Do We Need More Lawyers in the Statehouse(s)?

By Maximillian (Max) H. Matthies posted 07-11-2017 08:25


In May 2017, Oklahoma’s governor signed into law House Bill 1470, extending the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual assault and exploitation. However, during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, the chair, who is an attorney, proposed an amendment that essentially dismantled the American rule about attorney fees. Apparently those voting on the amendment misunderstood its ramifications, and its passage was accidental. The passage of this law sent a ripple through the legal community, not just in Oklahoma. 

There are only five attorneys serving in the Oklahoma legislature. Nationally, only 14% of state legislators are attorneys. In Michigan, only 9% of legislators are attorneys, while 41% are from the business sector. Interestingly, 11% of Michigan legislators consider themselves full time lawmakers. Currently, in the U.S. Congress, only 40% are lawyers. In the mid-19th century almost 80% of Congress were lawyers, and by the 1960s, fewer than 60%. 

Where are the lawyer politicians? Some suggest law has become more of a business and less of a public-spirited profession. Lawyers increasingly specialize in areas of law that may not overlap or make sense financially with a career in politics. More than half of the states pay legislators $30,000 or less per year, while Michigan legislators receive an annual salary of $71,685. Some theorize that new lawyers do not see a benefit of being in politics or that it contributes to public service.

Lawyers provide a useful and necessary function in our legislative bodies. A lawyer would understand the impact of the laws proposed and discussed in committees and sessions. Our training and experience give us insight on how certain language would be or could be ambiguous, misinterpreted, or overbroad in its application. Ultimately, it will be other lawyers litigating, arguing, and interpreting the application of these laws in court. With fewer lawyers making laws, we might have to cope with some unintended consequences. By the way, the American rule in Oklahoma has since been restored by HB 1570.