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Daily Dicta: Can’t Decide Who to Back for President? Pick the Best Lawyer.

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time keeping track of all the Democrats who are running for president. The latest, Joe Biden, is expected to announce his candidacy on Thursday.

What to make of them all? Who to support? How to decide?

Here’s an arbitrary (and capricious!) method of evaluation: Which of them is the most accomplished lawyer? Not the best politician or best leader or best human being, mind you—just the best lawyer, an admittedly subjective determination.

The first cut is the easiest: Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Mike Gravel, John Hickenlooper, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Marianne Williamson are not lawyers. They are all dead to me.

The second tier is what I think of as LINOs—Lawyers in Name Only, a category which would also include Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. These are people who went to law school and passed the bar, but didn’t make their names practicing law.

In the current crop of presidential hopefuls, this includes Biden, who eked out a J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law in 1968. The former vice president admitted that he was caught plagiarizing five pages from a law review article during his first year of law school. (He said it was inadvertent because he didn’t understand how to cite material, which really?) Biden graduated 76th in a class of 85.

After graduation, he briefly worked as a public defender and opened his own firm, Biden and Walsh, in 1970, but left two years later when he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Chops as a lawyer: F


Tim Ryan graduated from Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire in 2000—the same year he was elected to serve half a term in the Ohio State Senate. He was then elected to Congress in 2002. Based on his bio, Ryan does not ever appear to have practiced law.

Chops as a lawyer: F


John Delaney got a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1988. He too does not appear to have practiced law, instead co-founding two companies before he was elected to Congress to represent Maryland’s 6th District.

Chops as a lawyer: D- (at least he went to a good law school.)


Andrew Yang graduated from Columbia Law School in 1999 and spent a year as an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell (“I realized it wasn’t for me”) before embarking on a career as an entrepreneur.

Chops as a lawyer: D


Cory Booker earned his J.D. from Yale Law School in 1997. According to his website, “Instead of going to work for a big law firm after leaving Yale, Cory moved into a public housing project in Newark, where he teamed up with the other tenants to take on a slumlord accused of intentional neglect of the property and won.” He was promptly elected to the Newark City Council, then as mayor of Newark, and then to the U.S. Senate.

Chops as a lawyer: D+


Julián Castro graduated from Harvard Law School in 2000 and joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld as an associate, while also serving on the San Antonio City Council. In 2005, he and his twin brother launched their own law firm handling family and personal injury law. By 2009, Castro was elected mayor of San Antonio and in 2014, he joined the Obama administration as HUD secretary.

Chops as a lawyer: C


Jay Inslee attended Willamette University School of Law, receiving his J.D.  in 1976—but he doesn’t even mention he’s a lawyer in his campaign bio—an omission which marks him down in my book.

After law school, he joined Peters, Schmalz, Leadon & Fowler in Selah, Washington, where according to the Seattle Times, his wins included $46,000 for a woman who slipped in a parking lot and a suit against a car dealer on behalf of an employee who refused to take a polygraph about drug use.

Inslee also won acquittal for a police chief who confessed to stealing drug money but then quickly put it back—he somehow convinced the jury that the chief fabricated the original confession. Inslee went on to serve in Congress and then as governor of Washington.

Chops as a lawyer: C+


Eric Swalwell got his law degree from the University of Maryland in 2006. He worked for seven years as an Alameda County, California deputy district attorney, winning praise “for using detective skills to build ironclad cases, unravel alibis, and guide jurors through a maze of circumstantial evidence.” He was elected to Congress in 2012.

Chops as a lawyer: B-

Here’s where things get tricky. The four remaining candidates—Kristin Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris—all have extensive legal experience. Being a lawyer is part of what defines them.

Kristin Gillibrand wins for the best Big Law bona fides. The junior senator from New York went to UCLA School of Law and passed the bar in 1991. She clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Judge Roger Miner and joined Davis Polk as an associate.

According to The New York Times, her work there included helping tobacco giant Philip Morris beat back a federal perjury investigation. “Those who recall Ms. Gillibrand’s days as a young lawyer say she was capable and eager as she plunged into the high-stakes and lucrative world of tobacco defense work,” the Times reported in 2009.

Gillibrand served as a HUD lawyer during the last year of the Clinton administration. When she returned to private practice, she joined Boies Schiller Flexner in 2001, where she was a partner until 2005.

Still, she downplays her legal background in her official bio, which simply states, “Kirsten began her career as a lawyer and then decided to pursue a path of public service.”

Chops as a lawyer: B+


Elizabeth Warren wins for most unlikely career path. She went to the not-particularly-prestigious Rutgers School of Law. While she did spend one summer as an associate at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, when she earned her J.D. in 1976—eight months pregnant—she “hung out a shingle and practiced law out of her living room,” doing wills and real estate closings.

It’s hardly the typical start for a Harvard Law professor. Yet over the next three decades, she managed to work her way up from being a lecturer at Rutgers to teaching law at the University of Houston, University of Texas-Austin, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and finally, Harvard—where she was the only tenured professor who went to (sniff) a public law school.

While Warren (now a U.S. senator) is widely-cited as an expert in bankruptcy and consumer protection, she’s made her name in academia rather than representing clients and trying cases.

Chops as lawyer: A-


Amy Klobuchar offers the most balanced legal resume—the Minnesota senator has been a prosecutor, a Big Law partner and a partner at a mid-size firm.

She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1985 and joined Dorsey & Whitney, where she made partner and specialized in telecom regulatory work. She jumped to Minnesota stalwart Gray Plant Mooty in 1993.

In 1998, Klobuchar was elected Hennepin County Attorney—the top prosecutor in Minnesota’s most populous county. On the job, she was described as “strategic, organized, and competent,” and in 2001, Minnesota Lawyer named her “Lawyer of the Year.”

Embracing a tough-on-crime agenda, she was unafraid of going after high-profile targets. Klobuchar brought sexual assault charges against baseball star Kirby Puckett and successfully prosecuted Minnesota Court of Appeals judge Roland Amundson for fraud—though she’s subsequently been criticized for not being more aggressive in handling police brutality cases.

Chops as a lawyer: A


Kamala Harris in her presidential campaign bills herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” fully embracing her legal experience.

She earned her law degree in 1989 from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law and went straight to the DA’s office in Alameda County, California. (She worked there from 1990 to 1998, so she didn’t overlap with Eric Swalwell).

In 2003, Harris was elected District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco, and in 2011, she was elected attorney general of California.

When Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2013, it lauded her for a “smart-on-crime approach she pioneered as DA, taking dangerous guns off the street and targeting human trafficking. She took on big banks to secure a bill of rights for California homeowners and up to $20 billion to help struggling families, and she has taken bold action to protect immigrant rights and consumer privacy.”

Now that she’s a Democratic front-runner, Harris is being scrutinized for her prosecutorial choices. As The New York Times put it, “Ms. Harris seemed to try to be all things to all people as a district attorney and state attorney general. Now, as she runs for president, her record faces a chorus of critics, especially on the left.”

Still, if you’re evaluating candidates strictly based on legal influence and experience, it would be hard to beat Harris.

Chops as a lawyer: A+

Jenna Greene