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.