I finally understand those Harvard Law grads

Throughout my legal career, the Harvard Law grads of my generation and after have bewildered me.  The ones I met practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area, more often than not, were distinguished by two things:  lousy legal skills and strident aggression.  I was pretty sure that this perception on my part wasn’t simply the sour grapes of one who didn’t go to an Ivy League law school.  For example, I’ve always had the highest respect for Yale Law grads, although I think they tend to be almost obsessively detail-oriented.  It really was something about those Harvard grads.

I admit that I met a very narrow spectrum of Harvard grads.  The “white guys” were almost all pre-1984 grads (meaning that they pre-dated me by a lot).  They were stiff and pompous, but they were decent lawyers.  The ones I worked with (and against) were the younger folks.  The only white males were (1) a guy who claimed to be half Native American, although this genetic legacy was not apparent; (2) and the other guy who claimed to be a quarter Native American and who was trilingual.  (He also had a serious drug problem, but that’s a story for another day.)  The rest of the Harvard folks I worked with were female, obvious ethnic minorities (that is, they didn’t have to tell everyone about their unique, non-white ethnic background), or gay.  Or all three of course.  I know Harvard was graduating white males, but they seemed not to be landing in my small circles.

For the most part, the small group of Harvard lawyers that I met were not good lawyers.  They were aggressive, but their research and analysis skills were significantly less good than the same skills I saw in those who graduated from other law schools, be they very famous (Yale or Boalt) or less so (Baylor, Hastings, Santa Clara, etc.).  Since many of the Harvard Law grads were indeed very bright, they buffed up their basic lawyering skills with the years, but none seemed to tone down that bizarre aggression.

Let me stress again that, working in and around San Francisco, I was looking at a self-selected group of Harvard lawyers.  San Francisco, after all, was then, as it is now, a magnet for Leftist political extremists.  I didn’t know the word “Progressive” back then, but I bet they did.  It’s just that, in this world, the Harvard grads were even more Progressive than the others.

David French, who arrived at Harvard Law in the year that Obama left (Obama left in the spring, French arrived in the fall), tells what the environment was like back then.  If that was the same environment that existed during the mid- and late-1980s, it goes a long way to explain those, to me, mysterious Harvard grads.

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  • Gringo

    Good analysis, Book.  As I am not an attorney, “Harvard Law” does not yield many personal connections for me. My babysitter  married a Harvard Law faculty brat- I saw them when I was doing the hippie activist dropout gig in Berserkeley.  [He did not have his father’s drive, and never finished his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. ]
    The only other “Harvard Law” connection in my memory bank comes from taking the train from Boston to NYC in the 1980s. I overheard a conversation where passenger  was gushing about Harvard Law students- how ethical, how salt of the earth they were, etc. I was tempted to go up to him and tell him that in addition, Harvard Law students were smug and conceited – the passenger also said he was a Harvard Law student.
    I imagine that Yale Law also got a certain proportion of the types you were discussing. Van Jones, for example, said that he decided to attend Yale Law because of its easy marking system. His subsequent career as moonbat activist certainly fits the profile you were describing-  it was also  in the Bay Area until he hooked up with the White House.

  • jj

    Never had much use for the basic blues either, frankly.  They seem to be trained in, and have much more interest in, practicing public policy than they do law.  (Hillary’s a good sample.)  They can f*** up the municipal codes of practically any municipality – including the USA –  better than almost anybody.  Do a conveyance?  Write a good will?  Beat a traffic ticket?  Write a lease?  Not so good…  Around corporate NY, the Yalies were regarded as marginally less clownish than the Harvard types – better dressers and the Yale Club was a great and comfy hangout – but only marginally.  NBC always tried to hire Ivies, (all branches,not just law), they generally lasted about a year; year-and-a-half.  You couldn’t tell them anything.  Obama’s a perfect specimen, he is “it” precisely.  

  • jj

    In fact – if you will forgive me posting two in a row – I’ll tell you just for your own edification, the people we got the best work from, who stuck the longest and did the best jobs, seemed to be the UVA guys.  Now I think about it, we had a coterie of them, and they were (A) human beings, (B) persistent with the research, (C) inventive in the sense of problem solvers, and (D) mostly classy.  I suspect Thomas Jefferson must have been fairly soft-spoken, it seems to be an ethos of the school, and they all seemed to be.  Quiet.  Thoughtful.  Sharp.

  • Libby

    The only Harvard Law grad I know is my brother-in-law – graduated in the mid 90’s. Since he is white, and had a career in the Navy (officer on a submarine) & received an MBA before attending, he was impervious to all of the critical race theory nonsense. I recall he took at least one class with “the Dersh” just for the experience. I can’t wait to ask him about all of this Obama law school activism the next time I see him…

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Peter Drucker, writing in 1969, with some thoughts on “elite” education in general and Harvard Law in particular:

     One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…
    It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers.

    Things have changed in America since Prof Drucker (himself a European by background) wrote the above…we have gone a long way toward the Grane Ecole model of “schools for leaders and schools for followers.”

  • gpc31

    There are a few, but only a few, conservative professors at Harvard law.  They are the exceptions that prove the rule:  Mary Ann Glendon, for one.  Another was William Stuntz, who died last year.  Instapundit provided a link to a Boston Globe review of his life and and life’s work “Where American Criminal Justice Went Wrong”.  http://articles.boston.com/2012-02-26/ideas/31094279_1_prison-population-jury-trials-harsh-laws  The book is a deeply humane, realistic, and intelligent piece of analysis.  Stuntz seemed to be an extraordinary man, and I found the story of his race against death moving.

    HLS indeed took a turn for the worse in the mid-eighties.  The dean back then was a nice enough man but not a leader.  The university was still under the thumb of Derek Bok, a hollow man who has made a career of pompously reinterpreting every piece of conventional wisdom that comes along each decade.

    It is typical that Harvard would pat itself on the back for its incredible “diversity”:  Elena Kagan, dean from 2003-2009, was lauded for hiring 3 conservatives out of 43 total hires:  http://www.nationalreview.com/bench-memos/50126/myth-kagan-and-conservatives/wendy-long

    It’s no coincidence that the current dean, a politically correct intellectual non-entity named Martha Minow, became a full professor in 1986, when the rot set in.  You might remember her fierce dedication to privacy, due process, and the spirit of free inquiry in this little controversy:

    As far as the students go, the joint jd/mba students are smart, driven, technocratic, and too busy to get sucked into nonsense like critical legal studies.

    Boston is still a city of tribes.  If you want a good corporate lawyer, hire a BC grad.  If you need hacktastic government work done, get a Suffolk Law grad to grease the palms on Beacon Hill.  I’m not sure what HLS grads are good for: mostly they migrate to New York.  Speaking as an ex-Bostonian, I’ll take that balance of trade.

    On a lighter note, does anyone else remember that great movie “The Verdict” starring Paul Newman?   One of my favorites.  Written by a young David Mamet, whose book “The Secret Knowledge” I’m finally getting around to reading.

  • Ron19

    “The Verdict” was indeed a great movie.

    Have you seen “Outrage” with Beau Bridges?  At the end of one scene, he dropped a total non-sequitor on the opposing attorney during trial, so that it would be THE thought that the jury would have overnight.  A very effective instance of a technique that is used often by liberals, such as my wife’granddaughter: drop the bomb and move on before I have a chance to realize, a few moments later, how wrong it was.  By then, it’s too late to go back and discuss it. 

    Sort of “Shock and aw shucks, I should have said something right away.”