President Obama has a Harvard law degree. Former President George W. Bush has a Harvard M.B.A. Will the next president have both?
One of the most exclusive clubs in academe is a Harvard University dual-degree program allowing graduate students to attend its law and business schools simultaneously, cramming five years of education into four. On average, about 12 people per year have completed the program -- the overachievers of the overachievers -- including a striking number of big names in finance, industry, law and government.
The program is so small that it has drawn little attention outside rarefied circles, but that may change as its most famous graduate, Mitt Romney, campaigns for the White House, subjecting every phase of his life to scrutiny.
When Harvard started its so-called J.D.-M.B.A. program in 1969, there were just a handful like it. Others have cropped up since, but Harvard's has what may be the most successful alumni roster, particularly in finance.
In addition to Mr. Romney, founder of Bain Capital, the roughly 500 graduates include Bruce Wasserstein, who led the investment bank Lazard until he died in 2009; leaders of multibillion-dollar hedge fund and private equity firms like Canyon Capital Advisors, Silver Lake Partners and Crestview Partners; high-ranking executives at banks like Citigroup and Credit Suisse; C. James Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company; and Theodore V. Wells Jr., one of the nation's top trial lawyers.
The young Mr. Romney wanted to go to business school, while his father, George W. Romney, a cabinet secretary and former Michigan governor, urged him to go to law school. So the younger Mr. Romney did both, studying at Harvard from 1971 to 1975.
"What was special about these people was that they had bandwidth," said Malcolm S. Salter, an emeritus business professor who helped create the program. "They had to be driven, hard-working and organized to a degree that was unusual even for Harvard business or law grad students."
Guhan Subramanian, who graduated from the program in 1998 and now is its faculty chairman, said the students could be viewed as "résumé builders who haven't figured out what to do with their lives and are just checking off all the boxes." But he said they are genuinely interested in mastering both fields.
Students must be admitted separately to the business and law schools before applying for the program. That is a feat in itself, because the two student bodies are quite different.
The law school takes younger students, often straight out of college, putting more emphasis on academic credentials, while the business school usually wants work and leadership experience. Business students are often described as being more gregarious and at ease with numbers, law students as more intellectual and facile with words.
And then there are politics.
"I was among the most conservative people at the law school and one of the most liberal people at the business school," said Peter Halasz, a partner at the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel, who completed the program in the early 1980s. "Studying at both exposes you to many different kinds of people and various sides of an argument."
The political gap was wider in Mr. Romney's era, scarred by Vietnam and Watergate, when law students wore T-shirts and business students wore ties to class. "The law school was very swept up in the politics of the time, but the business school pretty much ignored them," said Detlev Vagts, a law professor who ran the program for more than 30 years.
Charles E. Haldeman Jr., former head of Putnam Investments and Freddie Mac, was a year ahead of Mr. Romney in the program. "Back then, people were trying to save the world," Mr. Haldeman said. "Because I was interested in business, and doing well economically mattered to me, and I didn't think the country was controlled by evil people, the law school students did think of me as a little different."
Both schools were overwhelmingly male in those days, and Mr. Vagts, said it took several years before the dual-degree program had its first female student.
Far more graduates have gone into business than law; many, like Mr. Wasserstein, switch to business.
Lawrence Golub, chief executive of the Golub Capital investment firm, said that the vast majority of graduates end up in business rather than law because of the earnings potential and the quality of life. "One learns that the life of associate at a big corporate law firm is demanding, unpleasant and not as lucrative as what you can do on the business side," said Mr. Golub, who graduated from the program in 1984 and founded its alumni society.
For many graduates, Mr. Golub said, the toughest lesson after a lifetime of uninterrupted success is "that failing won't kill you."
In the 1970s, many graduates went into management consulting, as Mr. Romney did, but for most of the program's history, finance has dominated, which some people connected to the program find mildly disappointing. Professor Salter said he had hoped the program would produce more public servants.
But former students and professors say it makes sense that a group of overachievers would be drawn to financial markets, a hypercompetitive field with the promise of immense riches.
Adebayo O. Ogunlesi, a program graduate, said, "I wanted to be a business or commercial lawyer and thought I could meet prospective clients at H.B.S."
But Mr. Ogunlesi, whose law classmates included Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., practiced law only briefly. He became head of investment banking at Credit Suisse, then chairman of Global Infrastructure Partners.
"When you're negotiating as a banker, it helps to throw in a few choice legal terms to suggest that you could help them think through how the deal can get done from a legal point of view," he said.
Students start by taking the first year of one program, and then the first year of the other. In their third and fourth years, they take courses from both.
Those who start with the first year of law school -- often regarded as the hardest -- as Mr. Romney did are more likely to complete both degrees.
But in another sense, Mr. Romney is atypical. He is one of only two alumni to have a high-profile career in politics, along with Christopher Cox, a former congressman and Securities and Exchange Commission chairman. (In a historical quirk, Jack Ryan, Mr. Obama's Republican opponent in the 2004 Senate race in Illinois, has a Harvard J.D.-M.B.A. He dropped out of the race amid allegations that he had pressured his former wife to go to sex clubs.)
As long as politics remains a relatively low-paying, fickle career, graduates do not expect to see many students taking the political path. All the more reason that other dual-degree graduates, whether or not they support Mr. Romney, admit to being intrigued by the prospect that one of theirs might become president.
"Who knows," Mr. Golub said, "maybe we'll be holding our next reunion at the White House."nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.