Too many Harvard lawyers setting national policy?
Posted: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 7:00 pm
By JAN TING
The American Bar Association reported there were 1.2 million lawyers in the U.S. as of 2010, while the official U.S. population was determined to be 308 million people. So that’s about one lawyer for every 300 Americans.
But 25 out of our 44 presidents have been lawyers, Presidents Obama, Clinton, Ford, and Nixon most recently. And it’s not unprecedented to have both leading nominees for the office of president trained as lawyers. The last time that happened, before this year, was in 1996 when Bob Dole ran against President Clinton. But it is unprecedented for both nominees for president to be graduates of the same law school, as are Mitt Romney and President Obama.
There are over 200 ABA-accredited law schools in the United States. What are the odds against both nominees for president having graduated from the same law school, studied law in the same classrooms, and with the same law faculty?
The presidential race between Governor Romney and President Obama was directly affected by the Supreme Court’s recent 5 to 4 vote upholding President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, in which Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion and cast the decisive swing vote. What are the odds that Chief Justice Roberts would have attended the same law school as the two presidential contenders?
In fact, Mitt Romney graduated from Harvard Law School in 1975, President Obama in 1991, and Chief Justice Roberts in 1986. And the Chief Justice is not the only Harvard Law School graduate on the high court.
A majority of the nine current Supreme Court justices are graduates of the same law school located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia graduated in 1960, Justice Kennedy in 1961, Justice Breyer in 1964, and Justice Kagan in 1986.
Harvard Law School also claims a sixth Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as an alum because she attended two of her three law school years there (1956-58) before transferring to Columbia to accompany her husband, HLS class of 1958, to his new job in New York. The other three Supreme Court Justices are all graduates of Yale Law School, Justice Thomas in 1974, Justice Alito in 1975, and Justice Sotomayor in 1979.
There are three illogical characteristics of the legal profession in the United States today. First, it really matters what law school a lawyer attended. Second, it really matters if a lawyer was selected to serve on the law review as a student. And third, law school grades really matter, especially in the first year of law school.
These are illogical characteristics because of the abundance of successful and influential American lawyers who happen to have none of those enumerated highlights in their biographies.
There are in fact many pathways to a successful career in the law. Yet the traditional hierarchies of the legal profession persist as sorting devices at the critical early stages of some lawyer career paths, like the one leading to the Supreme Court.
Jan Ting is a Professor of Law at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and a former Assistant Commissioner for Refugees, Asylum and Parole, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Justice. Jan can be reached at email@example.com.
This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.
Published in The Messenger 7.11.12