Running for—or from—Office?

From The Practice November 2015/December 2023
New lawyers face tough choices

Hillary Clinton. Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio. Martin O’Malley. Chris Christie. Lindsey Graham. George Pataki. Rick Santorum. Aside from running for president, what do those people have in common? They are all lawyers running for office.

While research suggests that the dominance of lawyers in the U.S. Congress, and more generally across elected political office, has been declining, lawyers still make up a large percentage of elected officials across the country, whether at the federal, state, or local levels. Indeed, the legal profession has historically viewed public service and elected office as part of its own identity, in no small part due the profession’s long-standing role in civic life and its professional commitments to public spiritedness. Derek Davis, the executive director of the Center on the Legal Profession and a lawyer who has considered running for public office throughout his career, notes, “There has always been a strong link between the legal profession and elected office. Lawyers tend to view themselves as the architects of our modern political system, both writing the laws as well as interpreting them. For people of my generation, going to law school and becoming a lawyer was viewed as the first, best step in jump-starting a career in politics.”

But how true is that sentiment for current and recent law students and graduates? How do soon-to-be and newly minted lawyers view the relationship between the legal profession and elected office? Why do some people want to run for office, while others hate the idea? This article looks at the propensity for new members of the legal profession not to run for office, but from it.

A survey of law and public policy students

Between 2011 and 2014, Shauna Shames, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, conducted a survey of more than 750 young people at three Boston area schools—the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Law School, and Suffolk Law School—examining their political ambitions. She complemented the survey with more than 50 in-depth interviews drawn from the same student population. Shames says it was important to find a population who was old enough to have a sense of what they wanted to do with their lives but didn’t yet have to make major life decisions with respect to career or family. In an exclusive interview with The Practice, Shames says, “I wanted to find people who had made some kind of investment—some decision that would put them on a path to dealing with politics, law, and policy as their career focus—but hopefully before they got married, had kids, got caught up with a mortgage and the daily stresses of life that often would make you less want to run.” The results of Shames’s research offer a fascinating glimpse into the minds of recent law students.

Unsurprisingly, high percentages of those surveyed reported being ambitious, without much significant variation for gender or race. Perhaps more surprising, given the historical connections among lawyers in elected office, Shames found significant differences when it came to political ambition:

This is an intensely ambitious group of people. About 92 percent of every single person in the sample said that they would call themselves ambitious. At the same time, however, a far smaller number—less than a third—were politically ambitious. And that third became even smaller when you talked about people who had seriously thought about running for office. That was about a fifth. So I had an enormously ambitious population of law and public policy students that was not very politically ambitious.

Shames also found significant cleavage between the public policy and law students with respect to having thought about running for office. According to her data, around 20 percent of public policy students reported having thought seriously about running for office compared with just 15 percent of Harvard Law School students and 11 percent of Suffolk Law School students—a difference that proves to be statistically significant if one compares the public policy students as a group with the law students as a group. Shames notes that even when one looks at those who have thought of running “generally”—as opposed to “seriously”—54 percent of public policy students had done so compared with 46 percent of Harvard Law School students and 41 percent of Suffolk Law School students—again, a statistically significant difference if one compares the public policy students as a group to the law students as a group. Shames believes that one reason this might be the case is that the law school students tended to think politics mattered less than the public policy students.

Around 20 percent of public policy students reported having thought seriously about running for office compared with just 15 percent of Harvard Law School students and 11 percent of Suffolk Law School students.

All this raises the question of what is driving these students to run from rather than for office—particularly given their overall ambition. In what she calls “a theory of candidate deterrence,” Shames says that the majority of those in her sample are simply performing an internal cost-benefit analysis. “Deterrence starts with individuals observing the costs and rewards of entering into electoral politics,” Shames says. “When the costs outweigh the rewards, individuals do not want to run. That is the case for the majority of the people in my sample.”

But what are the specific costs and what are the specific benefits? In both her survey and interviews, the vast majority stressed many of the potential costs of running for office, such as the need to raise the necessary funds to mount a campaign, a loss of privacy, frustration in not being able to achieve one’s goals, personal costs in terms of time away from family, and the prospect of a hostile work environment. “The students I talked to,” Shames stresses, “were extremely detailed and elegant in talking about the costs of running for office.”

On the rewards side, Shames reflects that she anticipated interviewees bringing up a variety of benefits of running for office, such as the ability to make a difference, public standing, or fame. In reality, very few brought up those factors, and when they did, frequently did so in the negative—for example, not running due to a perceived inability to make a difference through the political process. “This was one of the most surprising things in my research,” Shames says. “As a political scientist, I like to believe that politics matters! You can imagine these internally power-driven motives that a person might have, but you can also imagine an externally motivated sense of a reward that you could help other people. But that is the one thing that I did not see a lot of from my subjects.”

What did she find? First, her research shows that the majority of those surveyed viewed the costs of running for office as outweighing or only equaling the benefits. Second, women had a greater sensitivity to the costs than men. Shames says that part of the reason has to do with the view that women face more discrimination in the political process, whether from the media or within politics itself, than men. Third, women of color were deterred the most. This is particularly problematic because women—and especially minority women—are underrepresented throughout U.S. elected office.  Women currently represent 51 percent of the U.S. population but are only about a fifth of its elected leaders or less.

The majority of those surveyed viewed the costs of running for office as outweighing or only equaling the benefits.

While Shames lays out a series of reasons that these highly ambitious men and women by and large chose not to run, one of the main reasons centers on a widely held view that government and the political process are not the most effective means for solving core problems. Shames found that the majority of men and women did not agree with the statement “The problems I most care about can be solved through politics,” with women, especially minority women, being the most likely to disagree with the statement. This belief, paired with a corresponding belief that there is too much money in the political process, creates high costs and low rewards. This feeling is mirrored in wider society with trust in government near historical lows. According to a Pew Research survey done in 2014, fewer than 25 percent of those surveyed said they trusted those in Washington to do what is right always or most of the time. Similarly, a 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics poll of 18- to 29-year-olds found the exact same thing—75 percent of those surveyed said that they don’t have trust in the federal government.

What does Shames make of this?

On the one hand, you have these wonderfully ambitious, thoughtful, and caring graduate students in law and policy, that really want to make a difference and want to make the world a better place. That was an important part of their motivation of going to either law or policy school. But, on the other side, when they looked at politics, the majority saw high costs in getting elected. It would take a lot of fundraising. It would take some media intrusion. They felt like they would be caught up in gridlock and negative partisanship and bickering. So, when they saw high costs and, unfortunately, not very high rewards, these rational young people basically said, “Well, that’s not worth my time.”

Choosing law school

Although Shames’s research offers a fascinating glimpse into the overall opinions of young lawyers and their propensity to run from office, The Practice was also interested in the individual stories of soon-to-be-lawyers and their views on the link between legal education and elected office. In that regard, The Practice interviewed two current Harvard Law School 3L’s, Sara Murphy and Thea Sebastian, on their decisions to attend law school and their views on a potential run for office. Both Murphy and Sebastian majored in political science as undergraduates and Sebastian worked within politics between undergrad and law school. And both are in the minority, according to the Shames’s study, as each has seriously considered running for office.

I decided to go to law school because I thought it was important to have an understanding about existing legal frameworks and how laws work in practice before trying to design whole systems.

Sara Murphy, 3L

One of the central questions The Practice addressed was how they perceived the relationship between their decision to attend law school and their political aspirations. Both are clear that they entered law school with political ambitions and viewed earning a J.D. as advantageous in that endeavor. Murphy says,

I knew I wanted to do public policy—and I considered going to get a master’s in public policy—but I decided to go to law school because I thought it was important to have an understanding about existing legal frameworks and how laws work in practice before trying to design whole systems. It’s one thing to come up with great policy ideas in the abstract. It’s another thing to come up with policy ideas within existing legal constraints, know how to then write those laws, and ultimately have the ability to think about how a court might interpret them. I very much viewed law school as part of a path for running for office.

Sebastian has always been interested in politics and public policy. In discussing why she decided to go to law school she notes,

I attended law school because I was interested in politics and public policy. When I was working for a Senate campaign between undergrad and law school, almost everybody around me who had a position of power was a J.D. The question that was constantly being asked was, “When are you going to law school?” There was just an assumption that someone coming out of Harvard College who was interested in politics would just go to law school and that would best serve my career. It was always in my head that law school was the best way to get into politics and policy.

While both Murphy and Sebastian say that there is a close relationship between having a career in politics and getting a J.D., both also note important qualifications. Most notably, both make clear that law school is attractive because it not only provides a pathway to elected office but also allows for a diversity of career options. Put differently, they are hedging their bets. “Part of the reason I applied to law school” Sebastian says, “was that I liked the options provided. Unlike doing something like a master’s in public policy, it would give me a lot of other career tracks. Law school opens a lot of doors and gives you a lot of credibility.” In this way, law school may still be the best of both worlds: a path to elected office that nonetheless opens a number of alternative doors should politics not work out.

Moreover, while each internally linked going to law school with their political goals, going to law school as a pathway to public office was never a fait accompli. In other words, neither was attending law school for the sole purpose of parlaying it into electoral support. Murphy, for one, notes that irrespective of the benefits of having a J.D. in the political arena—and there may be many—there were also costs, quite literally, to going to law school that she had to balance. “Law school is almost prohibitively expensive,” she says. “If I hadn’t gotten into Harvard, I think my path would have been to get a master’s in public policy from a school in Colorado, where I am from, and then work in local government and build connections there.”

Learning to be a lawyer—and a politician

If applying to law school was partially driven by their interest in politics, what happened once they arrived on campus? Murphy and Sebastian agree that their experiences have provided many tools—both direct and indirect—that will be useful should they decide to run. In the most direct sense, Sebastian says that “law school has provided me tangible skills and, in many ways, lowered the barriers to running for office. For instance, the HLS Democrats runs a political workshop series where you can meet with young elected officials who can talk about things like how to fundraise and concrete things like that. This has made everything seem very tangible.” Similarly, Murphy says that while at law school she founded a student organization focused on raising awareness about the problems of money in politics after learning more about campaign finance law from Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School (see “Speaker’s Corner – A Presidential Run”).

In a more indirect way, Murphy notes that a legal education provides insight into the way laws are made. “I think being a lawyer is incredibly advantageous to elected office because you need to know how the laws will be implemented; how they will be interpreted; and what the existing legal framework is.” Sebastian agrees, noting that she does think there is a value added in having attorneys as elected policymakers, given their ability to break down complex issues in clear and concise ways. This echoes Davis’s point of lawyers as the architects of the political system, both writing and interpreting the laws.

HLS has never answered the question of whether I want to run. It has made it much easier should I decide to do so, but it has not moved the ball forward as to whether I want to run—and if anything, I am even less sure now.

Thea Sabasitan, 3L

While Murphy and Sebastian were steadfast in their views that law school has provided them invaluable tools should they ever reach elected office, they also admit that their legal education has been a double-edged sword. While neither would say that their contracts or civil procedure lectures made them unwilling to run for office, both say that their wider experiences at law school did educate them on the costs of running. For instance, Murphy points out that her involvement with the money and politics group illustrated what the life of an elected official actually entails. “The thought of putting in all this time and effort and money to get elected into office to then sit in a room, call wealthy donors to discuss their policy preferences before asking them for money,” she says, “doesn’t appeal to me at all.” She continues, “Many women who come to HLS thinking that they will run for elected office at some point may become hesitant to do so because they see other alternatives as better—alternatives in which they could have a bigger impact.”

Picking up on that last point, Sebastian notes that while law school offers many tools helpful to the process of running, it also influenced her thoughts about whether she wants to run. “HLS has never answered the question of whether I want to run,” Sebastian says. “It has made it much easier should I decide to do so, but it has not moved the ball forward as to whether I want to run—and if anything, I am even less sure now. Law school forces you to think critically about issues, which could actually be a force inhibiting you to run since you are second-guessing: here are all the costs of running.”

To run or not to run

This all leads to the million-dollar question: Is either student going to run for office? Neither has made a firm decision; however, each offers intimate perspectives on their thinking—perspectives that reveal the possible mindsets of soon-to-be and newly minted lawyers.

Sebastian’s own views track the general findings from the Shames study. “I am trying to find the occupation in life that is the biggest value added,” Sebastian says. “Is being in elected office the best way to make that change? I am not so sure about that. There are a whole host of things you can do as a lawyer to bring change. If I could see running as my biggest value-added opportunity, I would run. If I could bring more change elsewhere, I wouldn’t run.”

She is certainly not alone in this view. In the Washington Post, Shames writes, “Women are now—for the most part—moving away from politics and flocking to nonprofits, advocacy, and direct service in their desire to make change and to help people. Anyone who teaches college students knows how desperately young women want to change the world.”

The most important thing is that you are advocating for your positions. If you don’t advocate for your ideals, who will?

Sara Murphy

Like Sebastian, Murphy is unsure if she will ultimately run, saying that if she does, it would probably be at the state level. She also reflects that her own views on Congress and politics generally are more jaded since she entered law school, though she attributes that less to her legal education per se­­­ and more to the exposures she’s gained into the political process. Yet she remains decidedly hopeful. Responding to whether the intractability in Congress is a turn-off for a future political career, Murphy offers a hopeful answer: “The most important thing is that you are advocating for your positions. You are putting your policy proposals on the table and in doing so are bringing new understandings and creative solutions to light. Of course, passing your bills is great, but for me, it is having the platform that matters. If you don’t advocate for your ideals, who will?”

Indeed, as The Practice went to publication, 2015 Harvard Law School graduate Neil Makhija announced his candidacy for the Pennsylvania State House. In explaining the link between law school, his legal education, and his decision to run for office, Makhija says that, “If you want to be a lawmaker, it helps to know the law.”

David B. Wilkins, a professor at Harvard Law School and the director of the Center on the Legal Profession, provides a closing perspective. “In my three decades of teaching at Harvard Law School,” Wilkins says, “I have talked to dozens of students thinking about running for elected office, including the future president of the United States. I have always thought of law school as a very important training ground for future elected officials. Among my law school classmates in the Harvard Law School class of 1980, one is a two-term U.S. senator (and former governor) and another is a long-serving congressman from Tennessee, and several more have served at the state and local level—and many more thought that they would run for elected office when we were in law school but never ended up doing so.”

Wilkins reflects, however, that “there is evidence to suggest that this may be changing. Today’s law students may have less interest in electoral politics than we did in the 1970s. How much of that has to do with changes in the legal profession versus a more general belief that politics is more the problem than the solution remains an open question.” But he insists that “our democracy needs to have some of our country’s best and brightest be willing to engage in the rough and tumble of electoral politics, whether they choose to spend their entire careers as elected officials or to become what my colleague Larry Lessig describes as citizen-politicians, who move in and out of the political arena. Lawyers don’t have a monopoly on the qualities that make an effective elected official, but I do believe that the training they do—and could—receive can help prepare them for the important duties of elected office. It would be a shame if too few decide to follow this path.”


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