Engaging in good faith discussion

Federalist Society President Jacob Richards reflects on his right-of-center experience at Harvard Law

Graduating Harvard Law School student Jacob Richards ’22 says he’s been pleased with how well his conservative perspective has been accepted by colleagues across campus over the past three years.

“I came into law school wondering if I’d get shunned for voicing conservative views,” said Richards, president of the Harvard Federalist Society. “Instead, I’ve found that most of my peers are eager and willing to engage in good faith discussion of hard issues. And the size and strength of the conservative network at HLS means that right-of-center students don’t feel socially isolated here like they might at smaller schools.”

The first law student in his family, Richards was raised in Phoenix and grew up admiring Arizona Republicans like former Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, who fell somewhat outside the conservative mainstream. And he learned at an early age to appreciate a bit of spirited political discourse.

“I grew up in a generic Fox News watching household, and my best friend grew up in a generic MSNBC household,” he recalled. “And I remember as early as the 2004 election — when I was in fourth grade — we were basically both recycling talking points in our silly, lower grade school way. But it was through these conversations I’d have, with friends who grew up in a different bubble from mine, that I took an interest in following current events.”

This interest strengthened when he attended Arizona Christian University on a partial golf scholarship. There he was a Ronald Reagan Policy fellow at the Goldwater Institute, and also worked as a Koch Summer fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.

Initially, Richards considered pursuing graduate studies in political science. “I thought I’d land a good teaching job if I was lucky,” he said. “But I’d be divorced from the day-to-day life of normal people — but if I went to law school, I could pursue my interests in a tangible way that would have real world import.”

After graduating he worked in the Arizona attorney general’s office as a legal analyst. “That was where it solidified for me that law school was the move to make, and HLS was always my dream school.”

In leading the Federalist Society at Harvard, he’s tried to keep it open to different viewpoints, since his own isn’t by-the-book conservative. “I’d call myself a classical liberal. I dropped my party affiliation in 2016, and I’m no fan of the 45th President. But I’m very committed to textualism and originalism, and so I have common ground with my conservative friends on campus whose partisan commitments I don’t share. I’ve tried to keep it a big tent. I’d say there is less pressure at Harvard to adhere to a particular orthodoxy than there might be at a smaller school — where to be an outspoken conservative, you might have to be a devoted fan of the Trump administration or the populist turn.”

It’s been an encouraging sign for me that cross-partisan friendships are still possible, even in a pretty contentious era and at a time when people arrive with pretty strong identities.

He’s welcomed the chance to butt heads with more liberal classmates as well. “During my 1L year, I was in a section with a lot of people with D.C. or state political experience, and you’d think that might have led to hostility in the classroom. But our section leader, Professor [Jim] Greiner did a really good job of building community, encouraging us to get to know each other as people before we got into partisan perspectives. That’s been an encouraging sign for me that cross-partisan friendships are still possible, even in a pretty contentious era and at a time when people arrive with pretty strong identities.”

One highlight of his tenure was a debate that the Federalist Society hosted last fall between Professors Noah Feldman and Stephen Sachs at Austin Hall. “To me that was Fed Soc at its best. We had lively Q&A, hundreds of students from all different political persuasions attending. And it was a nice return to some semblance of normalcy after the year of Zoom.”

High on his list of important Harvard Law mentors would be Professor Jack Goldsmith, whom he refers to as a national treasure. “Despite being the busiest man I’ve ever met, he invests so much time in dozens of students each year. He’s admired by both sides of the aisle for his principled government service — a tremendous role model for conservative students who want to serve in government but who do not want to be partisan pawns.”

Also influential was a First Amendment class he took with Professor Charles Fried. “It’s been really special to get to know someone who is, I think it’s fair to say, a living legend in the law. He’s just a repository of war stories — playing poker with the [Supreme Court] justices and all that inside baseball that he weaves into the class.” Richards says he’s also appreciated working with visiting professors, naming Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas Lee and Judges Raymond Kethledge, Margaret Ryan, and Liam Hardy in particular.

His immediate plan after graduation is to clerk for Judge Patrick J. Bumatay ’06 on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Following that, he expects to return to the East Coast and enter private practice. “But my plan is for that to be short term. I would love to end up in a state solicitor general’s office or in a federal agency litigating on behalf of the government.”

As for pursuing a long-term career in government, he says that depends partly on the Republican party heading in a less populist direction — something he admits is by no means assured at this point.

“I think I’m more optimistic having met so many bright law students at Harvard and at other schools who are in it for the right reasons and who won’t compromise their principles for short-term career gain,” he said. “I’m not optimistic about the next couple of election cycles. But I think long term, there are enough good people coming through the ranks that will take seriously their professed commitments to the rule of law and limited government — which will eventually win the day, even if we’re in an uncertain era right now.”