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The Difference Between Clinton and Obama? Their Law Schools

How much of a difference does the law school you attend really have on your career or your life? Plenty, contends Noam Scheiber of The New Republic -- that is, if you're Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Contrasting the differences between the chaotic and error-ridden early days of Clinton's presidency with Obama's smooth and "brutally efficient," transition, Scheiber concludes that part of the explanation for the difference "lies in the elite institutions that socialized them -- namely Harvard and Yale, their respective law schools."

Scheiber contrasts the rigor and competitiveness of Harvard Law School with the somewhat more relaxed environment at Yale. At Yale, class attendance wasn't required, and professors engaged students in broad policy discussions. By contrast, Harvard classes focused more tightly on legal issues. Likewise, at Yale, the law review conferred little prestige, because anyone could join, whereas at Harvard, law review participation depended upon grades and a writing competition. As a result, Harvard Law review editors like Obama stood a good chance at a coveted Supreme Court clerkship.

But does law school influence lawyers more than their choice of undergraduate institution? Brian Lauter at The Shark says no. He writes that college provides "the more formative experience. Personal identity, at least partially formed during the college years, guides the way we approach decisions and situations" -- including one's choice of law school.

Ultimately, I think that our personalities matter much more than where we attend school -- undergraduate or law school. Had Bill Clinton attended Harvard, he probably would have chafed against the rules and formalities with his less-disciplined personality, but I doubt that Harvard would have changed him. Likewise, if Obama had gone to Yale, it's not likely that the relaxed atmosphere would have encouraged him to drop his work ethic. Still, I enjoyed Scheiber's piece quite a bit for the insight that it gives into the differences between Harvard and Yale as well as the differences between our two most recent Democratic, Ivy-league lawyer presidents.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 23, 2009 at 11:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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