Law students forgo classes for campaign work

Ravi Gupta LAW ’09 isn’t studying finance law these days; he’s raising money for Sen. Barack Obama. And, although he says he will probably be back at Yale by the spring, he admits that his plans are always changing.

Gupta, who has been working for Obama since February, is one of between six and 10 Yale Law students who have taken time off from their studies to work on presidential campaigns. And the students are not just working on legal policy for the campaigns — they are raising money, organizing events and leading grassroots efforts.

“I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t joined the Obama campaign,” Gupta said while he was in San Francisco preparing for a fundraiser. “But I do want to graduate in this decade.”

Working on campaigns is about adapting to new circumstances, Gupta said. His decision to join Obama’s campaign during the spring semester, when it had not yet grown beyond an exploratory committee, is a testament to the ever-changing nature of life in a presidential campaign, Gupta said.

Gupta and other students who have taken time off for politics said the Law School actively encourages the practice. Students who take time off are allowed to return without the loss of any credits as long as they have received the appropriate permission from administrators, Law School spokeswoman Janet Conroy said.

Officials at the Law School declined to disclose exactly how many students are currently on the campaign trail.

While most students only take leave for one semester, Conroy said, the Law School permits students to take longer leaves if the circumstances merit it.

Even though the Law School is widely acknowledged to be a breeding ground for political heavyweights, Monica Bell LAW ’09, who works for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, said campaign life is far different from studying in the Sterling Law Buildings.

Bell, who serves as a political director for the Edwards campaign in South Carolina, said she spends much of her time working on political outreach and building relationships with officials around the state — not generating case studies on contract law.

But despite the lifestyle differences, Adam Goldfarb LAW ’09, who works for Obama, said many of the lessons he has learned at Yale have helped him in his work with grassroots supporters.

“The training in looking closely at issues, analyzing them thoroughly and arguing persuasively are skills that go beyond [the] Law School,” he said.

Gupta and Goldfarb both said they saw the 2008 campaign as a unique opportunity for them because they want to participate in a campaign while they are still young and can devote long hours to the effort.

And while each of the three said he or she intends to return to Yale Law School eventually, only Gupta said he had plans to return after the New Hampshire primary in January. Goldfarb said he was initially going to work for Obama only over the summer but changed his mind soon after beginning work.

This campaign cycle’s level of participation from Law School students is nothing new. Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh said the students who have taken time off follow in a tradition of Yale students working on elections and in public service.

“Yale law students have joined campaigns for decades,” Koh said. “They make an extraordinary commitment of time and energy, but somehow they always seem to catch up and make it to graduation.”

Mark Alexander ’86 LAW ’92, a law professor at Seton Hall University who now directs Obama’s operations in New Jersey, said he deferred his studies at the Law School for a year to work on Senator Ted Kennedy’s re-election campaign in 1988.

Alexander said other students also took time off to work on campaigns while he was at the Law School. He attributed this tendency to the Law School’s emphasis on public service.

“Yale Law School is an institution that really trains people to find ways to make a contribution to the greater good in a variety of ways,” he said. “The focus is not on the explicit pursuit of one path, and, because of that openness, students and graduates find themselves in positions where they can affect broad social change.”

Goldfarb said it is typical for Law School graduates to work in the public sector, and so it is not surprising that many students choose to work on campaigns as well, he said.

Student political leaders at the Law School said even more students could become involved in campaigns over the next few months. Stephen Vaden LAW ’08, president of Yale Law Republicans, said many Republican students are waiting to see who the party’s nominee will be before getting involved in a campaign.

“Most Republicans haven’t yet found a candidate they’re 100 percent behind, which is what you need to have if you’re going to go work for a campaign,” he said.

Vaden said that while most of the students taking leave to work on campaigns are backing Democrats, two students are working for Republicans — Jared Morris LAW ’09 for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s campaign and Jed Brinton LAW ’09 for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Anthony Vitarelli LAW ’09, a member of Yale Law Democrats, said students of all political persuasions — especially those in their third and final year at Yale Law School — will become increasingly involved as the general election nears.

Gupta, for his part, said student interest in the election has been steadily increasing while he has been away.

“Politics is spreading like contagion at Yale Law School right now,” he said.

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