David Morrell has had a suc­cessful career in federal gov­ernment. | Department of Justice

David Morrell ’07 served as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Federal Pro­grams Branch until Sept. 11, 2020. Pre­vi­ously, he served in the White House as Asso­ciate Counsel and Special Assistant to the Pres­ident. Morrell clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Judge Edith Jones and on the Supreme Court for Justice Clarence Thomas. He recently returned to campus to speak to several student groups about law, pol­itics, and current events.

As a student at Hillsdale you majored in history, studied with Pres­ident Larry Arnn, and served as pres­ident of the Student Fed­er­ation. How do you think Hillsdale pre­pared you for the real world?

The very nature of Hillsdale’s cur­riculum, driven by con­ver­sation among faculty and stu­dents, fosters a rigor of thought that will benefit a person regardless of what they go into. It’s hard to think of a pro­fession where one wouldn’t have a huge advantage if one can think, speak, and write clearly, because com­mu­ni­cation is the oil that makes the gears move in most orga­ni­za­tions. This place demands and encourages a clarity of thought and someone who can do that well can dom­inate that sector.

I also think reading the best things and reflecting on the best things gives you a field of vision that helps you under­stand and relate par­ticular things to larger prin­ciples and larger trends. You under­stand that small things are small and big things are big. It helps you under­stand what’s important and to keep first things first.  

Finally, being exposed to great minds, both among the faculty and in the texts you’re reading, adds a richness to life. This is a very for­mative time in life when you can think about the dom­inant thoughts and themes in our tra­dition. It shapes who you are and gives a richness to life that makes you better at whatever you choose to do.

How would you describe a Hillsdale edu­cation?

It’s hard. One of my ear­liest mem­ories of my time at Hillsdale was taking Dr. David Whalen’s Intro to English class. He said edu­cation is hard and it’s painful and it doesn’t give itself with ease. It’s some­thing that’s received after you’ve worked at it and there’s a pain and dis­comfort asso­ciated with it. College is a special time but there’s also a true cost in terms of what it requires of you now.

What was it like to go from Hillsdale to Wash­ington, D.C.? Was that a culture shock?

Hillsdale is a bubble in a sense, but it’s also very self-aware that it’s a bubble and not naïve about the world. I knew this was a special place where people share certain com­mit­ments and values not shared in most other places. I think there was sadness and nos­talgia to leave, but it’s not like I was scan­dalized by going to a place where the dom­inant opinions there weren’t the ones that dom­inate here. When I was at Yale, I’d talk to people and most thought of them­selves as mod­erate, but I think they didn’t quite realize how far they were to one side. They thought they rep­re­sented the middle and I thought that was pretty amusing because at Hillsdale, everyone knows there’s a spectrum and they’re gen­erally at one end of it. I always found it funny that this rural college in the Midwest almost seemed more cos­mopolitan than Yale, which struck me as more in some ways parochial and less self-aware.

What advice would you have for stu­dents con­sid­ering law school?

One, how much is it going to cost you with schol­ar­ships? Debt is a serious thing. Even if you go to a great school and a great law firm, $200,000 in debt is going to take you a very long time to pay off. The cost of working at a place that pays well is also very high in terms of hours and stress. On one hand, a J.D. can expand your horizons and oppor­tu­nities, but debt can then close those doors because you have to work at a certain pace to pay for it.

Two, what is your level of interest in doing it? I’ve heard people say “I just want to have a J.D.”  I think that’s a bad idea because it doesn’t get you any­thing unless you’re going to practice law. If you’re going into another field, I think it will only help you mar­ginally; I don’t think anyone cares if you’re not prac­ticing law. You should only go to law school if you want to practice law or teach law. If you want to go into policy, go do policy. It’s not just the money you lose going to law school, it’s also the three years you lose devel­oping rela­tion­ships and actual expe­rience in the field you want to go into. Three years is a lot of time to check a box that no one’s going to care about if you’re not prac­ticing law.

And three, where did you get in? If someone is on the fence but they get into Harvard or Yale, then I would say yeah, you should probably go because those places open a broad array of options that are worth pur­suing, so that’s kind of an exception to the rule. If you get into Yale, you can kind of afford to see where it takes you.

You clerked for United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. What was that expe­rience like?

It was an extra­or­dinary oppor­tunity to work for a very great man and a great Justice. He sees his clerks as members of his family and he puts in an extra­or­dinary amount of effort to keep up the kind of rela­tion­ships with his clerks and also among his clerks. Every couple of years, he’ll host a retreat at a resort and a hundred or so clerks will come be a part of it. He holds eight lunches a year for anyone who’s in D.C. to come join him. Every time I’ve reached out for one-on-one time with him, he’ll make time for me to stop by. He’s available by text and phone for advice if you’re dealing with career deci­sions. He sees himself as serving as a life-long friend and mentor to his clerks and really invests in people.

What did you learn from Justice Thomas while serving under him?

The way he’s por­trayed in the media couldn’t be more dif­ferent from how he is in real life. He’s always por­trayed as being quiet and ret­icent. But really he’s got this bel­lowing laugh, he’s extremely funny, and he’s very witty — he’ll have a group roaring. But he also has pro­found insights not only on law but what it means to be an hon­orable person, regardless of your pro­fession. That was a theme of my time clerking with him: he’d talk about how critical it is to do what you believe is right. He’s someone who’s lived that out in Wash­ington. It sounds easy to do the right thing, but D.C. is a place where there are tremendous pres­sures. His model and example of doing what’s right no matter the cost is a com­pelling one.

You’ve also served in the White House. What was it like to have a front-row seat to history?

It’s a very exciting place where you get incredible expe­rience in the way gov­ernment works. The Con­sti­tution vests the exec­utive branch with a very broad range of weighty respon­si­bil­ities, so I think it is its own school of gov­ernment to a degree the other branches aren’t. The Con­sti­tution also entrusts it with the authority to execute the law, so there’s a prac­tical edge to the branch. It’s ener­getic and has a very close con­nection between the work you do and real-world impact, which you see quickly.

I think there’s no better branch to under­stand the whole of our con­sti­tu­tional system than the exec­utive. If there’s an admin­is­tration that one can support, I think it’s a branch that stu­dents should con­sider going into it. I’m a big fan of the exec­utive branch.  

What advice would you have for Hillsdale stu­dents who would like to follow a similar career path to yours?

This is such a special time. You’re with like­minded people who care about the same things you do and are trying to under­stand them. This place creates space for thought, reflection, and for­mation. Don’t deprive yourself of fully entering into this time by trying to position yourself for the next thing because once you leave Hillsdale, that chapter closes forever. It’s very hard to replicate the kind of time and ability to reflect, talk, and con­verse with great minds and great faculty and stu­dents. Study hard and perform your best, but I don’t think folks need to do any par­ticular thing while they’re here to be suc­cessful. I think it would be a mistake to fail to fully embrace this place for the sake of the next step.