26 Ex-Bitters in Chief


Think your only option is to practice law? Think again. Over the years, 26 ex-Bitters went on to serve as President of the United States. That’s more than from any other profession.

While all of these Presidents were lawyers, and most of them had some formal education, not all of them were law school graduates. Law schools, in fact, are a relatively recent addition to higher education. Accordingly, we’ve listed each President’s alma mater. Where applicable, we have noted their law school, but for many of the early Presidents, the school simply refers to the last formal education they received before beginning their careers.

UPDATE: Need a break from an Ex-Bitter as President? Sorry. No can do. With the likely 2012 ticket between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, it’s a fall choice of Harvard Law vs. Harvard Law.

1John Adams (Harvard). In 1770, Adams wasn’t the only lawyer in Boston, but he was the only attorney willing to represent the eight British soldiers charged in the infamous Boston Massacre. Six of Adams’ clients walked and two ended up being convicted of manslaughter (they had been charged with murder). Adams collected a modest fee (historians still debate the actual amount) and despite his fears, the case didn’t hurt his reputation in the long run. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to option the story to HBO.

2Thomas Jefferson (William & Mary). Jefferson once said, “The Judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working underground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric.” Fortunately Jefferson had the good sense to say that after retiring from practice.

3James Madison (Princeton). Madison is often considered to be a key figure in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. But despite rumors to the contrary, he never planned to cause so much confusion for 1Ls.

4James Monroe (William & Mary). In a deal that would later haunt Vice President Al Gore, Monroe oversaw the purchase of Florida from Spain for the settlement of $5 million in Spanish debt. Caveat emptor.

5John Quincy Adams (Harvard). When he took the oath of office in 1825, John Quincy Adams put his hand on a book of laws rather than the bible. Talk about drawing a line between church and state.

6Andrew Jackson (None). Jackson holds the dubious distinction of being the first U.S. President to face an assassination attempt. While crossing the Capitol Rotunda, Richard Lawrence fired two pistols at Jackson. Both shots missed and Jackson subdued Lawrence by beating him with his cane. A serious Presidential beat down.

7Martin Van Buren (Kinderhook Academy). Before he was elected to the presidency, Van Buren was governor of New York. Although he only held that office for three months, he did manage to champion an early form of deposit insurance via the Bank Safety Act. Maybe today’s politicians ought to read up on Van Buren.

8John Tyler (William & Mary). When President William Henry Harrison died a month after his inauguration, Tyler became the first VP to assume the office via succession. Without the benefit of the 25th Amendment (still more than a century away), it was more than a month before Tyler actually took the oath, thus becoming fodder for many rather dull Law Review articles and future editions of Trivial Pursuit.

9James Polk (UNC). In his first case, Polk successfully defended his father, who was charged with public fighting. The lesson? Don’t mess with the Polk family.

10Millard Fillmore (New Hope Academy). Does anyone really care? His name was Millard for goodness sake, and after becoming the last Whig President, he ran as the nominee for the Know Nothing Party in 1856, proving that “no comment” is always a better response to a tough question than “I know nothing.”

11Franklin Pierce (Bowdoin College). As the only President from New Hampshire and an otherwise forgotten figure, Pierce is lucky to be on just about any list. But proving himself to be a rather astute lawyer, he was once quoted as saying, “there’s nothing left to do but get drunk” after failing to secure the Democratic nomination. This Bud’s for you, President Pierce!

12James Buchanan (Dickinson College). Known as the only bachelor President, Buchanan had Harriet Lane, an orphaned niece, act as his First Lady. Kind of creepy, huh?

13Abraham Lincoln (None). In 23 years of practice, Lincoln was involved in more than 5,100 cases, including more than 400 before the Illinois State Supreme Court. With billable hours like that, the South is lucky he didn’t sue to preserve the Union.

14Rutherford B. Hayes (Kenyon College, Harvard). Hayes didn’t win the popular vote in 1876, but after some serious political maneuvering he did beat Democrat Samuel Tilden in the Electoral College. For the next four years, the Democrats referred to him as “Rutherfraud B. Hayes.” Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?

15Chester Arthur (Union College). When Arthur ran for President in 1880, his opponents tried to tag him with a nasty rumor, claiming that he was in fact born in . . . wait for it . . . Canada! The rumor never stuck and Arthur went on to sign the first general Federal immigration law, which denied entry to paupers, criminals and the mentally ill.

16Grover Cleveland (Clinton Liberal Academy). Cleveland is the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms. Nothing like getting your old job back after being fired.

17Benjamin Harrison (Miami University of Ohio). Early in his legal career, Harrison served as the crier for the Federal Court in Indianapolis. The job, which paid $2.50 per day, required him to walk the streets and declare the court’s announcements. At least he got to shout, “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!”

18William McKinley (Allegheny College, Albany Law School). McKinley was the third U.S. President to be assassinated, but you might say it was the doctors who did him in. After extracting one bullet, the doctors declined to perform exploratory surgery to find the second slug when they saw that McKinley looked to be making a recovery. The doctors also declined to use the newly-developed X-ray machine to find the second bullet because they were worried about unknown side effects. Eight days after he was shot, McKinley died. Not the first time a lawyer may have been tempted to question a doctor’s medical judgment.

19William Taft (Yale, Cincinnati Law School). Taft was a big man, so big that one popular nickname for him was “Big Lub.” Fortunately, he had a sense of humor about his weight. While serving as governor of the Philippines, Taft sent a telegram saying that he had ridden a horse and “felt good.” Secretary of War Elihu Root wrote back, “How’s the horse?”

20Woodrow Wilson (Davidson College, Princeton, UVA, Johns Hopkins). Wilson studied law for a year at UVA before dropping out and sitting for the Georgia bar. He passed, but within a year he was an Ex-Bitter, opting to leave his practice for graduate school and a career as a college professor. Clearly, this was a long time before most lawyers left law school with more debt than legal knowledge.

21Calvin Coolidge (Amherst College). As VP, Coolidge was known by the nickname “Silent Cal.” But it’s not like he didn’t have a sense of humor about the moniker. When seated next to Dorothy Parker at a dinner, the writer told him that she had bet against a man who wagered that Coolidge wouldn’t say more than two words to her. His response: “You lose.”

22Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Harvard, Columbia Law). Roosevelt never graduated law school because he passed the New York bar while still a student. With his license in hand, he went to work as a corporate lawyer at Carter Ledyard & Milburn, which is still in business to this day. Oddly, they don’t mention FDR on their website.

23Richard Nixon (Whittier College, Duke University School of Law). “Never say no when a client asks for something, even if it is the moon,” Nixon once said. “You can always try, and anyhow there is plenty of time afterwards to explain that it was not possible.” It’s good advice, but you may not want to cite the source on this one.

24Gerald Ford (University of Michigan, Yale Law). As President, Ford was known as a bit of a klutz, but in his youth he actually played football at Michigan. How good was he? Well, Ford turned down offers from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, choosing to go to law school instead. Too bad. Gerald “cheesehead” Ford has a nice ring to it.

25Bill Clinton (Georgetown, Yale). Clinton once asked, “What’s a man got to do to get in the top fifty?” in reaction to a survey of journalists that ranked the Monica Lewinsky scandal as the 53rd most significant story of the 20th century. Mr. President, it depends on what your definition of “do” is.

26Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law). While Obama certainly knows what it’s like to be a practicing lawyer, the bulk of his legal career was as a professor, teaching Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago.

Our question: Would you vote for any of your law professors for president?

Michael Estrin, one of the founding editors and writers for Bitter Lawyer, is a writer, journalist, and author of Murder and Other Distractions, a novel about a dead ex, casual sex, tacos, and killer Internet traffic. Follow him on Twitter or check out Bitter Lawyer's interview with him.

1 Comment

  1. Al Dickman

    November 5, 2008 at 10:21 am

    We ought to get a picture of Monica Lewinsky to hang up on the website.  She knew how to please ole’ Bill.  That must really piss Hillary off.

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