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Chief Counsel

Why Michelle left the firm.

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Recently, U.S. News and World Report ran a poll asking readers to whom they would entrust their child if she were running a day-care center: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, or Michelle Obama. It was a low point in the use of the subjunctive, as witless and transparently sexist as wondering who could Sheetrock a wall better, Howard Dean or Rod Blagojevich.

Personally, I’d rather spend time thinking about which of them I’d want to represent me if I had to sue a day care, or whom I’d want to see entrusted with regulatory oversight of the peanut butter my child ingests.

Michelle Obama would be my top choice in any such poll. Without disparaging the other women, Mrs. Obama represents a new generation of feminist accomplishment: freed from the anxiety to do everything at once or be all things to all people.

She was of course not just a lawyer but her husband’s assigned mentor when he arrived at her firm, fresh out of school. I’m a lawyer too, and I remember well the days when it was inconceivable that a woman might mentor a man. I’m a product of my generation, I suppose, slightly younger than Hillary Clinton, a decade older than Michelle Obama. The early years of my career were characterized by the kinds of sorry, time-consuming battles we’ve almost forgotten: Should a female attorney have to wear trousers to court in order to look more “like a lawyer?” Or must she wear a skirt in order to look more “like a lady?” And, of course, every professional woman of my age has a bathroom story: If they label the men’s room “unisex” after the first woman is hired at the firm, is that the equality we were looking for? Hillary Clinton’s edgy, hypercompetent self-presentation resonates as a product of that era.

Michelle Obama didn’t have to fight quite as many of those purely physical blockades. For one thing, unlike in my day, she had female role models in law school–like the extraordinary human rights scholar, Martha Minow. When she graduated and took a position in the marketing and antitrust department of Sidley Austin, she was mentored by Professor Minow’s father, the legendary former FCC chairman, Newt Minow.

Of course, helping to represent big companies like AT&T (in a hostile takeover) and Union Carbide (in an antitrust matter) didn’t ultimately satisfy, and Michelle left after three years to work for the mayor of Chicago. The culture of law firms was (and remains) ruthless: She would have had to fight like mad to prove her intellect at every turn; she would have had to steel herself against the accusations that her presence in elite circles was the product of “lowered standards.” But one doesn’t get the sense that she shrank from the fight–just that she chose a different one.

She wanted, she said during her speech at the Denver convention, to be able to tell her children that “we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be.”


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