From Law Student To Lawyer To Host Of The 'Today' Show: An Interview With Savannah Guthrie
Georgetown Law, the highest score on the Arizona bar exam, Biglaw, a prestigious clerkship—all of which she left behind, to pursue a very different dream.
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One year ago this month, Today Show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie took apart then-president Donald Trump on national television. During a town hall that NBC News sponsored in lieu of a debate, a controversial decision at the time, Guthrie patiently and persistently asked tough questions of Trump. When it was all over, his appearance was panned and hers was praised, with Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live referring to Guthrie as a “surprise badass.”
But Guthrie’s bravura performance should have come as no surprise. Although morning shows like Today can be fluffy, with their celebrity interviews and cooking segments—s’mores cream pie, anyone?—Guthrie is a veteran journalist with a hard-news background. Before joining Today in 2011, she racked up more than a decade in local and national news, covering everything from the Martha Stewart trial to Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential campaign to the Obama White House.
Here’s the other reason I wasn’t surprised by Guthrie treating Trump like a hapless witness during cross-examination: she’s a lawyer by training. After graduating from Georgetown Law, magna cum laude and Order of the Coif, she worked at Akin Gump, then scored an offer for a federal judicial clerkship—which she turned down to pursue her news career. Her career in the law, while not long, was impressive.
Earlier this month, not long after Guthrie’s grilling of Trump won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Live Interview, I had the pleasure of interviewing her about this less well-known part of her background. We spoke for almost half an hour via Zoom after a taping of Today (in which she interviewed William Shatner, 90, about his recent trip to outer space, among other things). Still wearing her make-up, she sipped periodically from a giant bottle of Pellegrino as we discussed her journey from law student to lawyer to host of Today.
As co-anchor of the Today Show, Savannah Guthrie has what is a dream job for many. She meets and interviews some of the most important and interesting people in the world. She’s famous, beamed into the houses of more than three million people every day. She’s paid very nicely for her work, better than most Biglaw partners. How did she get here?
Guthrie was born in 1971 in Melbourne, Australia, where her father had been posted for work. Two years later, her family returned to the United States and moved to Tucson, Arizona, where she grew up. After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism, she worked for several years in broadcast news—which is, of course, where she finds herself today. Why did she even go to law school?
“I was around 26 or 27, and I had been doing local news for a few years by that point,” she recalled. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep doing it and try to move up to a bigger market. I had some insecurity: could I even get a job in a bigger market? Was I good enough?”
“So I had this thought: why not take the LSAT? My score would be good for three years, meaning that when my contract with the local news station expired in a year and a half, I’d have the law-school option in my back pocket.”
This also made sense in light of Guthrie’s keen interest in the law. She had closely followed many of the major trials of the 1990s, including those of William Kennedy Smith and O.J. Simpson, and she had enjoyed covering a number of smaller trials in her work as a local news reporter. Indeed, to this day, she still considers herself a “huge legal nerd.”
In the fall of 1998, Guthrie took the LSAT, and she did well. But she didn’t apply immediately, and before she knew it, it was January or February 1999, meaning that she had missed all the application deadlines.
At that point, out of the blue, she received a letter from Georgetown Law. The letter said they’d extend the application deadline and consider her application if she got it in before March 15. To this day, Guthrie doesn’t know why Georgetown reached out—perhaps because of her high LSAT score, perhaps because they needed Arizonans for geographic diversity—but she viewed it as “a sign from above.”
“Georgetown was one of my dream schools,” Guthrie told me. “I loved D.C., I loved politics, and I had even lived in a Georgetown dorm while interning in Washington. So I cobbled together an application in three weeks, and lo and behold, I got in.” It was the one and only law school she applied to.
In the fall of 1999, Savannah Guthrie started as a 1L at Georgetown Law. She was 27, far from home, with no money to her name. She worked part-time in the dean’s office to cover her living expenses. And she was, as she put it, “terrified.”
“I felt like I had walked into this room where a conversation had been going on for three days in Latin, and I needed to catch up,” she told me. “Everyone seemed younger and smarter than I was. I felt surrounded by all these people who applied to Yale and Harvard and thought of Georgetown as their safety school—when for me it was my dream school.”
Guthrie’s fears turned out to be unwarranted; she excelled. She graduated from Georgetown Law, magna cum laude and Order of the Coif, in 2002.
“Law school was a time of challenge and growth for me,” Guthrie said. “And it was ultimately a big confidence builder.”
Another confidence builder: earning the highest score on the Arizona bar exam in fall 2002.
“It was October, and I was waiting anxiously for the bar results. I wasn’t sure I had passed. I happened to be in New York at the time, and I was sitting there alone, looking up the website for the bar results. And before I could get down to the ‘G’ names—in fact, right at the top of the website—it said that Savannah Clark Guthrie had earned the top score.”
After passing the bar, Guthrie joined Akin Gump, where she had previously been as a summer associate. Why Akin Gump? When she was interviewing for summer positions as a 2L, one of her Akin interviewers was John Dowd, the renowned white-collar defense lawyer (who years later would represent Trump in the Mueller investigation). Guthrie had actually met and interviewed Dowd years earlier, back when she was a local news reporter and he defended Arizona Governor Fife Symington in his fraud trial, and they clicked when they reconnected during the Biglaw interview process. Dowd encouraged Guthrie to come to Akin, telling her that she could work directly with him on all of his high-profile cases—and when she returned to Akin as a full-time associate, he made good on that promise.
Working with Dowd was an excellent learning experience. But like many junior associates, Guthrie soon realized that Biglaw was not for her. She decided on a different path: a judicial clerkship, which she hoped to follow with the Department of Justice Honors Program and her dream job in the law, serving as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Guthrie secured a clerkship with Judge John D. Bates (D.D.C.), with a start date in fall 2003. But she never wound up starting.
“At that point, I had an epiphany,” she said. “I realized I still had these nagging ambitions in television news. But I didn’t want to return to local news—I wanted to try and make it as a national reporter. In that moment, I realized that if went down that legal career path—and it’s a great path, a prestigious path—I would never have the guts again to pursue my dreams in TV news.”
So Guthrie went into chambers and broke the news to Judge Bates. It was an awkward conversation. She was supposed to be starting the clerkship in just a few months, and she felt bad leaving him in the lurch. It’s extremely rare to back out of a clerkship, a coveted career opportunity—and it often angers judges, who are not good people to anger.
Judge Bates was more puzzled than angry. He asked Guthrie whether she already had a journalism job lined up, or at least some pending applications or leads—and she was embarrassed to say that she did not. He then asked her: if you don’t already have a journalism job, why not go through with the clerkship, then pursue the television career afterwards? But Guthrie told him, “Judge, I know myself, and if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.” In the end, he accepted her decision (and was “wonderful” and “incredibly gracious” about it, she said).
Although Guthrie knew this was the right decision, she was still extremely nervous about it. She was taking a giant risk. She had released the proverbial bird in the hand, without having any in the bush.
“When I walked out of the courthouse that day, I remember thinking to myself, ‘What did I just do?’ I had this promising legal career, and I just rolled a grenade under it.”
It was now up to Guthrie to make her television-news dreams come true. She started networking relentlessly, using the connections she had formed in her journalism career to date. In 2004, Court TV was looking for an on-air reporter who was also a lawyer, and Guthrie—who was not only a lawyer, but also had experience in broadcast journalism from before law school—landed the job.
“I loved it,” Guthrie said of her time at Court TV. “I think my current job at Today is the best job in broadcasting—but I have to say, I really loved my time as a trial correspondent. I learned so much from watching trials in courthouses around the country, from jury selection to verdict. It was so much fun.”
And the rest, as they say, is history (or at least something you can read about in Guthrie’s Wikipedia entry). She made the jump to NBC News in 2007, then became the network’s White House correspondent in 2008. In 2011, she joined the Today Show as the program’s 9 a.m. co-host. A year later, she replaced Ann Curry as co-anchor of the Today Show, working alongside Matt Lauer. After Lauer’s contract was terminated in 2017, in the wake of allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, the co-anchor chairs went to Guthrie and Hoda Kotb—the first female anchor duo to lead the show, which turns 70 next year.1
Given that she didn’t practice for very long, does Guthrie regret her detour into the legal world? Not at all. Her legal education and experience have helped her throughout her journalism career (and not just during her time as a legal correspondent).
“Here’s one way in which my law degree helped me in an oblique way,” she said. “When I was put on the White House beat, I had never covered politics. It was a new animal for me. I had no reputation, no sources, no nothing.”
“But I had a law degree. And while I didn’t advertise it, it was known that I had that background. So when I had conversations with senior administration officials and other sources, the law degree gave me a certain stamp of credibility—I couldn’t be so easily dismissed.”
The research and writing skills she developed as a lawyer, as well as the law’s emphasis on precision, have also been valuable assets to Guthrie in her work as a broadcaster.
“The way I approach things, and the way I analyze issues, have been informed by my legal education,” said Guthrie. “As a lawyer, I learned about the importance of hearing out all the arguments. What are they saying over here, what are they saying over there, what’s the counterargument to that point? That’s my happy place now as a journalist.”
Her preparation for her celebrated interview of Donald Trump was also informed by her legal training. She threw herself into research before the event, holing up in a Miami hotel room for days before the interview and devouring information voraciously—just like studying for the bar exam that she aced.
After the town hall was over, Trump predictably attacked her:
I asked her: how did it feel to be called “just terrible” and “crazed” by the most powerful person in the world?
“I actually didn’t follow it,” she said, speaking about the media frenzy surrounding the event. “I blocked it all out beforehand, burying myself in study hall, and I blocked it all out afterward.”
Although Guthrie’s interview of Trump might be her most famous interview, she really doesn’t see it as any different from her other interviews.
“I feel I give every interview subject the same treatment,” she said. “I ask straightforward questions, and if you don’t answer them, I ask follow-ups. With President Trump, I didn’t go in there with guns blazing; I actually asked really simple questions.”
Her description of preparing for a big interview sounded a lot like preparing for a major jury trial, with the interview subject as the witness and the viewers as the jurors.
“I do the work, I get to know my topic, and then I go in there and ask sincere questions,” said Guthrie. “It’s not about me; it’s about the person being interviewed. I’m trying to elicit information for the viewers, something revelatory. It might be information, or it might be something else, like the person’s demeanor or tone.”
As our conversation concluded, I asked Savannah Guthrie: what would you tell lawyers who aspire to a television career like yours?
“You have to be sure you really want it. Television generally doesn’t pay as well as a legal gig. But if you’re willing to do it, to make those sacrifices, then I say: go for it.”
Thanks for reading Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can share this post or subscribe to Original Jurisdiction using the buttons below.