Daniel Drezner on the Plethora of Lawyers in Obama Administration Foreign Policy Jobs

by Kenneth Anderson

Dan Drezner, a political scientist at Tufts and well known public intellectual aka blogger, has a short column at The National Interest from early December asking why it is that so many of the important foreign policy jobs in the Obama administration are going to lawyers, rather than to public policy or foreign affairs school graduates.  Dan starts with Dani Rodrik (professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government) asking the question:

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.

So what answers does Dan give?  Three, in particular:

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.

And, Dan notes, the Obama administration is no change on any other in living memory in this regard.  There are some other ways of presenting the background issues – the ideal of the “lawyer-statesman” that was a feature of the high-level New York lawyers of the white-shoe firms of the twentieth century up until the 1980s, more or less, and which is somewhat preserved in such institutions as the New York City Bar Association and its committees on so many international topics.  

Actually, though, I think Dan is being both too nice and too mean.  Too mean in the sense of suggesting that the discipline of the law school curriculum is a function of its drudgery – I don’t think it is drudgery especially, unless one thinks that learning scales in order to become a competent cellist is not discipline but drudgery.  Also, the first year law year is, so far as I can tell as a professor who teaches upper level courses, remarkably creative, astonishingly far from the stereotype of the movies and novels.  There’s a lot of work, but I don’t think first year students think of it as drudgery, but as a steep learning curve that genuinely challenges one intellectually.

But also too nice in not coming out and saying directly the downsides of lawyers as decisionmakers:

First, the training in law is training in risk aversion.  Your fundamental job as a lawyer is to identify risks to your clients in their plans, not to see the strategy forward as such.  George Soros once introduced me to a large audience in Eastern Europe, not long after I became his charity’s general counsel, as “the person who advises me of catastrophic risks of extremely low likelihood.”  I was annoyed, of course, but was he so very wrong in principle?  I advise the students I often have who are considering the move into business and out of law not to wait too long, because law trains you in risk aversion.  

Second, training in law is by nature training in reaction … lawyers do not initiate (even “initiating” a whole industry in ambulance chasing is still … “chasing”). You react, you do not by professional training initiate.

Third, legal training tends to presume a shared context and culture in which negotiations take place.  Lawyers put together elaborate compromises in the diplomatic world, with an implicit assumption that the other side either shares their view that one ought more or less to stick to deals, or else a background assumption that this is an exercise in a rule of law that can be enforced like a contract in court.  The lawyers know that it is not this way, but their skill sets are established around those background assumptions.  This leads not only to misplaced expectations about the behavior of other parties – but also to a tendency to focus far too much on details, forms of artful language.  Think Warren Christopher.

Fourth, lawyers who think of themselves as “lawyer-statesmen” have a tendency to think in terms of international law as though it were like domestic law.  They say they don’t, but they do.

But what surprises me most is that Dan does not simply say that law school – at least upper half of the law school curve, and the upper tier of students in them – have been through a sorting device, irrespective of whether they learned anything useful or relevant or not.  The world, rightly or wrongly, treats law school as a way of pointing to students who are presumed to be smarter in the aggregate than students at public policy schools, which is ultimately signaled by the differences in earning power.  This is quite unfair in a number of ways, but not in all.  But it seems to me the single most important reason why so many of these jobs go to lawyers.


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