Teaching Presidential Campaign Lawyering

From The Practice May/June 2024
Intensive course offers window into election landscape

Over the course of two weeks in January 2024, approximately 40 Harvard Law School students sat together, Monday through Friday, for three hours a day, to discuss what it’s like to be a lawyer for a presidential campaign. Cotaught by Dana Remus, partner at Covington & Burling LLP and former general counsel for President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, and Kareem Carryl, a Covington associate in the Congressional Investigations and Election and Political Law practice groups, the course, quite specifically called Presidential Campaign Lawyering, offered a “window into a lawyering role that many students may not have spent much time thinking about,” says Remus.

Campaigns go from zero to multimillion- or billion-dollar corporations back down to zero within the span of a couple years.

Dana Remus, Partner, Covington & Burling LLP

Remus’s career spans academia, government, nonprofit work, and now private practice. Having begun as a law professor, she could have taught any number of subjects upon her return to teaching. Technology’s impact on the law, for one. Her 2015 article with Frank S. Levy, “Can Robots Be Lawyers? Computers, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law,” remains the most downloaded legal profession piece on the scholarship database SSRN. She could have taught ethics, having previously served as deputy counsel for ethics in President Barack Obama’s White House. She could have taught about the role of a general counsel more generally—she has written extensively on the development of “agency” general counsel, not to mention serving as the general counsel of the Obama Foundation. She also, notably, was White House Counsel to President Biden after the successful 2020 campaign—a role that would have brought many of these issues to the fore. But entering 2024, presidential campaign lawyering was timely. It was also an opportunity for students interested in careers in the law to understand the nuances of a professional pathway they might not have thought much about.

“In most law schools, there is not a lot of focus on campaign lawyering as a career option. It never occurred to me when I was a student that I would someday be a campaign lawyer,” Remus says. Campaign lawyering, she explains, is distinct insofar as “campaigns go from zero to multimillion- or billion-dollar corporations back down to zero within the span of a couple years.” She explains further:

Not only does that mean everything moves at an incredibly fast pace, it means there are few incentives to invest in long-term structures, processes, and practices. And that makes good lawyering challenging. Typically, good in-house lawyering entails putting those things in place so that you are not constantly issue-spotting and firefighting.

In the classroom, students could invest in thinking through those processes before they’re put through the ringer on a campaign.

Carryl, who was drawn to law school because of a deep interest in politics and lawmaking, says campaigns are akin to “start-up organizations,” which both he and Remus tried to make apparent in the makeup of the class. “There’s a quick ramp up in the beginning, and then the campaign is going to ramp down the moment that it feels like you’re just establishing it,” says Carryl. In composing the syllabus, the two tried to broadly mirror the life cycle of a campaign—partly possible given the intensive, everyday nature of the Winter Term session, where students take only one class over the month of January.

Explaining the goals of the class in the syllabus, Remus and Carryl write:

For candidates, the road to the White House and to a successful Administration thereafter is paved by a successful campaign, which depends on navigating the complex legal and ethical landscape governing its activities. Presidential Campaign Lawyering focuses on this important work through the lens of the individual tasked with this responsibility: the General Counsel.

Students will receive an introduction to the substantive legal and ethical issues relevant to presidential campaign lawyering, including voting and election laws, federal campaign finance law, constitutional law, contract law, and more.

The campaign life cycle

Substantively, the class covered the complex ethical and regulatory landscape of federal election law, fundraising, voter protections, and more. In helping the students grasp the campaign life cycle, Carryl says, he and Remus considered the relevant aspects of a campaign during each stage of the process. The first class, for instance, focused on “managing the operational needs of a presidential campaign” and included discussions on things like contract management and all the things needed to stand up what will be a (short-lived) billion-dollar operation. For this session, general counsel for President Biden’s 2024 campaign, Maury Riggan, joined students. From there, students spent three sessions on federal election laws and ballot access, which included hearing from Bob Bauer, former White House Counsel to President Obama. In the middle, Carryl says, students were offered a view into “how campaigns start preparing for debates” as well as the primaries and caucuses. Former White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield offered insight into that process, highlighting the collaboration between campaign lawyers and other team members. One student in the class, Bobby Isbell, underscored Bedingfield’s message: “She emphasized how important it is for lawyers to approach conversations with others on the campaign with a lot of humility,” he says. Everything on a campaign might relate back to law, he goes on, but that does not necessarily mean the lawyer knows best. Other distinguished guests included former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who stepped in to talk about voter protection. The class ended with students looking at the Electoral Count Reform Act to understand how elections are certified.

On a campaign, as in any lawyering, you want to be able to foster conversations with people who don’t necessarily see things exactly the way that you see them or those who might come to it with a different perspective.

Kareem Carryl, Associate, Covington & Burling LLP

Throughout, students were introduced to not just the substantive issues at stake but also the complex decision-making that goes into being a campaign lawyer. Guests helped students see how it felt to be in the room when such issues might arise. “One of the overarching themes that was apparent in putting together the syllabus, and even more apparent as the class proceeded, was that campaigns involve all types of lawyering and lawyers from very different settings,” says Carryl. Campaign lawyers are working with outside law firms as well as local counsel and volunteers; they’re making sure the campaign adheres to fundraising guidelines alongside crisis management. A campaign is a complex organism with many different voices, albeit one with a common mission, and that can mean juggling many perspectives. But Remus says this is ample preparation for any lawyer. “One of the great challenges of lawyering for any organization is accounting for internal stakeholders’ divergent yet sincerely held views of the best interests of the organization,” she says.

In class, another challenge—in an election year and in a heavily polarized country—was how to prevent the class from falling into partisan debates. Both Carryl and Remus admitted that this was a fear, but students showed a commitment to civil discourse. “Students were able to have civil conversations despite differing political views,” says Carryl. “On a campaign, as in any lawyering, you want to be able to foster conversations with people who don’t necessarily see things exactly the way that you see them or those who might come to it with a different perspective.”

Isbell enrolled in Presidential Campaign Lawyering as a third-year law student at Harvard after a few experiences working with campaigns back home in Minnesota. After working in campaign communications and canvassing, he found it energizing to feel what it’s like to be in the room with campaign leadership. One of his big takeaways? “Relationships are crucial to every aspect of being a good lawyer,” says Isbell. “When you’re on a presidential campaign, everything is wrapped up in this huge national, global debate of our deepest hopes and values and dreams—not just whom we want to win the election, but what we want our own lives and our kids’ lives to look like.” This makes the stakes both “high” and very “personal.” Isbell explains: “The only way you’re going to navigate that successfully is if you have really kind, genuine, and trusting relationships with the people around you, and not just within the campaign, but on the other side and in government.”

Walking away from class

Leaving class, Carryl—whose background includes working in financial services as well as interning with the Senate Judiciary Committee under Senator Richard Blumenthal and When We All Vote during his time as a law student—says he felt like returning to Harvard gave him an “infusion of ideas.” It’s an incredible benefit to his continued legal practice. “When you’re working, it is easy to be heads down on a very specific matter. Any opportunity to pick your head up and collect new ideas and perspectives—that makes us better lawyers. Returning to the law school to teach was one of those opportunities for me,” he says.   

You’re trying to win, yes, but you also need to be selfless and understand that what you’re doing is part of this broader history of this sacred democracy we have.

Bobby Isbell, Student, Harvard Law School

Remus says campaign lawyering prepared her for other types of lawyering. “You have to make difficult and important decisions quickly—often more quickly than you would like. But you also need the confidence to sometimes say the risk is too large and you need more time to consider the question,” she says. In all lawyering contexts, “your client may get upset when you’re slowing things down, but that may be necessary to do your job well. Campaign lawyering helped my comfort, confidence, and judgment in both of these things—moving quickly when possible and slowing things down when necessary.”

Through the course, students got a glimpse into the complex mechanizations of a campaign—the challenges that accrue with the pace and the process—but also the excitement and intricacies of fighting for a new future and a new candidate. For Isbell, who hopes to return to Minnesota and work in state and local government, it was critical to hear Remus, Carryl, and the guests underscore the ethical stance one needs to take as a lawyer—on a campaign, and more broadly. “When you’re in that job, there’s so much pressure to win,” he says. “But that can’t mean that anything goes. Wanting to win does not mean win at all costs.” He says discussions circled around “how the desire to win needs to come hand in hand with this responsibility we have to respect and uphold our broader democratic values and the rule of law.” As a potential future campaign lawyer, he says, “You’re trying to win, yes, but you also need to be selfless and understand that what you’re doing is part of this broader history of this sacred democracy we have.”

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