Legal Tyranny

Why are lawyers getting all the good foreign-policy jobs in Obama’s administration?

Last month, Dani Rodrik looked at the initial slate of Obama administration appointees and observed that a surprisingly large fraction of them were lawyers. As a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he found this somewhat perturbing:

If you are bright and are contemplating a potential career in American politics, you go to a top law school-not a public policy school. This does not seem to have changed much in recent decades despite everything [Harvard's Kennedy School of Government] has done to make itself visible and relevant.

When one looks at the people picked for foreign-policy positions in particular, Rodrik might be onto something. The top two nominees for the State Department-Hillary Clinton and James Steinberg-both earned degrees from Yale Law School. Tom Donilon, the rumored deputy NSC adviser, and Janet Napolitano, the nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security, earned their J.D.s from the University of Virginia.

As a professor at a rival public-policy school I share Rodrik's concern (though we can claim at least one cabinet appointment). Why do law school grads get the foreign-policy jobs coveted by public-policy school grads?

The first reason is historical legacy. When the United States became the global hegemon after World War II, public-policy schools were exceptionally rare. The original gangsters of the foreign-policy community-think Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Clark Clifford, John J. McCloy-were lawyers. This matters because the best way to get a top foreign-policy job is to make your mark by serving as a loyal deputy to past top foreign-policy makers. Since people are more likely to hire their own, it is hardly surprising that lawyers would hire other lawyers.

The second reason has to do with signaling. Presidents want their foreign-policy appointees to be politically successful, which requires a complex, interlocking set of skills. Analytical rigor and policy expertise are obviously necessary but hardly sufficient (expertise can be earned via a public-policy degree, but there are also other avenues). Dedication, determination and political discipline count for a lot as well.

Earning a law degree and then working on foreign-policy issues sends two powerful signals to prospective presidents that earning a public-policy degree does not. Simply put, a law degree is much less fun to earn than a law degree. One-L courses require a tolerance of a high level of drudgery. A public-policy degree, on the other hand, is much more fun to earn than a law degree. Which means that it requires less discipline. By getting a law degree, aspirants to top policy-making jobs are signaling to observers that they can grind their way through a serious amount of drudgery.

By going into public policy, lawyers are also signaling the monetary sacrifices they are willing to make. Compared to the median wage, most public-policy jobs pay a decent salary. Compared to the median legal wage, most public-policy jobs pay peanuts. Most Fletcher graduates would be delighted at the prospect of a six-figure salary in the corridors of power. Most Harvard law school graduates would be appalled at any job with the phrase "low six figures" attached to it.

So there are logical reasons why lawyers might be getting the top foreign-policy posts. Are these substantively good reasons, however? As a professor with an interest in seeing his graduates thrive in the public sector, I think attending a public-policy school should send an even stronger signal. It should say that the person in question is well-trained and has the other traits necessary for a leadership position.

Perhaps the next step should be to make the first year of a public-policy degree more like the first year of law school. After all, why should one-Ls have all the fun?


Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest.