What We Know About Barack Obama's Time As A Harvard Law Student

Long before his presidency, former President Barack Obama left his mark on Harvard Law School. He was 27 when he started law school and was a student from 1988 to 1991. Michelle Obama also went to Harvard Law School, and their daughter Malia Obama went to Harvard for undergraduate studies. However, Sasha Obama's college experience took her elsewhere. Women Lifestyle has shared what Michelle Obama was like during her college years, but what about Barack? 

In honor of Presidents Day 2024, Harvard Law shared a post on Instagram of a younger Barack from that time in his life. The caption talked about his background and continued, "He went on to make history as the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review and worked as a research assistant to Professor Laurence Tribe." Tribe has talked positively about his experiences working with Obama. In a 2009 article in the Boston Herald, Tribe described when the future president met with him in 1988, wanting to become his research assistant. "He was just extraordinary in every respect," Tribe said. Hiring a first-year student was an unusual decision, but Tribe hired Obama immediately. He told the Boston Herald, "I knew from the very first moment that he had an unlimited future."

Speaking to The Guardian in 2017, Tribe also called Obama "an incandescent intellectual, who was much more articulate than almost any student I have had in over 40 years."

Obama was a good speaker and mediator

According to a 2008 article in the Alumni Focus section of Harvard Law Today, Professor Martha Minow said how former student Barack Obama captured people's attention. "He had a kind of eloquence and respect from his peers that was really quite remarkable," she said. Everybody paid attention to what he said in class. Michael Froman, another student who graduated in 1991, worked on the Harvard Law Review with Obama. "You could see many of his attributes, approach to politics, and ability to bring people together back then," Froman told Harvard Law Today.

While Obama was a student at Harvard Law, there was tension on campus and between members of the Law Review. Many students protested for more black faculty to be hired at the school. A 1992 graduate, Keith Boykin, remembered that Obama once gave a speech regarding the protests. However, Obama usually took on more of a mediator role, especially among members of the Harvard Law Review. According to 1991 graduate Bradford Berenson, students with different political beliefs butted heads, and Obama tried to keep the peace.

"He tended not to enter these debates and disputes but rather bring people together and forge compromises," Berenson told Harvard Law Today. Working well with people with differing viewpoints is an important quality for a future president to hone.

What was one of Obama's favorite hobbies as a student?

Barack Obama took his mediation skills to the basketball court as well. Playing basketball on campus was one of Obama's favorite activities. Earl Phalen was two years behind Obama at Harvard Law and a fellow Black Law Students' Association member. He told the Boston Herald he knew Obama would be a success.

"He was the smartest and most humble person I have ever been around," Phalen said. He also commended Barack for his listening skills and told the outlet a story from an on-campus basketball game. "I remember a game, it must have been about 11 o'clock at night, and there was a hard foul, and it was an almost entirely black team against a white team, and chests were getting bumped," Phalen said. "Barack would be the guy who would come over and break things up."

Obama became the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, which helped secure his book deal for "Dreams From My Father." In a Time article after Obama's position became national news, he took a moment to mention people who had come before him that made getting the position possible. He also hinted at a future political career, which his fellow Harvard students and professors weren't surprised by. For more, check out what you never knew about Obama.