|nounced. In 1969, 61 percent of New York's state legislators were
lawyers; today, 34 percent are. In California, the figure has fallen to 22 percent from 48
percent 30 years ago.
In 1976, when the National Conference of State Legislatures first
surveyed legislators around the country about their professions, 22 percent called
themselves lawyers. (The survey understated the true number, because each lawmaker could
give only one response, and many said "legislator," rather than naming prior
careers.) When the survey was repeated in 1995, 15 percent said they were lawyers. No one
profession rose to fill the gap; there was a general increase across many fields.
So where have all the lawyers gone? Not surprisingly, the answers have to do with
money. Over the last generation, the money to be made practicing law has soared,
particularly in major cities where lawyers had strong holds on legislative seats, and
where the starting salary at some firms was $90,000 or more.
Until this year, only one state, California, paid its legislators more than $60,000 a
year. (Because of pay raises that took effect in January, California's legislators now
earn $99,000 each, while New York's average almost $90,000 in salary and stipends.) Last
year, legislators in 39 states were paid less than $30,000, according to the conference of
Not so in Washington
Lawyers still dominate Congress, where the annual salary is $133,600, and the expense
allowances are generous. According to Congressional Quarterly, 43 percent of the seats in
Congress are held by lawyers, but even that figure is well below the 58 percent held in
In many states, being a legislator has become a full-time job, or at least a part-time
one that makes it hard to manage another career. In the late 1960s, the average state
legislature was in session three months of the year, but in the late 1990s, the average
has grown to five months.
"The amount of time required of them back home has grown even faster, with all the
constituent service and campaigning," said Karl T. Kurtz, director of state services
at the conference of legislatures, which is based in Denver.
A different era
Thirty years ago, it was common for legislators to have thriving law practices. It was
even good for business, older legislators say, adding to the resume a title that impressed
judges, attracted clients and promised a little more clout with government agencies. But
these days, far fewer lawmakers try to balance two careers.
When Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, was first elected to New York's Assembly in
1976, he intended to keep working in his three-person law practice. "My partners
quickly became disenchanted with how little time I had for the work, and we dissolved that
partnership," said Silver, now the Assembly Speaker. "I don't know of any young
legislator who even tried to maintain a law practice after being elected."
Another factor dissuading lawyers from entering public life was the post-Watergate wave
of financial disclosure laws, which forced lawyer-lawmakers in many states to reveal more
than they might want to about their practices and their clients.
When he was Assembly Speaker in California, Willie L. Brown, a Democrat who is now the
mayor of San Francisco, had an active law practice, and was frequently accused of
conflicts of interest.
Of the lawyers who have been elected to legislatures, many never practiced law but
spent their careers as legislative staff members or government bureaucrats, or worked in
business or the financial sector.
"The decline of lawyers is even more dramatic than it appears, because a lot of
these legislators who have law degrees and are technically lawyers were never really
lawyers," said A.G. Block, editor of California Journal, a monthly magazine on state
government and politics. "When I went to law school in the 60's, most of the people
in law school went on to practice law. Now, it's more an educational tool to learn a
critical way of thinking, particularly for people who want to go into government."
While the pull toward public office has diminished for lawyers, it has grown for
others, in part because the federal government has given more authority to the states.
Legislatures are now important to nearly every profession or interest group.
"The legislatures have become much more important to teachers, insurance agents,
small businessmen, doctors, you name it," said Kurtz. "So it has become a more
attractive target for people in all of those professions."
A melding of interests
The freshman class in Albany, N.Y., is filled with people for whom state law and
politics were never far from their lives. "My work was almost like being in politics
anyway," said Cymbrowitz, a new assemblywoman from Brooklyn who raised money and did
marketing for hospitals and social service agencies. "My clients and I had to be so
politicized and so adept at dealing with government to survive. That wasn't true a
Cohen, the former transit worker who is a new assemblyman from Queens, was active in
the politically powerful transit unions and was elected to his local community board.
Duane, the former stockbroker and a senator from Manhattan, was active in the gay rights
movement and served on the New York City Council. Hayes, an assemblyman from the Buffalo
area, and Mills, an assemblyman from the Catskills, were elected members of their town
councils while working as fundraisers for colleges, and Mills was once an aide to a
Congressman. Hevesi, a senator from Queens who is the son of New York City Comptroller
Alan G. Hevesi, has worked on political campaigns and worked as a budget analyst in the
Queens borough president's office.
Does it matter that there are fewer lawyers making law?
Analysts say they cannot point to any area of policy that has been notably altered by
the trend, although some argue that the recent spread of state laws restricting lawsuits
and damage awards might not have happened.
Diversity a plus
In the recent past, it was more important that the people making law be people who knew
the law. Thirty years ago, legislators often wrote their own bills.
But the growth of legislative staffs over that time means that in nearly every state,
any legislator who has never cracked a law book can call on professional legal advice to
There is general agreement, even among the lawyers, that greater diversity in a
legislature is a healthy thing.
"There's a much wider range of interests and concerns represented these days than
there used to be, so it's less insular," said Block. "I mean, if you're drafting
a farm law, shouldn't there be a few farmers?"
Besides, Cymbrowitz asked, wouldn't a legislature with fewer lawyers be a little less
Res ipso loquitur. The thing speaks for itself.
Copyright 1999 by the New York Times Co.
Reprinted by permission.