BY LEA SEVCIK
In a couple of unusual twists, this year’s Joshua Montgomery Sears, Jr. prize went to five recipients rather than four, and all five of the recipients are on the Harvard Law Review. Together, the five have pretty impressive resumes: starting an equity fund, pursuing Ph.Ds, even an attested interest in professional skiing.
The prize is awarded annually to two 1L and two 2L students with the highest grade point averages, which at HLS means over an “A” average. This year, three 1Ls received the prize due to a tie. The 2L recipients are Michael Shah and Michael Gottlieb, and the 1L recipients are David Landau, Christian Pistilli and Jared Kramer.
Despite their academic similarities, this year’s recipients differ in many surprising ways. They range in age from 22 to 27, they all study in different ways, and their paths to HLS could not have been more diverse.
A Closer Look: The 2Ls
Michael Shah has the unusual distinction of having won the Sears prize twice, and is thus likely to graduate at the top of his class. Yet Shah is not eagerly embracing an illustrious legal future. He will not be clerking next year, and after a summer split between Wachtell in New York and Susman Godfrey in LA, Shah says he is still considering investment banking.
When Shah finished his pre-med major at Harvard University, he wanted to “get started in life” rather than pursuing a lengthy medical degree. He spent a year at the London School of Economics getting his Masters in finance and economics, and immediately put his skills to use. Together with two other LSE students, Shah started a private equity fund that raised over $2 million. It was only when the equity markets crashed that Shah decided to go to law school.
Today, Shah is still keeping involved as an investor and a financial and legal advisor in his friends’ startups. One of his current projects is an artificial sweetener called Sucraslim, which has no calories and is safe for baking. “We’ll be rolling out the infomercials in the next couple of months,” he said.
When it comes to class, Shah says, “I try to take things that are useful if I don’t end up practicing law,” like secured transactions and real estate.
Michael Gottlieb graduated from Northwestern University with a political science major and a thesis on the diplomatic norms of the Association of South East Asian Nations. He twice won the National Debate Tournament in college, then spent a year in Boston coaching debate at Harvard University.
As a 1L, Gottlieb was an “HL Central person,” participated in the HLS Democrats, and helped to found the HLS American Constitutional Society. In his 2L year he researched for Professor Laurence Tribe and kept busy with the Law Review’s articles committee.
He also went the law firm route last summer, splitting between Jenner & Block and Cleary Gottlieb in D.C. Next year he will be clerking for famed Judge Stephen Reinhardt in the Ninth Circuit. Beyond that, his plans for the future are hazy, although he says that “I loved D.C., that’s probably where I want to end up.”
So if Gottlieb could do anything in the world right now, would he still study the law? “I doubt it. I’d probably still be interested in the law, read Supreme Court decisions. But I’d probably be a professional skier.”
David Landau majored in social studies at Harvard College, was editor-in-chief of The Independent, and wrote his thesis on how presidents gather support in the Ecuadorian legislature. He then went straight through to HLS, where in his 1L year he was a subciter for the International Law Journal.
Landau admitted that he was “miserable” for part of his 1L year. He found HLS to be a “pretty cold place sometimes,” and he missed the “academic buzz” of college. He also didn’t take an immediate liking to law. “It’s something you have to become perhaps more committed to, understand better before it becomes interesting,” he said.
Landau said his work on Law Review has helped him to like law school better. “It’s neat to be in a smaller group in a school like this.” Also, “you see what people are doing on the cutting edge of legal scholarship, it gives you a very different exposure than what you see freshman year and it’s usually much more interesting.”
Despite his legal success, Landau’s plans may not include the law: “I’m not doing recruiting this fall. I want to teach, and I’m seriously thinking of a Ph.D in government. I almost did that before coming here.” Next summer he hopes to work for professors: that would give him a better idea of whether or not he liked legal research.
Haverford College grad Christian Pistilli focused on Kant and pursued a philosophy Ph. D at the University of Pittsburgh. But the “tough road” to a Ph. D lost its appeal when Pistilli decided he wanted to become involved in the world in a more practical way. He left his degree behind and traveled to Maine to join the Senate campaign of Democrat Mark Lawrence against Olympia Snow. When Lawrence lost, Pistilli went to work as a paralegal at Hunton & Williams in New York, then made his way to HLS.
Pistilli found HLS a natural fit: “Law school splits the difference between grad school and politics,” he said. Pistilli added that he enjoyed his first year experience: “Lots of people come in with low expectations and expect it to be tough. I found the people wonderful and the class work not as bad as I was lead to believe.” He loved his professors: Professor David L. Shapiro was “brilliant and terrifying,” while he found that Professor Lewis D. Sargentich’s jurisprudence class presented “the closest thing to what I remember really liking about philosophy.” Pistilli also became a subciter for the Journal on Legislation and joined the HLS Democrats.
This summer, Pistilli worked part time for his torts professor, Jon Hanson and also enjoyed “being a bit of a bum” and doing some leisure reading. Where would he like to end up? “I don’t want to run for office, but I can see working in government or on the Hill, or teaching.”
Princeton grad Jared Kramer was well on his way to a promising career in computer science until four months before his 1L year, when he chose HLS over a computer science Ph.D. He still sometimes feels “not quite at home” in law school. “I find it very frustrating not to have any answers. In computer science you’re either right or wrong or too stupid to find out, and either of those three are comforting.”
Still, Kramer enjoyed his 1L year. “The constant argumentation is interesting and stimulating,” he said, adding that “the non-quantitative nature of law is both good news and bad news, but the people are good news.” Kramer subcited for the Journal on Legislation last year, but this year he plans to be involved only with the law review “to placate my girlfriend who lives in New York.”
In his spare time this summer, Kramer also found the solution to a computer science problem that he had stumbled upon on his professor’s website. Jared’s professor urged him to publish the solution, a task that Jared is currently coordinating with another person who discovered the solution at the same time — a professor at Northeastern University.
Jared spent the summer at Fish & Neave in New York, and this summer he hopes to work for the Department of Justice. In the long term, Jared is “more of an academic,” although he is also drawn to litigation.
The Surprise of the Prize
Most Sears Prize winners attributed their good fortune to chance rather t
han design. Gottlieb says: “One of the reasons I was so shocked about the whole thing, and why I never expected to win the Sears Prize, was because I got rejected from HLS the first time I applied, and in off the wait list my second time. So I never really thought I’d be in the running for an award like this.” As a result, he says: “I was literally shocked when I got my grades.”
Landau said he was also caught off-guard: “I thought I’d done pretty well, but you never think you’re going to do that well. I feel like in many ways it’s just luck.”
Kramer agreed: “I didn’t think I did that well in Crim Law and I ended up doing best in Crim Law. That just goes to show that you have no idea what happens when you get out of an exam.”