The Magazine

Would You Hire Barack Obama?

The resume of a chronic underachiever.

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By DEAN BARNETT
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For over a decade I worked as a headhunter specialized in placing lawyers. I've often wondered what I would have made of Barack Obama's résumé if it had come across my desk.

I'd start off being impressed--very impressed. In the legal industry, almost regardless of a candidate's seniority, the first thing anyone looks at is the candidate's education. Even 17 years after graduating from Harvard Law School, Obama's work there remains his greatest strength. Obama graduated magna cum laude, near the top of the class. This is a real achievement. Being editor in chief of the Harvard Law Review is an even greater one.

It's when Obama leaves law school in 1991 that his résumé starts raising questions. He didn't begin a full-time job until 1993. Between 1991 and 1993, Obama divided his time between lecturing at the University of Chicago Law School, writing a book, and returning to his pre-law school activity, community organizing.

In 1993, Obama went to work for the small Chicago law firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill and Galland. He could have gotten a job with any major law firm in America. His belated selection of a boutique law firm that offered lower pay but a better lifestyle than the top firms is striking. A lot of people in the legal industry, rightly or wrongly, would infer a certain softness from Obama's chosen path.

Between 1993 and 1996, Obama was a full-time associate at Davis, Miner. On the side, he continued lecturing at the University of Chicago Law School, and his autobiographical Dreams From My Father came out in 1995. (Initial sales of the book were poor, though they would take off years later, once Obama became a national figure.) By 1996, Obama was also running for the Illinois legislature. After winning that race, he became a part-timer at Davis, Miner and a member of the Illinois senate, also a part-time job, while continuing to lecture at Chicago.

What is striking about Obama's résumé circa 2004, as he began his U.S. Senate campaign, then, is that 13 years out of law school, he had yet to commit himself to one line of work. More important, potential employers would wonder about a gulf between the ability Obama showed at Harvard and his actual accomplishments. Obama never made it beyond lecturer at Chicago, where he wrote no scholarly articles. He wrote one book, then stopped writing for over a decade. And he was less than a force in the Illinois legislature. After roughly three years practicing law, he had turned away from that career.

As a former legal headhunter, I am interested in Obama's law firm work. Last week, I spoke with George Galland of Davis, Miner--now known as Miner, Barnhill and Galland. When I asked about Obama, Galland raved. His enthusiasm was unqualified. I asked Galland how his relatively tiny firm managed to get a guy with Barack Obama's multitude of options to choose them back in 1993 over the better paying big boys. He said his partner Jud Miner "spent months convincing him it was a better place to work" and that Davis, Miner offered a "superior lifestyle."

Galland added, "Barack could have been as good a lawyer as he wanted to be." This is high praise, and reflects Galland's genuine regard for his erstwhile associate. At the same time, the pattern is familiar: Obama did fine work for Davis, Miner, but his vast potential remained untapped.

So if you'd hired Barack Obama at the end of 2004, let's say to be a United States senator, you would have been on notice: You were getting a wonderfully gifted individual, but one with a history of failing to focus for long on the task at hand. And that's exactly how it worked out for Obama's constituents in Illinois. Shortly after becoming a senator, Obama began writing his second book, and shortly after that he began running for president. His accomplishments in the Senate have been virtually nonexistent.

Looking at Barack Obama's résumé today, part of you would really want to hire him. Talent like his is rare. The feeling would only intensify after an interview process, in which Obama would certainly shine. But you'd still have the cold, hard facts of his résumé staring you in the face. You'd reluctantly have to conclude that Obama's failure to commit himself to any career sufficiently to excel at it suggests some unexplained restlessness. The net effect is this: His accomplishments haven't been commensurate with his talents.

Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.