Panelists combine passion for politics and law

BY JEREMY BLACHMAN

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On Monday evening in a classroom in Pound Hall, the Office of Public Interest Advising presented a panel on combining a passion for politics with a law degree. Chris Lehane (HLS ’94), who worked in the Clinton White House, and then as political consultant for the 2000 Gore presidential campaign, and, most recently, the John Kerry and then Wesley Clark 2004 campaigns, was joined by Don McGahn (general counsel of the National Republican Congressional Committee), Cheryl Cronin (partner at the Boston law firm Brown, Rudnick and counsel to the 2004 Democratic National Convention) and Bobbie Hantz (former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Committee) in a discussion moderated by Professor David Barron.

“I’ll spend more time in this session today than I spent in a classroom all three years of law school,” said Lehane, who was the only one of the four panelists who has eschewed the law firm life completely and devoted himself full-time to politics. Lehane grew up in a family active in politics – at age 12 he “ran a precinct” in Sen. Edward Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic nomination; between college and law school, he worked for the governor of Maine, and spent much of his time at law school working for the ’92 Clinton campaign, “[teaching] people from Arkansas how to put lawn signs in the ground in New Hampshire after the first frost.” He went to work in the White House right after graduation from HLS.

McGahn followed a more traditional path to his current job at the NRCC. Through college and law school, politics was not a passion – in contrast with a classmate he recalled who had been quite excited about the brief presidential candidacy of Sen. Dick Lugar during one election cycle (“I’d never seen anyone so excited about Dick Lugar”) – but after an internship where he witnessed a bitterly contested state election recount, he realized the political life might be for him. He went to a firm in Washington, DC that did some political work, but was rebuffed in his initial attempts to work with the partners in that area. Finally, an election law case came up, and he was pulled in based on his internship experience. That case led to others, and eventually he made a name for himself and moved over to the NRCC.

Cronin has incorporated politics into her career largely on the side – as a partner at a large firm, she has the normal responsibilities that other partners do, and has had to make time for politics. Her advice is to develop an expertise – in her case, she spent time learning about campaign finance “when no one knew how to spell campaign finance” and made herself valuable by virtue of her knowledge. She volunteered to help candidates, something she says few lawyers think of doing, and this helped her network and meet more people who could provide future opportunities.

Hantz spent eight years as a political operative before even going to law school, running field efforts and coordinating events on the ground. She got “burned out” by the campaign life and moved to a career in real estate; after four more years she realized this was not her passion, and went to law school. Now, as an environmental and natural resources attorney, she spends time on the side fundraising and lobbying for Republican candidates.

Lehane discussed how law school gave him a credential that helped him stand out from the pack, even though he had never practiced law. “It conferred legitimacy – in my case, certainly not warranted,” he joked. He found that it opened doors and made people want to talk him, and that even though converting on the opportunities depended entirely on the job he was able to do and work he produced, the law degree did help him get that first step. The legal education, he said, was helpful when dealing with the press and having to explain legal matters to them, and in analyzing issues. This benefit was something he “did not anticipate or expect, but [has] found to be of value.”

Cronin joked that the best thing about law school was that “it lasts only three years,” but that the education made her realize the limitations of just being a lawyer. “Ultimately,” she said, “you can create a career for yourself more interesting than law school makes it seem… that you’ve got to figure out a way to do more than this is what you get [from law school].”

McGahn emphasized that the best way to move from being just another lawyer to getting involved in politics is developing skills. “If I can do it, anyone can do it,” he joked. “Create something that makes you in demand… something you’re passionate about… [nothing is more important than] putting in the hours and learning something.” Lehane suggested working on a campaign – “the ultimate meritocracy – rewarding people who can get things done.”

The panelists disagreed on the right path for students to take coming out of law school who feel like they may want a career in politics down the line. Cronin argued that a law firm job, at least for a few years, is definitely the way to go: “Take the very best job you can,” she said. “Spend three to five years doing that – you may not last much longer than that. Take time on the side to get involved in political organizations. For now, you’re the hottest commodity you can be – maximize that… it’s too early to compromise yourself.”

Lehane disagreed and said that for graduates who know where their hearts lie, it may be worth taking the risk. “You won’t have a problem coming out of this place finding a job.” Cronin responded that it is very hard to come out of law school and spend a couple of years outside and then get a big firm to hire you.

The panelists spent some time discussing their thoughts on the 2004 presidential election. When asked about the influence of Ralph Nader, McGahn joked that the conventional wisdom is “anyone to the left of Kerry will vote for Nader: ten people in New York City, and five people in San Francisco.” “If you see Kerry in a Democratic state, you’ll know he has problems,” McGahn said. “It’s an electoral map strategy, not a popular tally.”

Lehane said the key to the election will be the upper Midwest. His top three picks for Kerry’s running mate: Tom Vilsack, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards. McGahn’s pick for VP: “Dick Cheney.”

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