President Barack Obama
Paul Wellman (file)

Last week I was riding a train into New York City on a family vacation when my cell phone rang and an Associated Press reporter interviewed me about my unique experience with a Supreme Court nominee. This might have been a shocking set of circumstances had it not been for the prior week when the Washington Post called while I was making my children dinner at home. I was growing accustomed to these questions about my time as a student at the University of Chicago Law School.

Most students at Chicago Law in the early 1990s strove to take the classes of the most renowned professors there. Some professors were judges on the 7th Circuit and others had published famous books. I was more interested in the content of the classes, and selected an obscure public policy seminar offered by a man with an unfamiliar African name. Barack Obama was just a law lecturer at the time who had recently graduated law school himself. Many students snickered at my choice to enroll in a class with an unknown person.

Paul Wellman

Obama seemed to spend much of that year holed up in an office writing a personally revealing auto-biography. I was one of about ten students in Obama’s 1994 seminar, his first time teaching. I doubt he had any plans to run for public office at that time, and we would have laughed at the notion that he could become President. When he entered our small basement seminar room, he would smile brightly and say, “How’s it going, guys?” Then we’d quickly get down to business by exploring public policies and ways to improve our country.

Obama’s seminar offered me interesting insight on a great approach to solving problems. The seminar participants represented a wide political spectrum and our dialog was expansive and respectful. Obama would present a public policy concept and then take seriously each person’s ideas and proposed solutions. Of all my teachers at the law school, he was probably the best listener. He really wanted to hear all perspectives, consider each, and then ask us to work together to figure out a way to do what we believed was right and come to a solution that everyone could agree to.

In 2007, I assisted Obama’s advance team in finding a location for his campaign speech in Santa Barbara, which wound up taking place on the lawn at City College overlooking the ocean. As his campaign progressed, I was excited for him and the country, but was also amazed since I never expected to personally know anyone who would serve as president. As if it weren’t surreal enough to have had an opportunity to spend some time with a later president, recently other people I knew at the law school have been featured in the national news.

Elena Kagan

Over the past few weeks, Chicago Law School shared my contact info with interested media because of my unique experience with Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Kagan was an excellent teacher who was feared by students because of her intense questioning of individuals in class, though she was also considered very fair. Some of my colleagues chose to enroll in two or more of her courses because they thought her teaching was outstanding. Students also knew her as a young and friendly associate professor who drank beer, played poker, cracked witty jokes, and hung out in the school lounge and joined us for Cubs games.

I also got to know Kagan in a different setting. First-year law students are assigned to a professor for a Moot Court project. I and one other student in my class were assigned to Professor Kagan. We wrote a legal brief and then argued as appellate attorneys before her. She donned a black robe and grilled us on our briefs and our arguments. During that hour, she asked me to extend my argument and apply it to hypothetical situations to test my reasoning. She played devil’s advocate to see if I would cave. At the end of the hour, she told me I had a future as an appellate attorney and should absolutely continue with Moot Court the next two years at the law school.

Susan Epstein
Paul Wellman (file)

Just as I didn’t foresee Barack Obama becoming President, I didn’t heed a future Supreme Court Justice’s advice on pursuing a career in appellate argument. Instead, I chose to work in the legal aid clinic and during my remaining two years of law school successfully represented homeless people in court who had been denied benefits or housing. I thought this might be more relevant to my later work and making a difference in the world.

When I attended my law school reunion this past May, my classmates remarked that I had been incredibly fortunate to experience both Obama’s policy seminar in 1994 as well as be assigned to Kagan for my Moot Court project.

While my decisions may have confounded people at times, I figure that if they led me to work as a management consultant in Santa Barbara where I can raise my children and run by the beach year-round and simultaneously make a difference in people’s daily lives and work, then they made sense after all.


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