Straddling the Separation of Powers: Lawyers in Politics

Posted on 25/5/2017 by Katherine Memery

In May 2015, almost one-fifth (18%) of all MPs elected either studied or practised law before standing for parliament. In next month’s general election, it’s likely that a similar proportion of lawyers-turned-politicians will return to or enter the House of Commons. Harriet Harman, Chuka Umunna and Norman Lamb are just a handful of solicitor MPs who will be defending their seats on 8th June.

In most democratic countries, lawyers are involved in politics. Many of the UK’s well-known politicians have a legal background. Tony Blair spent 8 years at the Bar before being elected as MP for Sedgefield, eventually becoming prime minister, and both SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and London Mayor Sadiq Khan are solicitors. 

Across the pond, the prevalence of lawyers is even greater; more than half of U.S presidents, including Barack Obama and Thomas Jefferson, had successful legal careers before entering the White House.

So why is politics such a popular career move for lawyers?

For many lawyers, the idea of being able to influence and create the legislation they deal with on a day-to-day basis is attractive. It makes sense for someone involved in law-making to have an understanding of how laws work; lawyers are well-equipped to challenging and implementing policy changes.

Of course, UK lawyers do not have to stand for election to get involved in politics. There are several other ways in which they can participate in the political process. For example, there are opportunities to get involved in parliamentary research, policy analysis and development, or to seek employment in local government and party political public relations.

Aside from their experience in dealing with dealing with legislation, there a number of ways in which a lawyer’s skill set can be applied to politics.

Analysis

Through legal study and practice, lawyers not only gain a detailed understanding of the law but also acquire the ability to critically analyse legislation. Lawyers understand, or at least assume, why a law has been enacted the way it has and will probably have an informed view of what it should or might be. Lawyers will also have an awareness of how laws can conflict and interact with one another.

Legal practice sharpens your ability to see both sides of any argument and present a compelling case. For politicians, this skill is useful when it comes to assessing problems from constituents or weighing up major political issues.

Public speaking

Debating and speaking skills are essential in politics.  Those who have studied or worked in the law tend to be confident public speakers able to communicate their thoughts succinctly and persuasively. This core skill proves useful when it comes to parliamentary debates or during the course of tough broadcast media interviews.

Ethics

It’s true, some people are drawn to the law by high incomes and status, but the best lawyers enter the profession with the aim of helping others and changing society. Both politics and law are professions founded on ethics, freedom and justice. Most law students will say that they have an innate sense of justice and an interest in public service and hopefully the same is true of politicians.

Persuasion

A lawyer’s job is to persuade on behalf of their client. Influencing skills are always useful for the aspiring politician, not least, to persuade the electorate of their personal competence, good intentions and the credibility of their party’s policies.

Understanding

Engaging with and representing clients from all walks of life gives solicitors and barristers a broad societal insight. This experience gives them an awareness not all politicians might have. Empathy for their constituents or people like them will help lawyers who are politically inclined to win over their voters with policies that will resonate and make a difference.

Working under pressure

The high-pressure working environment of law is not dissimilar from the working culture of politics; each is characterised by long hours, heavy workloads and increasingly demanding clients/constituents.

While campaigning for a closely fought marginal and completing a multi-million-pound complex transaction are adrenaline-fuelled and nerve-wracking processes, both roles can be extremely rewarding.

A continuing trend?

As you can see, in many ways, the legal profession and the world of politics go hand in hand. It has been argued that having such a high proportion of MPs from a single profession is divisive and not representative of the UK electorate. However, it cannot be denied that those lawyers who enter the political arena are better qualified than most to stand for election and ministerial office.

We can’t confidently predict what will happen when voters take to the polls, but it is highly likely that we will see a similar number of lawyers sitting in the Commons when the new Parliament session is convened on 19th June 2017.

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