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Trump's SAT Score, Big Law and White Privilege

Vivia Chen

March 7, 2019

5c239be4bd77302b33034ec4-750-563In the grand scheme of things, I know this is a big fat nothing. Yet, it irks me that Donald J. Trump has been able to censor information about his high school and college grades and SAT scores.

I doubt the average Joe or Joanne cares whether Trump scored 900 or 1,600 on his SATs or graduated with a “C” or “A” average, but if you’re a lawyer—particularly, a Big Law type—I think this issue might strike a chord. And if you’re halfway attuned to matters of race and fairness, you should be as hot and bothered as I am.

But before I go there, here’s the backstory. In his recent testimony before Congress, Michael Cohen made an interesting reveal: Trump had ordered him “to threaten his high school, his colleges and the College Board to never release his grades or SAT scores.”

And Cohen did just that. First, he got the headmaster at New York Military Academy to “find Trump’s academic records and help bury them,” according The Washington Post. (Trump did this in 2011, when he baited Barack Obama to “show his [school] records,” suggesting that Obama was a “terrible student.”)

Cohen also turned his guns on Fordham University, where Trump spent his first two years of college, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he got his bachelor’s degree. The Post reports that a Fordham spokesman confirmed that Cohen had sent a letter threatening a lawsuit and criminal charges (plus jail time!) if Trump’s grades and scores came out. The College Board and Penn declined to comment to the Post.

What’s stunning is not that Trump was probably a mediocre student (duh, rich kids don’t usually go to a local college like Fordham unless they screwed up in prep school), but that he felt compelled to lie about it—50 years later. And his lies were dumb and easily caught: Trump claimed last year that he had “heard” that he “was first in my class” at Wharton’s undergraduate program, though his name was absent on the school’s dean’s list or the list of graduates who got academic honors, reports the Post.

We all know Trump lies extravagantly, so why should these lies about his academic record bother me?

Well, I guess it’s because I can’t but help put it in the context of the legal world, where grades and academic provenance determine your admittance into the pearly gates of Big Law. As every aspiring lawyer knows, or should know, the grades you get as a 1L and whether you go to a T-14 law school are life-changing, separating the cream from the rest of the profession.

God knows I’ve often railed about elite firms’ fetishes with high grades and how meaningless it all is. Yet there is something clean and predictable about where the cut is made.

Which means that Trump would never make the cut at the most selective firms (although there are always exceptions made for those in the real estate group, it seems). And by that same logic, the idea of lying about something as sacrosanct as grades would mean the end of his career.

Anyway, that’s what I’d like to believe. Yet, I wonder if Trump’s style of lying—the boldface assertion that he’s brilliant—is something that white men of wealth can get away with more readily.

Remember, Trump cast himself as the smart one, the deserving one, the White One, by contrasting himself with Obama. He not only asserted that Obama was born in Africa but used the trope that Obama was simply an affirmative-action baby. How else could a black guy get into Columbia University and Harvard Law School, then assume leadership of the Harvard Law Review?

It pains me to say this, but I remember even some of my liberal friends—the ones who were ardent Hillary supporters in 2008—questioned how Obama got on Harvard Law Review. Channeling Trump, consciously or not, one friend said, “Yeah, I’d like to check his transcript!”

So why aren’t more people asking the same question of Trump now? I, for one, am curious.

Is the revelation that Trump went to such ridiculous lengths to hide his academic and intellectual inferiority enough for us to stop giving white privileged men the presumption of superiority?

Yeah, I know. Dream on.



Twitter: @lawcareerist.


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Cohen threatened jail time? Isn't that unethical? By the standard of Cohen's other ethical violations, of course, a trivial infraction. PS. Identity politics are tedious. Vivia, you can be more interesting than that. M.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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