Lawyers in Politics

Speaker’s Corner From The Practice November 2015/December 2023
A conversation with Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick was the 71st governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, serving from 2007 to 2015. Patrick has held major positions throughout the legal profession, including serving as a public interest lawyer, a partner at two major law firms, the general counsel of two Fortune 50 companies, and a high-level official in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Patrick recently sat down with David B. Wilkins, director of the Center on the Legal Profession, for a one-on-one conversation on lawyers in politics.

David B. Wilkins: One of the major research pillars of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession is the career paths of lawyers. As part of our ongoing interest in the topic, one of our research fellows, Nick Robinson, discovered that the number of lawyers serving in the U.S. Congress has been falling quite steeply since a high of about 80 percent in the 19th century to around 60 percent in the 1960s and down to just under 40 percent today (see “Declining Dominance: Lawyers in the U.S. Congress”). Given those numbers, what do you think about the relationship between being a lawyer and being in elected office? Do you think being a trained lawyer makes a difference in the way people approach the legislative process? And more specifically to you, do you think being a lawyer influenced you in your pursuit of elected office—or in which you operated as the governor?

Deval Patrick: For me, running for office as a trained lawyer was a jarring experience in that part of the discipline of the legal profession—of being a lawyer—is a reliance on relevance and logic. If you want to pick a profession that is frequently neither relevant nor logical, it’s campaigning for elective office! Things just come out of the blue. That was a little hard to get used to. At the same time, however, one of the major takeaways from being a lawyer is the experience you get in having to be a quick study and the ability to adjust quickly to changing circumstances. Those skills are a huge part of elected political life.

Wilkins: One thing that’s so fascinating about your career is that you’ve been in almost all of the important sectors of the legal profession: you were a public interest lawyer in the Legal Defense Fund; you were a partner in major law firms (Hill & Barlow and Day, Berry & Howard); you were the general counsel of two major companies (Coca-Cola and Texaco); and you were a high-level appointed government official in the Justice Department (assistant attorney general for civil rights). As you think about those experiences, did any of those jobs help prepare you for being in elected office or help propel you to run for elected office?

Patrick: Each of those experiences built on the one before it, so in every case I was learning things that helped me be ready for the next assignment. One of the biggest lessons I learned was that, whether in a big company or in the government, those with the power to make decisions are often those most fearful of actually making them. That was incredibly frustrating. As you get more senior and as the decisions become more complex, there is often a fear of making what might be perceived as a wrong decision. But from my point of view, as you get more senior, that is the point—making the tough, complex, but ultimately most impactful decisions.

In that sense, I realized that in thinking about running for office, I wanted to run for an executive position. I wanted to be able to set the agenda and make the tough choices. Knowing that about myself, I felt I was better suited for the executive job than serving in the legislature, which by definition is more deliberative and consultative. I wanted to drive the agenda.

Those with the power to make decisions are often those most fearful of actually making them. But, from my point of view, as you get more senior, that is the point—making the tough, complex, but ultimately most impactful decisions

Deval Patrick, 71st governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Wilkins: As the governor, did you pay attention to the background of legislators? Did you notice any difference in how legislators who were lawyers acted versus legislators who were not lawyers—particularly because in Massachusetts you’ve got people who are legislators and yet remain practicing lawyers?

Patrick: That’s right. Many of our legislators practice law simultaneously. I am generally curious about people’s backgrounds, and maybe because I am a lawyer, I love lawyers. So I was perhaps predisposed to enjoy the back and forth with lawyer-legislators. But I was most drawn to the legislators—some of whom were lawyers, but many of whom were not—who were thinking deeply about what the actual implementation of new legislation would mean: for example, how would a small business understand what we were doing in health care? Would they understand what their rights and responsibilities were under the language that we were choosing to enact? There is a surprising depth of substantive knowledge around particular issues in our legislature and often a very practical understanding of what policy meant when it touched people. That was the sort of thing that jumped out much more so than whether they had training as a lawyer.

Wilkins: One of the things our research is finding is that in the U.S. Congress, as lawyers have decreased, the group that has increased the most is a kind of professionalized political class—people who started their careers as legislative aides or interns and then worked their way up to a committee structure and then ran themselves. I wonder if you think that’s a good or a bad thing.

Patrick: We saw some of that in the legislature here in Massachusetts. I don’t know whether I can say it was good or bad in the abstract. What I can say is that the best legislators were the ones who were paying attention to more than reelection. In other words, I found the best politicians are the ones who wanted not just to have the job but to do the job. And for a host of reasons, I think that the legislators who had a robust life outside of the chamber were the most likely to think in that way.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with being a career politician. But I do think having a broad set of perspectives is critical. And perspective comes from life experiences.  If you’ve had a chance to do something other than serve in an elective office or you’ve done something other than prepare for the next elective office, that helps provide perspective. The great thing about a legislature is that it’s a composition of a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds. As long as you have that blend—and you can get the legislature to act collaboratively—then having some number of persons who have grown up in the political culture is not necessarily a problem.

The best legislators were the ones who were paying attention to more than reelection.

As I see it, the biggest problem is that fewer and fewer legislators, starting with the U.S. Congress, actually value collaboration. Now, politicians behave as if you have to hate Democrats to be a good Republican and vice versa—which is a childish point of view at best. Add to that the numbers of candidates who run by trashing the office they hold or seek, by hating government itself, and it’s hard to see how they would be constructive when they are in that office. I think we get the government we deserve. And if we want better government, we as citizens are going to have to insist on something different as we move forward.

Wilkins: A few years ago, a Ph.D. student here at Harvard, who is now an assistant professor at Rutgers, did a research project talking to, among others, students at the Kennedy School and the Law School about their interest in entering electoral politics (see “Running for—or from—Office”). One of the things she found was how few law students were interested in going into electoral politics, often favoring some other sort of nonelected role, such as at a nongovernmental organization or a policy group. According to the research, there was a feeling that the personal costs of entering elected politics were too high and that they could make more of an impact on the things that they cared about outside the political process. Does that general vision fit with your law school experience? Did you think about being in elected politics when you were in law school?

Patrick: I would have been in that group of people who, in law school, said I’d like to be involved in some way in public life or public policy, but not as an elected official. The process, even when I was in law school, seemed brutish and belittling. And it’s gotten even worse in the intervening years. I listen to the stories from members of the Congress about how much time they spend raising money and otherwise preparing for the next election, rather than governing for the next generation, and the political system seems not only off-putting but also deeply worrisome.

Of course, our political establishment has made it difficult for the “citizen lawyer” to come in and out of elective office, rather than choose politics as a career. There is this notion that you have to wait your turn to run, rather than come forward when you feel you have something timely to contribute. I faced this when I first ran for governor. I was viewed as cutting the line, that it wasn’t my turn. So there are a lot of reasons people are discouraged, let alone disheartened, from running for elected office.

On the other hand, like I said, we get the government that we deserve. If we feel we have something to contribute—in ideas, in vision, and in the capability to bring people together and move toward a common good—then we have a duty to speak up and to act. There will always be costs, personal and otherwise, but I believe in old-fashioned notions of duty. I’ve felt like I had an opportunity due to the circumstances in my life and in our political time where I had something to contribute. There is no doubt that it was a daunting undertaking. And even now it blows my mind that we—my family and I—took the decision, let alone achieved the results we did! But if you care about good government, if you care about bearing your generational responsibility, you’ve got to do something about it. Run for office. Volunteer. Support good candidates. Every one of us learned from our grandparents that we are supposed to do something to leave things a little better for those who come behind us. Public service is a way to do that.

Wilkins: When you ran, do you think you faced any particular obstacles because you were a lawyer? I wonder whether, in the actual election process, being a lawyer seemed like a benefit, a liability, or a mix of both?

What I got from law school was a very, very strong sense of citizenship. It was partly due to the substance of the law, partly due to the professors and faculty members, and partly due to the sense of public spiritedness that goes along with being a lawyer.

Patrick: I can’t tell. I don’t see many candidates saying, “I want to be a lawmaker because I’m a lawyer.” I’m not sure it brings the same presumed credibility as when the candidate says “I’m a doctor” at a time when folks are debating health care, or “I’m a businessperson” when debating economic growth. I just don’t know that saying “I’m a lawyer” has the same resonance. In any event I’m not sure that it mattered in my case because I had had such a range of professional experiences. I hope it was that diversity of experience rather than any one part of my background that made me compelling.

I will say that what I did get in law school was a very, very strong sense of citizenship. It was partly due to the substance of the law, partly due to the professors and faculty members, and partly due to the sense of public spiritedness that goes along with being a lawyer. It was an old-fashioned sense of the responsibilities you have by virtue of having certain skills and the duty to do what you could to spread justice. There was an expectation that you would bring that mindset to your work, to your neighborhood, to your family, and to your life.

Wilkins: If you were to give advice to students who are in law school today who might be thinking about one day running for elected office, what would that be?

Patrick: My own career has zigged and zagged so much that I am always reluctant to chart others’ career paths. I have always tried to contribute the most that I could and do what I thought was best in each of those stages. And that hasn’t always led in a straight line. But for folks who are thinking about elective office, it’s worth thinking hard why you want to serve rather than just how you get the job. Frequently you get people who are interested in elective office, who can go to town on their strategy for winning, but who stumble when it comes to what they want to accomplish.

Now every one of us was taught by our grandparents that we are supposed to do what we can to leave things better than for those who come behind us. There are all kinds of ways to do that—whether we are in public office or in private life—but we must do it. I think that for the folks who run for office who really want to make a difference, they have to stand for something. Then they have to be willing to run—and be willing to lose—saying exactly who they are, why they want to serve, and what their vision is. People respond to that kind of authenticity and conviction every time. And that makes a difference.

Wilkins: No matter your political position, you have certainly given much to our Commonwealth, and I thank you for it. And I thank you for taking the time to talk to The Practice about the lawyer in politics.


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