After receiving law degrees from the University of the Philippines (1915) and from Yale University (1920), he was elected to the Philippine Senate in 1925 and appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1936.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Laurel stayed in Manila after President Manuel Quezon escaped first to Bataan and then to the United States. He offered his services to the Japanese; and because of his criticism of U.S. rule of the Philippines he held a series of high posts in 1942-43, climaxing in his selection as president in 1943. Twice in that year he was shot by Philippine guerrillas but recovered. In July 1946 he was charged with 132 counts of treason but was never brought to trial; he shared in the general amnesty in April 1948.
As the Nationalist Party's nominee for the presidency of the Republic of the Philippines in 1949, he was narrowly defeated by the incumbent president, Elpidio Quirino, nominee of the Liberal Party. Elected to the Senate in 1951, Laurel helped to persuade Ramón Magsaysay, then secretary of defense, to desert the Liberals and join the Nationalists. When Magsaysay became president, Laurel headed an economic mission that in 1955 negotiated an agreement to improve economic relations with the United States. He retired from public life in 1957.