Top Lawyers of the Obama Administration


During the eight years of the Bush administration, 13 lawyers served in the president’s cabinet. That makes 13 lawyers out of 47 total people who held cabinet-level posts. (The number actually drops to ten, if you subtract the three Attorneys General—John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Mukasey.)

Of course, Bush wasn’t a lawyer, but that got us to wondering how well our profession has faired with a “Lawyer-in-Chief.” After all, “every Democratic presidential nominee for president and vice president in the last seven elections—except Gore who dropped out of law school—has been a lawyer.”

As it turns, Obama has fewer total lawyers—so far—with seven JDs out of the 21 people currently appointed to his cabinet. But if it feels like Obama is surrounded by more lawyers than, say Bush, it could because of the myriad of advisers, directors and czars. According to The Daily Beast, there are roughly twenty—and counting—Obama czars, and many of those power-posts have gone to, you guessed it, lawyers.

1. UNITED STATES PRESIDENT

Barack Obama

Law School: Harvard Law ’91 (Current Ranking: 2)

Practice: Hopkins & Sutter (summer); Sidley & Austin (summer); Davis Miner Barnhill & Galland (civil rights); professor and senior lecturer, University of Chicago Law School

Life and the Law: Editor and the first black president of the Harvard Law Review;

‘’But it’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.’’ [The New York Times]

Current Duties: So many, it can drive a man to smoke

2.  VICE PRESIDENT

Joe Biden

Law School: Syracuse University College of Law ‘68 (Current Ranking: Tier 3)

Practice: Public defender; Biden & Walsh (own private practice); adjunct professor, Widener Law

Life and the Law: Accused of plagiarism as a law school 1L;

“I never had to be told that play was important. It just came natural to me all the way through law school. Oh, God. Thank God, when Syracuse gave me the scholarship, they based it on a sense of obligation.” [Los Angeles Times]

Current Duties: Being the “sheriff”

3.  SECRETARY OF STATE

Hillary Clinton

Law School: Yale Law ’73 (Current Ranking: 1)

Practice: partner, Rose Law Firm; professor, University of Arkansas Law School

Life and the Law: Claimed she once almost chucked her legal career to join the Marines in 1975;

“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” [PBS]

Current Duties: Being the wind beneath the wings

4.  ATTORNEY GENERAL

Eric Holder

Law School: Columbia Law School ‘76 (Current Ranking: 4)

Practice: U.S. Justice Department (public integrity section); D.C. Superior Court judge; U.S. Attorney for D.C.; partner, Covington & Burling

Life and the Law: Highest-ranking black American law enforcement official in U.S. history when he was confirmed as deputy attorney general in 1997;

At Covington & Burling, Holder represented the NFL in its investigation of dog-fighting charges against quarterback Michael Vick;

“Though the nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of coward.” (Sun Times)

Current Duties: Combating prison rape

5.  SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR

Ken Salazar

Law School: University of Michigan ’81 (Current Ranking: 9)

Practice: Private practice (11 years); Chief legal counsel for Colorado’s governor, Colorado’s attorney general

Life and the Law: As Colorado’s attorney general, he received the Profiles in Courage award from his fellow state attorneys general for his dedication to preserving and promoting the rule of law;

“Ours is a nation of law and ours is a nation of immigrants, we believe that we can have rational, important immigration policy that’s based upon law and reflects our deep desire to be a compassionate and decent nation.” [Rocky Mountain News]

Current Duties: Trying to ‘blow’ up your house

6.  SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE

Tom Vilsack

Law School: Albany Law School ’75 (Current Ranking: Tier 3)

Practice: Dorsey & Whitney (small firm owned by his father-in-law); instructor and visiting professor, Drake University Law School

Life and the Law: Went from lawyer to mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a position he essentially inherited after a disgruntled resident barged into a City Council meeting in 1986 and killed the mayor;

“As a small-town lawyer, I had the responsibility of helping farm families during tough economic times. I know these people. America’s farmers and ranchers deserve a secretary of Agriculture that respects them for the contribution they make to all of us every day.” [The New York Times]

Current Duties: Keep milk off the floor

7.  SECRETARY OF COMMERCE

Gary Locke

Law School: Boston University School of Law ‘75 (Current Ranking: 20)

Practice: Deputy prosecutor; partner, Seattle firm Davis Wright Tremaine (China and governmental-relations practice groups)

Life and the Law: First Chinese-American governor in U.S. history;

As a lawyer, he advocated for Microsoft, Starbucks, and banking, timber and shipping interests;

“I said we’d love to work with you in finding a creative way to achieve your objectives as well as help this company. If you just go to a mid-level bureaucrat, they’re just going to go by the letter of the law and say, ‘no, no, no.’” [Muckety.com]

Current Duties: Stimulating American goods

8.  SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY

Janet Napolitano

Law School: University of Virginia School of Law ’84 (Current Ranking: 10)

Practice: Law clerk, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; partnert, Lewis and Roca law firm; Arizona attorney general

Life and the Law: Represented Anita Hill as part of her legal team during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s (chaired by Joe Biden) hearing on Clarence Thomas’ sexual harassment allegations;

“I think that from Professor Hill’s standpoint, that experience cost her a lot personally. But I think she should have a satisfaction in knowing, but for that experience, the fact that women need to be treated fairly and are entitled to go to work without being harassed—when they’re in the workplace trying to earn a living—would never have gained the prominence it did and all the protections we now have.” [Slate]

Current Duties: Keeping iSpy from local law enforcement

Other High-Level Administration Lawyers

9.  COMPENSATION CZAR

Kenneth Feinberg

Law School: NYU School of Law ’70 (Current Ranking: 5)

Practice: Law clerk, New York State Court of Appeals; Assistant attorney, New York Department of Justice; founding partner, Kaye Scholer LLP (D.C. office), founder and managing partner, Feinberg Rozen, LLP

Life and the Law: Set up and headed a congressionally mandated 9/11 victim’s-compensation fund, working pro bono for 33 months to investigate claims and decide benefits;

“Don’t ask one person to act like Solomon and try to calculate the value of lives. To be judge, jury, accountant, lawyer, rabbi, et cetera is very, very difficult.” [Washingtonian]

10.  REGULATORY CZAR

Cass Sunstein

Law School: Harvard Law ’78 (Current Ranking: 2)

Practice: Law clerk, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; Law Clerk, Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court; Professor, University of Chicago Law School; Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Life and the Law: Author of a surprising number of legal-themed books;

“When people are seeking their rights, group polarization can be highly desirable.” [Slate]

11.  HEALTH-CARE CZAR

Nancy-Ann Min DeParle

Law School: Harvard Law ’83 (Current Ranking: 2)

Practice: Law clerk, U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit; partner, Nashville firm Bass, Berry & Sims; Covington & Burling (D.C. office)

Life and the Law: Selected as a Rhodes Scholar her first year at Harvard Law

12.  BORDER CZAR

Alan Bersin

Law School: Yale Law ’74 (Current Ranking: 1)

Practice: Attorney general’s southwest border representative; U.S. Attorney for San Diego

Life and the Law: Friends with Al Gore (while at Harvard), Bill Clinton (while a Rhodes Scholar) and Hillary Clinton (during his years at Yale Law School)

13.  ENERGY CZAR

Carol Browner

Law School: University of Florida College of Law ’79 (Current Ranking: 51)

Practice: General Counsel to The Florida House of Representatives

Life and the Law: Probably one of the few female lawyers to be named “Mother of the Year” by the National Mother’s Day Committee

14.  MIDDLE EAST ENVOY

George J. Mitchell

Law School: Georgetown University Law Center ’61 (Current Ranking: 14)

Practice: U.S. district judge for Maine; U.S. Attorney for Maine; chairman, DLA Piper (formerly Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand)

Life and the Law: Serves as Chairman of the Board of The Walt Disney Company

15.  CLIMATE CHANGE CZAR

Todd Stern

Law School: Harvard Law ’77 (Current Ranking: 2)

Practice: attorney, Legal Aid Society; partner, WilmerHale

Life and the Law: Was the chief U.S. negotiator at the Kyoto Protocol

16.  CIA DIRECTOR

Leon Panetta

Law School: Santa Clara University School of Law ‘63 (Current Ranking: 85)

Practice: Office of Civil Rights; Panetta, Thompson & Panetta law firm

Life and the Law: Resigned from his post as Director of the Office for Civil Rights during Nixon’s administration because he chose to enforce civil rights despite Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” that required him to stop enforcing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts [Los Angeles Times]

17.  SOLICITOR GENERAL

Elena Kagan

Law School: Harvard Law ’86 (Current Ranking: 2)

Practice: Law clerk, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Law clerk, Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court; Williams & Connolly associate; Professor, University of Chicago Law School; professor and dean, Harvard Law School

Life and the Law: The first female dean of Harvard Law who has been succeeded by Martha Minow, another female

Check out other lists, tallies and scores to settle in Bitter by Numbers.

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Bitter Staff is a collection of current and former editors, contributors, and various other lawyers who have written for Bitter Lawyer over the years. Posts include interviews, contests, and other general lawyerly and bitter content.

14 Comments

  1. Bill Shakespeare

    June 24, 2009 at 8:38 am

    First thing we do…

  2. unemployed JD

    June 24, 2009 at 8:50 am

    maybe I should apply for a job in washington.

  3. Guest

    June 24, 2009 at 8:52 am

    There’s an error in #17 – unless Harvard has suddenly dropped to the third tier.

  4. Anonymous

    June 24, 2009 at 9:45 am

    @ guest, What you talkin’ ‘bout, willis?

  5. Bravo

    June 24, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Was Obama a true professor?  I have read that he was not

  6. Alan

    June 24, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    the link when you click “professor” in his entry says that he was

  7. Anonymous

    June 24, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    @ Bravo.
    He taught at U Chicago Law school. I believe he was an adjunct. But he taught conlaw for sure. Good enough for me.

  8. Anonymous

    June 24, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    ’But it’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.’’
    Ever looked at the median lsat and undergrad gpa comparing whites and blacks at law schools?  Seems to me that black students with less talent get better opportunities and chances…

  9. first time, long time

    June 24, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Got to love anonymous racists.

  10. Georgie

    June 24, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    didn’t know there were that many lawyers in the white house. great info.

  11. Anonymous

    June 24, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    maybe they should start their own firm when they get done screwing up the country.

  12. Bob

    June 24, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Dude, the president is black and you are a white cyber bully. If you are a loser please stop blaming it on your race or anyone else race. Just try harder and stop crying!

  13. Guano

    June 25, 2009 at 3:05 am

    They need that governor from South Carolina (the new Love Guv) who cheated on his wife & kids by going down to Argentina to hump some chick rather than go hiking on the Appalachian Trail.  Has anyone seen a picture of the chick?

  14. Lawstudent

    June 25, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Impressive schools they went to

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