I received the following question from a brand-spanking new law school 1L:
To what is extent might joining the Federalist Society limit my career options (e.g. firms, judges, teaching, whatever)? I think it's the one group I'd like to join, but I do know there has been some stigma associated with it in the past. Any idea what the prevailing sense is among the legal community currently? Any advice regarding it generally?
Guess he watched one too many Supreme Court confirmation hearings and worries that affiliation with certain student groups might come back to haunt him professionally.
I polled some of my lawyer friends of various political stripes, people who work (or have previously worked) in private practice, for the government, as law professors, and as judicial clerks. Among them were several Federalists (who better to talk about whether it has helped or hurt their careers?). Here's a sampling of their responses:
You shouldn't want to work anywhere that would reflexively see that as a black mark against your record, and in many circles, it's a good mark, of course. Heck, there are plenty of liberal practicioners who regularly attend Federalist Society lawyers' events in their cities, and who appreciate the Society's role even when they disagree with its political conclusions.
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The same could be said for the ACLU. Or the Libertarian party. Or the Pulmonary Pathology Society. Groups we associate with are a reflection of ourselves to the extent we join them because we are in substantial agreement with their purposes. To the extent one's involvement with an association is a calculated political move, it cheapens the group.
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Some academics will hold it against you, but chances are that it is not the only thing on your resume signaling that they might not want you as a colleague.
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It would make it more difficult to get a job working with a liberal politician and/or political organization. Otherwise, anyone who would have a problem with you being part of any organization such as this, be it liberal, conservative or otherwise, is the sort of intolerant individual you wouldn't want to work with anyway.
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My gut answer is to tell the kid to stop hyper-analyzing everthing.... Membership in the Society--as with membership in all organizations--signals the members' personal views and commitment to certain principles. Politicians and some judges who are sympathetic to the Federalist enterprise (or members themselves) are likely to view membership as a plus (and lack of membership as a minus). Nevertheless, membership is rarely a requirement and rarely would exclude one from getting a job--unless, of course, the job is of a nature where politics reign supreme and you'd be working for a person hostile to the Federalist Society's mission.... Outside of campus, the Federalist Society sees itself as an alternative (or complement) to the American Bar Association.
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It's not a problem. You'll get a few random people who might have issues, but those people are far outweighed by those who think it's an intellectually engaging environment. And, frankly, for every person out here [in D.C.] who has a problem with it, there are at least as many people who will hold it against you that you tried to hide your politics by refusing to join. That's not a reputation you want to get.
I attended a number of Federalist debates back when I was in law school, and it was really fun to see both sides go at it. And they do try to get both sides. See, for example, this schedule from a recent Federalist Symposium at Harvard Law School, which included among its speakers Nadine Strossen of ACLU fame.
Are there liberals who don't like the Federalists? Sure. But ask yourself whether you want to define yourself by what the other side of the fence thinks.
This conversation reminds me of a young man who stopped by my table at a law school fair once when I was an admissions officer recruiting applicants at his college. He disclosed to me that he was gay and wanted to know whether he should conceal that on his applications. (Mind you, he was asking someone who was pretty likely to end up reading his file, but no matter.) I asked him if he would even want to attend a school where he had to conceal that. Similarly, my advice here would be to come out of the Federalist closet and show some pride! And if he and the Federalists ever part ways in the future, he can always pull a Huffington and cross over to the other side.