service" at some point in their life. Think of all of the lawyers in the Senate from rich families -- Rockefeller, Kennedy, Kohl, etc. These kids had a law degree, but more to the point they had connections and money when the urge to run for office hit them.
1.23.2008 9:58pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Whit,

What is probably another example of this type is the case of Kim Rossmo. He was a Vancouver police constable who received a Ph.D.in Criminology (he was the first Canadian police officer to do so) for work on geographic profiling. He was promoted several steps to Detective Inspector and put in charge of a new unit. Although the work he and his unit did was highly regarded, at the end of five years his contract was not renewed and he was asked to return to the rank of constable, at which point he resigned and sued for wrongful dismissal. I don't know the rights and wrongs of the case, but his position, that his rapid promotion and use of scientific methods caused members of the "old guard" to dislike him, seems the more likely one based on the news accounts.
1.23.2008 10:06pm
BGates:
Nor will a non-lawyer understand when you explain to him or her why the proposed bill is unconstitutional, or violates case precedent, or intrudes upon the power of an executive agency.
Fortunately we have plenty of lawyers in Congress, so none of these problems ever comes up.
1.23.2008 10:16pm
Ak:
"You need lawyers to be politicians, when you consider that their primary function is creating or administering the law."

Absolute nonsense. All of these "lawyers are masters of the law and thus vital" responses fail the obvious test: that other countries have far fewer lawyers in their legislatures and don't seem to be doing any worse at lawmaking (and that's being generous to the US). Do you seriously think Arlen Specter is sitting down at his computer with Word to hammer out the latest bill he's proposing? Whether it's a lawyer, doctor or janitor who has their staffer write the bill and explain it to them is of little importance, which is why other countries are perfectly fine without lawyer-legislators.

For my guess, it's entirely possible that lawyers are just more common in the US; I remember reading somewhere that the lawyer/population ratio for the US was something like 5 times that of Japan. Even average college students can get into law school somewhere, albeit with potentially dismal job prospects. I suspect this may not be the case everywhere.
1.23.2008 10:35pm
Dave2L (mail) (www):
Arlen Specter, Yale Law School 1956.

If a legislator doesn't need to understand the law to be an effective legislator, they are essentially relying on other people's advice (lawyers) on what is acceptable legislation (vis a vis the constitution or federal law), how to draft, for that matter how to even read the damn things. If they are going to be at the mercy of the advice of others, what is the point? I'm a bit amazed at how much resistance there is to the simple proposititon that it helps in passing laws to understand our legal system. One might as well ask why there is such a high proportion of MBA's among Fortune 500 CEO's.
1.23.2008 11:07pm
antirealist (mail):
Oughtn't a competent lawyer engaged in the complex process of drafting legislation be able to understand the difference between "You need lawyers to be politicians" and "You need politicians to be lawyers"?
1.23.2008 11:09pm
Patrick SF (mail) (www):
As I also commented on marginal revolution, and further to the comment on Canada, Australia also has a majority of lawyer-politicians.

But, interestingly in light of nnn's observation, economists come second!

And France's current president is a lawyer...
1.24.2008 12:07am
whit:
bill, all the way back in the david durk/serpico days, they tried to get well educated guys to consider law enforcement. iirc, durk did something unheard of at the time, which was to go to colleges etc. and try to recruit. your anecdote is another good example that the cop-o-crats (police administrators) are very threatened by cops with brains and/or advanced degrees. there's a guy who writes for national review under a pseudonym, jack dunphy that is a LAPD patrol cop. he must REALLY p'o the admins
1.24.2008 12:24am
pete (mail) (www):

Nor will a non-lawyer understand when you explain to him or her why the proposed bill is unconstitutional, or violates case precedent, or intrudes upon the power of an executive agency.


Because us non-lawyers are incapable of understanding such complex concepts as "unconstitutional". I just wonder how politicians like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan ever managed to make it through two terms as president with such fanstastic legal terms confusing them all the time. If only they had gone to law school they may have finally grasped these mysterious words that I am still not sure quite what they mean even after pondering them for several minutes.

It is a good thing that lawyers never disagree about what bills are unconstitutional or violate precedent or separation of powers or else we common folk would be completely out of luck trying to figure things out.


they are essentially relying on other people's advice (lawyers) on what is acceptable legislation (vis a vis the constitution or federal law), how to draft, for that matter how to even read the damn things. If they are going to be at the mercy of the advice of others, what is the point?


Yes, what is the point of having politicians who are not lawyers? What would a doctor or a general or a businessman or a scientist or a (fill in the blank) have to contribute to running our government? All you may ever possibly need to know about running a goverment you can learn as a lawyer. Also, I propose that none of our politicians, especially the president, should ever be allowed to have any advisors (what is the point?) since if they are not an expert on all issues that might possibly come before them they are at the mercy of others. Also the 50% or so of congress who are not lawyers should be thrown out immediately since they are obviously not up to the job.
1.24.2008 12:27am
hey (mail):
I'm trying to contain myself here - the idiocy and naivete of those claiming that politicians need to be lawyers so that they can read and draft legislation. Absolutely the most hilarious things that have ever been written on the Conspiracy.

Politicians, as a rule, don't read the legislation that they introduce or debate. They have staff for that, as they need to find a camera or microphone somewhere and attack it, shake down some people for campaign contributions, do campaign visits, or chase an intern behind a desk for a close, personal study session! Just as no prominent business person writes anything that they say, publish, or introduce internally, no politician does either. Maybe some especially low level city/county pols might, but at all other levels there is just far too much other activity that needs the politician's time and attention. A pol will read some budget items, some especially important clauses highlighted by their staff, but there just isn't time to read all of the legislation (not to mention regulation) promulgated in a year, especially after considering all the draft legislation floating around.

The career flexibility is the major role. Romney left Bain Capital as the CEO... he didn't get into politics in the middle of his climb to the top. As a lawyer, especially one not at atop 20 firm, there isn't the same need to be on the ladder for 20 years. You can make partner quickly if you want to do that first, or you can drop in and out, as a politician's connections are always attractive to firms for their government relations work. The retired/resting pol is also useful for non-corruption (aka lobbying) related work, as they'll have a vast rolodex. Bush, Clinton, Quayle, and Edwards all demonstrate the utility of a pol to business deals, whether they are lawyer or were working at law firms.
1.24.2008 1:05am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
My impression is that most legislation is not very well written. It contains needless ambiguities and is often needlessly complex. Where complexity is necessary, the phrasing is often awkward. If the subset of legislators that are lawyers are responsible for drafting legislation, they aren't doing a very good job. Moreover, that is to be expected: legal training deals with interpreting legislation, but rarely if ever with drafting it. (Does any law school offer a course on drafting legislation?)
1.24.2008 2:17am
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
I've been reading a bio of the Clinton's rise to power in Arkansas. It turns out that a law firm is a great place to launder money. All quite legal and aboveboard; graft these days has been institutionalized.
1.24.2008 3:01am
Pluribus (mail):

Without JD's:

John McCain
Mike Huckabee - but for what it's worth he has an honorary LL.D from Ouachita Baptist University.
Tom Tancredo
Alan Keyes

My highly unscientific conclusion: there is a correlation between "presidential candidate without a JD" and "slightly nutty"


Ron Paul is without a JD. Some would argue that he has written the book on nutty.
1.24.2008 8:37am
Pluribus (mail):
pete:


I just wonder how politicians like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan ever managed to make it through two terms as president with such fanstastic legal terms confusing them all the time.


You do know, don't you, that Washington, TR, and Reagan all had attorneys general? And they consulted them frequently.


If only they had gone to law school they may have finally grasped these mysterious words that I am still not sure quite what they mean even after pondering them for several minutes.


Sarcasm noted, and rejected. Who said that politicians have to go to law school? Nobody, that's who. If there are a dispropotionate number of public officials who have gone to law school, it's because the people have elected them. Ponder that for several minutes.
1.24.2008 8:55am
Fin Fang Foom (mail):
Regarding countries with far few lawyers in politics, these are usually pretty bad comparisons. Most other countries have a parliamentary system with strict party discipline. The MPs are required to vote in favor of the law, or get kicked out of the party. The party leadership decides how everyone will vote, so they can easily consult an outside lawyer or one amongst their ranks and decide on the proper decision for the party.
1.24.2008 9:12am
Pluribus (mail):
I'm not surprised that so many politicians are lawyers. I am surprised that so many politicians are not lawyers.

Why would a man or woman want to make a career in a field that is so intimately connected with the law--proposing laws, making laws, interpreting laws, enforcing laws, changing laws, repealing laws--and yet not have enough interest in laws to spend three measly years in school studying them?

There is only one difference between lawyers and non-lawyers. Lawyers have spent the required time studying the law and then passed an exam to show their knowledge. Non-lawyers haven't. Some of the posters here seem to think it's better not to have that knowledge than to have it. I find that curious, and not reassuring, in a society that calls itself a nation of laws not men. Ignorance is bliss, but when did it become a virtue?
1.24.2008 9:23am
anon legislative aide (mail):
I posted yesterday about my own experience as a legislative aide, and why it is good for politicians in general (and legislators in particular) to be lawyers. Since then there have been several posts that take issue with my post either directly or indirectly. I don't have time to address them one by one, so let me just say more about my own experience.
First, I have no problem with non-lawyers being politicians. For example, although I have no respect for Tom DeLay as a politician, I don't mind that he was an exterminator in his previous profession, and it always bothered me that Democrats mocked him for that. What's wrong with an exterminator, or someone in any trade, becoming a politician? Similarly, while I disagree with Ron Paul about many things, I appreciate that he's an obstetrician, and thus has much "real world" experience as opposed to be being a career politician. It's obvious to me that a person can be an effective politician, whether as an executive or as a legislator, without being a lawyer. If I recall, FDR dropped out of law school. Reagan of course never went. And yet they were effective presidents.
My focus was on state legislators, with whom I work every day. Here is what I've observed for quite awhile.
Suppose a legislator wants to enact a health reform package. Maybe it's at the request of the governor's office, maybe it's a counter-proposal as a reaction to the governor's plan, and maybe the legislator is following his/her own instincts independent of the executive branch.
A non-lawyer will have lots of ideas, and will simply not realize why those ideas can't be enacted into law. When I mentioned in my earlier post about something being unconstitutional, I mean something along the lines of "this violates ERISA, because federal law preempts state law on this matter." Okay, non-lawyers, tell me what that means? What is ERISA? Don't know? Well, people with J.D.'s know, and won't get upset with you when you say, "The State Supreme Court has already dealt with this matter. The bill they ruled unconstitutional was similar to your proposal. Unfortunately there was no language making that section of the bill severable. So the whole bill failed."
Now non-lawyers may indeed be able to understand what this all means. You can do a Google search on ERISA and find out it means the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Those of you non-lawyers who commented with sarcasm about my post, especially "Ak" who quoted me and said it was "absolute nonsense," please find ERISA online and read it. How far did you get? How much language did you understand? Because if you're a state legislator, and you want to reform your state's health care industry, or reform your state's insurance industry, you'd better understand ERISA, and you'd better be aware of previous attempts to circumvent it.
A non-lawyer legislator will angrily say, "Just get it done." And a legislative aide might humor them, and hope that the legislator's lawyer colleagues will explain why the proposal is dead in the water to begin with, because it violates ERISA.
One example out of many. All hail the non-lawyers who are politicians - good for them. I hope many more participate in the political process. But you need a lawyer to understand that process beyond the "I'm just a bill" Schoolhouse Rock level of maturity. Ak, you said to me "absolute nonsense." What do you do for a living? How many years have you worked for legislators, both lawyers and non-lawyers? How many of them do you call on the phone to request clarification of their expectations as they prepare a bill for introduction before a committee? How many committees do you sit on, Ak?
If you want to believe it's absolute nonsense, go ahead. As a lawyer, and as someone who works with lawyer legislators, I know the benefit of a legal education. Politicians who have a J.D. understand things that non-lawyers don't. Nothing personal. It's just the way things are in the real world of the political process.
1.24.2008 10:02am
Platonisto:
FDR dropped out of law school because he had passed the bar exam and was able to get a job working as a lawyer at a law firm.
1.24.2008 10:34am
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Eh, pluribus, that's, "a government of lawyers, not of men." Don't know who said it first.
1.24.2008 10:44am
pete (mail) (www):

"this violates ERISA, because federal law preempts state law on this matter." Okay, non-lawyers, tell me what that means? What is ERISA? Don't know? Well, people with J.D.'s know, and won't get upset with you when you say, "The State Supreme Court has already dealt with this matter. The bill they ruled unconstitutional was similar to your proposal. Unfortunately there was no language making that section of the bill severable. So the whole bill failed."


As a former financial planner I know all about ERISA and was somehow able to comprehend your statement even though I am not even a lawyer.

The point isn't that lawyers have no place in politics. I think it is probably a good thing that there are lots of lawyers involved since we are talking about writing and executing laws. But any reasonably intelligent person can figure these sorts of things out if they want to given enough time. In lots of cases a staffer can figure it out for them. A lawyer may already know what ERISA is, but an intelligent non-lawyer can figure it out fairly quickly if they need to and can at least figure out how it relates to their legislation.

The fact that I understand what you are saying without getting upset at you kind of proves my point. I think you have more of a problem with people unwilling to listen to constructive criticism than you have with non-lawyers.


You do know, don't you, that Washington, TR, and Reagan all had attorneys general? And they consulted them frequently.


Yes. Which is why I thought the comment criticizing non-lawyer politicians for relying on advisors to explain laws to them was silly and was making fun of it.


Why would a man or woman want to make a career in a field that is so intimately connected with the law--proposing laws, making laws, interpreting laws, enforcing laws, changing laws, repealing laws--and yet not have enough interest in laws to spend three measly years in school studying them?


Because there are other skills necessary to wise decision making and leading besides just knowing the law and many otherwise smart people have better things to do with their time then go to law school. Does anyone really think Washington or Teddy Roosevelt or Eisenhower or Reagan or Truman would have been better presidents if they had gone to law school? Does anyone even think it would have helped a loser president like Carter? With executive positions especially being a lawyer does not seem to correlate much with successful administrations.

One of the presidents main job functions is commander in chief, so do we really want to elect people who never bothered to spend 4 measily years in the military to such an important position? Considering that two of our best commander in chiefs were Lincoln, who had almost no experience in the military, and FDR who had none. I think that shows that you can be an effective politician without being a specialist in every area of your job.
1.24.2008 10:46am
anon legislative aide (mail):
Bill Power said, My impression is that most legislation is not very well written.

State differs from state. There is a great deal of variation in quality.

It contains needless ambiguities and is often needlessly complex.

Sometimes needless, but quite often it only appears to be needless. Sometimes the legislators are trying to cover all the bases so that there's no "loophole." Other times they are trying to prevent the state Supreme Court from interpreting the statute a certain way. The complexity comes from foreseeing many possible consequences to the legislation and endeavoring to limit those consequences or shape the direction of those consequences.

Where complexity is necessary, the phrasing is often awkward.

Unavoidable. It is nice to have legislation that is clear and concise, but it's not realistic. The awkwardness may sometimes be the result of poor drafting, but often it is the result of taking care of many different interests or addressing many different problems. Sometimes that actually requires purposeful ambiguity. Legislative drafting is more of an art than a science, but it will never hang on a museum wall or be read for pleasure.

If the subset of legislators that are lawyers are responsible for drafting legislation, they aren't doing a very good job.

Define "very good job"? Drafting the legislation so that it accomplishes its purpose, gets through the committee hearings, gets through a vote by both houses, gets through a possible veto by the governor, and gets through a possible challenge in front of the state supreme court? To accomplish this, you can't write like Hemingway. More like Faulkner, and I don't like him either. But you're trying to enact a law that most likely affects all sorts of different people in all sorts of different ways. You're trying to limit the harm and increase the benefit. You're trying to word it for both clarity and substance. You're trying to prevent unintended consequences without undermining the bill's purpose. And you're looking at getting the thing passed into law. That process is indeed like "making sausage," and it's not pretty, and the outcome isn't fun reading. But it works fairly well.

Moreover, that is to be expected: legal training deals with interpreting legislation, but rarely if ever with drafting it. (Does any law school offer a course on drafting legislation?)

I don't know of any drafting classes, but frankly that's best learned on the job. Law school is too academic a setting to understand what's really involved.
1.24.2008 10:47am
PLR:
In Missouri, where legislators are part-timers, there have been a very small number of lawyers and it shows in what comes out of the state capital. The Missouri Bar has had a little bit of success recruiting candidates, but there are still not enough people in the legislature who can actually read what they are passing.

How does the legislation get written in the first place? Helpful lobbyists, of course.
1.24.2008 10:59am
CJColucci:
Stephen Lavasseur seems to have it right. If I recall correctly, Max Weber made a similar point, though he didn't extend it, as SL did, to insurance, real estate, and funeral directing, all of which (like law when you're not jumping to judges' schedules, or funeral directing when the corpse is not actually being laid out) can be managed without necessarily having to be somewhere in particular at 3:15 on Thursday.
1.24.2008 11:09am
anon legislative aide (mail):
Elder Pete, you're points are well taken. I think a source of contention within this thread is that there's such a great difference between being an executive (President, Governor, etc.) and being a legislator (Senator, Representative, etc.). The former doesn't really require legal training (although it requires a lot of reliance on lawyers), while in my experience the latter is greatly helped by legal training.

You know ERISA. Try dealing with legislators who don't, and who wish to pretend it doesn't exist as you draft legislation for them. It ain't fun.

You said,
But any reasonably intelligent person can figure these sorts of things out if they want to given enough time. In lots of cases a staffer can figure it out for them.

There's no way of saying this without sounding arrogant, so please excuse me. But for the most part, if you get accepted to law school, and you go through it, and you pass the bar exam, that proves you have at least some intelligence. There are plenty of politicians who never went through that process, and who are (to use a recent legal phrase) "a few fries short of a Happy Meal." They can't understand basic legal doctrine, even if it's explained to them (by an aide, a lawyer, a colleague, or whoever). And that limits their effectiveness as legislators.

A lawyer may already know what ERISA is, but an intelligent non-lawyer can figure it out fairly quickly if they need to and can at least figure out how it relates to their legislation.

I'm sorry, that has not been my experience. It can be figured out to a degree, yes. But it can't be understood in the same way that a lawyer understands it. If you are dealing with ERISA, you are potentially dealing with insurance law, corporate law, health law, elder law, employment law, constitutional law, administrative law, and tax law. (Etc.) A non-lawyer can learn about these things, but it will be much harder if he has not had some vigorous legal training. And it will be difficult for the non-lawyer to see both the big picture and the minute details, and how they relate.

Maybe you and others here will disagree, and I know this sounds like I'm saying "lawyers are just so much more intelligent." I don't mean it that way. I'm sure that I can immerse myself in your profession, financial planning, and understand it to a degree. But I can't make it into my profession without training. I might understand it at one level, but you will be able to see my own inadequacies. You've been trained, and I have not. The same goes for the legal profession, including the drafting and enacting of legislation.

Getting back to lawyer-politicians, as a Republican who greatly admires Obama and may vote for him, I do believe that his legal training has been a benefit, and will be a "plus" if he is elected. He taught Constitutional Law at U. of Chicago. Who better to undo the damage done by Bush?

And the greatest president in American history, Lincoln, was a lawyer.
1.24.2008 11:13am
Thomas B. (www):
(Does any law school offer a course on drafting legislation?)

At the University of Kansas, most of the clinics have a legislative drafting option. I learned the most about legislative drafting under Judge Levy's Legislation course. I take it Legislation courses are fairly common, and many of them probably highlight statutory drafting techniques in a similar way.
1.24.2008 11:20am
pluribus:

One of the presidents main job functions is commander in chief, so do we really want to elect people who never bothered to spend 4 measily years in the military to such an important position? Considering that two of our best commander in chiefs were Lincoln, who had almost no experience in the military, and FDR who had none.

Funny you brought up these two examples of great commanders-in-chief, both of whom were lawyers.
And slight correction--Lincoln regarded his election as captain of a company in the Black Hawk war as the greatest honor of his life. Yet he had the insight and balls as a congressman to oppose the imperialistic Mexican War. And FDR was the wrong age to serve in the Spanish-American War, but he was assistant Secretary of the Navy in WWI. So much for lawyers as commander-in-chief.
1.24.2008 11:22am
pluribus:

First, I have no problem with non-lawyers being politicians. For example, although I have no respect for Tom DeLay as a politician, I don't mind that he was an exterminator in his previous profession, and it always bothered me that Democrats mocked him for that.

I agree. It also bothered me that Democrats knocked Reagan for having been an actor. I suppose they are doing that now to Schwarzenegger. Why can't an actor be a good politician? Or, for that matter, a bad one? Let the people decide. As long as the business of politics is so intimately tied to proposing, making, interpreting, enforcing, changing, and repealing laws, the people are likely to elect a disproportionate number of lawyers.
1.24.2008 11:42am
anon legislative aide (mail):
By the way, pluribus, I have agreed with virtually everything you said, in this thread and many others.
Blog-commenters of the world, unite.
1.24.2008 11:56am
pluribus:
anon legislative aide:

By the way, pluribus, I have agreed with virtually everything you said, in this thread and many others.
Blog-commenters of the world, unite.

It must be because you are innately intelligent, or maybe
because you went to law school. Or maybe both. In any case, you humble me . . . .
1.24.2008 12:30pm
zippypinhead:
It is not surprising that in the United States those interested in politics and government gravitate towards the law and vice versa. In the U.S. there is a symbiotic relationship between the law and politics that does not exist in many other countries. Few soverign states have anything even vaguely resembling the Marbury v. Madison concept of binding judicial review of the actions of other branches of government. For an extreme compare/contrast exercise, consider the events surrounding the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Nixon versus recent events in Pakistan, where the head of state simply fired the Supreme Court when he found their actions inconvenient, notwithstanding all the lawyers (!) rioting in the streets. At bottom, in the U.S. the study of law is in large part the study of government and vice versa.

On the issue of military experience being a prerequisite to performing one's executive branch duties as Commander in Chief: It sure helps in countries like Pakistan. But not so clearly in the U.S. — early in this thread there was a list of the President/lawyers and President/generals. With the exception of Washington and Eisenhower, one would find few of the generals listed near the top of any historian's list of effective Presidents.

For amusement value only, my father (a non-lawyer local politician who served as a sergeant in North Africa and Italy in WWII) once remarked while discussing Carter's Iranian policy and Kennedy's Bay of Pigs fiasco that he was convinced the worst Commanders in Chief had been junior grade officers earlier in life, because they were too awed by generals to tell them where to go when necessary. He said he'd prefer Presidents who were either grunt G.I.s (who he assumed learned the hard way that officers are fallible) or civilians any day over people brainwashed by their time in the middle of the military chain of command. Go figure... :~)
1.24.2008 1:15pm
Mason 75:
I think one reason why lawyers are more likely to be politicians is due to the nature of the business. If you want to run for at the national level or a high state office an election is a full time job. It's hard for many people with non-legal jobs just to walk away and then run, if they lose the election they most likely will be unemployed. However, for many lawyers it's easier to leave their practice and pick it up later after an unsuccessful election. I think the nature of the legal business is one of the reasons why more politicians are lawyers.
1.24.2008 1:18pm
Skeptickal:

Pluribus: "Why would a man or woman want to make a career in a field that is so intimately connected with the law ... and yet not have enough interest in laws to spend three measly years in school studying them?"


If you relax the unexamined assumption that electoral politics is exclusively about law, and that laws are the end of politics rather than a means, then potential answers come easily. Electoral politics touches every aspect of life.

Why would one want to make a career in a field so intimately connected with business and yet not have enough interest in business to spend two measly years in school studying it?

Why would one want to make a career in a field so intimately connected with national security and yet not have enough interest in national security to spend two measly years in school studying it?

Why would one want to make a career in a field so intimately connected with people and yet not have enough interest in people to spend two measly years in school studying them?

The other unexamined assumption is that electoral politics is a "career." Call me hopelessly old-fashioned, but I am attracted to the ideal of the citizen-lawmaker, who makes his name in X, spends a few years in politics, then returns to X (or retires). "Career politicians" is a term that should arouse as much fear &loathing as "mosquito swamp."
1.24.2008 1:22pm
pluribus:
Skeptickal:


If you relax the unexamined assumption that electoral politics is exclusively about law . . .

Naughty, naughty. You have introduced the word "exclusively" into this discussion, where it never appeared before. And it's preposterous on its face. Neither I nor anybody else here have argued that politics is "exclusively" about law. You can put that one to rest right away.


Why would one want to make a career in a field so intimately connected with business and yet not have enough interest in business to spend two measly years in school studying it?


In our system, the private sector runs businesses and the government makes laws. It's generally called capitalism. The government does not run businesses and businesses do not make laws. That's not a complicated concept, is it?

If you want a career in business, by all means go to business school. If you later decide to go into politics, I might even vote for you. Some politicians have been to business school. Some to acting school. Some to extermination school. I have no problem with that. But why get your nose out of joint because voters in the United States vote disproportionately for politicians who have been to law school? Maybe they know something you don't.
1.24.2008 4:25pm
Dave2L (mail) (www):
Pete the Elder -

In response to this comment: You seem to be deliberately trying to read into my and others' comments a demand that all legislators should be lawyers. But neither I nor anyone else has said that. What we have said is that in order to be an effective legislator, one needs to understand the law and legal processes. Yes, legislators can get advice, everyone does. But I guarantee you that almost all legislators, regardless of their profession, have a significantly better-than-average understanding of the law. And, fascinatingly enough, one way to acquire a better-than-average knowledge of the law is to study it.

The second proposition that you and others seem to be having difficulty with is why lawyers, which I think can be fairly defined as people who have an interest in the law, tend to go into law-making at a higher rate than those in other professions. This, again, fascinates me. I don't think most would have difficulty with the idea, for example, that people who are interested in business are disproportionately represented among people who go into business and are succesful at it (CEO's), nor that people with degrees in English and Creative Writing are disproportionately represented among best-selling and/or critically acclaimed novelists. What is the difficulty in understanding that people interested in law, who have studied law might attempt a career in law-making at a rate higher than those with an interest in, say, biology?

As for whether or not anyone can determine what is or is not likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional can be understood by thinking about it for a few minutes.... good luck! I tell you what. I'll give you (as a person with presumably no special knowledge of the law) more than a few minutes. I'll give you a whole month. You can spend as much or as little time thinking about it as you wish. At the end of that month, you can take my constitutional law exam. If you do better that 10% of the class (yes, there are idiots in law school), I'll vote for you as a write-in in every election for the rest of my life.

While lawyers obviously disagree about things at the margin (and these are likely to be the things that are reported in the news), the vast majority of law is things upon which most lawyers agree and about which the lay person has little or no knowledge. Thus, consider this scenario: a state legislator is seeking to introduce a bill giving a preference in the state budget for vendors incorporated in the state. At which point, a legislative aide says, "well, we might run into a dormant commerce clause problem with that."

At this point, paths diverge. A non-lawyer says "What the hell is the dormant commerce clause?" Much time and taxpayer expense is spent on trying to explain this restriction on state action. In the end, the legislator is really only relying on the interpretation of his legislative aide as to whether or not the bill is constitutional. Why don't the voters just elect the aide?

On the other hand, a legislator/lawyer has the ability to discuss - at the margin - the dormant commerce clause ramifications of the bill, and can therefore determine what modifications to the bill need to happen to satisfy both the law and the desires of the legislator's constituency.

BTW, Teddy Roosevelt was enrolled at Columbia Law School when he dropped out to run for NY State Assembly. So he's not a terribly good example of people who lack experience in the law who go into politics (and despite a regular contention that Teddy was either not very good at law or did not like it, biographer Edmund Morris and Robert B. Charles dispute that notion vigorously).
1.24.2008 7:10pm
The Oracle of Syracuse:
Johan:

Law isn't as prestigious as medicine, the military, business or the police? Didn't Willie sing "make 'em be doctors and lawyers and such"? In recent years the prestige of the legal profession may have waned a bit vis-a-vis medicine, but I think it's overstating the argument to say that law has now dipped below law enforcement on the ladder of prestige.

With regard to the nature of the JD (i.e., is it a real doctorate), I agree that it, like the MD, is really more of a second bachelor's degree than anything else, as it doesn't require a bachelor's degree in the subject in order to attain the "advanced" degree. But I don't understand why anyone would compare it to a master's degree. You can't be getting to that conclusion from looking at the number of hours required to earn the degree: a master's requires, at most, sixty hours, but a JD requires about ninety (roughly the same number of hours as a PhD). Nor could you be getting there from the original research requirement. Many master's degrees don't require original research at all (unlike the PhD), but any law school worth its salt requires an original publishable piece of original research for graduation. Given how lengthy the parenthetical comments made in the footnotes are and how tiny they are, if the style were altered to be more in conformance with traditional academic style most of them would be closer to dissertation-length than thesis-length.
1.25.2008 10:57pm
TCRRR:
Above are some eloquent comments, observing the pro's and con's of lawyers making laws. My views on the subject are just that, another belly button.

My usual rant about the "club".

As I read around the net I observe that there is a very tight club comprised of lawyers. The club is rather exclusive in that one must pass a BAR exam in order to become a member of it.

All higher level judges as well must be members of the same club.

So now we have a club member creating law that other club members will use for making a living at, arguing one side vs another, (something lawyers should be doing), in front of the club member judge.

On the surface one could almost declare such a monopoly, even though it is not if one looks as it as the legal industry then it begins to quack like a duck.

Just a thought.
1.27.2008 6:35pm

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