Michelle Obama, whose husband ,Sen. Barack Obama, aims to become the next U.S. president, graduated from Harvard Law School and spent just three years at a law firm, but her legal experience has played a critical role in shaping her career and life.
Not only did she meet her husband during her brief stint as an associate at Sidley Austin in Chicago, she also honed legal skills that have served her throughout her career. She has often displayed lawyerly critical thinking, negotiating and analytical abilities that benefited her work, said former colleagues.
"What she learned at Harvard Law School and Sidley Austin has served her well in all of the judgments she has had to make as an administrator and a manager," said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who came to know Obama as a school adviser to the Black Law Students Association.
During her years at Harvard, from 1985 to 1988, Obama was exposed to a range of legal issues that she would face in future jobs, from employment law to tax finance, and her problem-solving and negotiating skills enabled her to handle those duties, Ogletree said.
Obama joined Sidley's Chicago office in 1988 as part of the marketing and intellectual property practice group, handling transactional, antitrust and other matters. She worked on teams that represented AT&T Corp. in its 1990 hostile takeover bid for NCR Corp. and Union Carbide Corp. in its 1990 legal fight to complete a sale of a chemical business unit to Arco Chemical Co. over Federal Trade Commission opposition.
When the Arco matter went to trial in Washington, Obama and other Sidley colleagues shifted to the capital for two months to prepare for a case that settled shortly after the trial started. She made a "very positive impression" on Union Carbide's counsel, a man who was often critical of attorneys, said Nate Eimer, a former Sidley partner who led work on the case.
"She stood out from the average associate," said Eimer, who now leads litigation boutique Eimer Stahl Klevorn & Solberg in Chicago. "She reserved her comment before she was sure of what she wanted to say. Her analysis was clear and precise."
Sidley partner Kathleen Roach, who was an associate at the same time as Obama and who is now chairwoman of the firm's committee on retention and promotion of women, said Obama had a good reputation at the firm. "She was highly respected and we viewed it as a loss when she left the firm," said Roach.
Obama, whose last name was Robinson when she was at the firm, had been tapped by Sidley leaders to mentor Barack Obama when he came to the firm as a summer associate and to encourage him to join a partnership track. Instead, she decided to leave Sidley in 1991 for a job in Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's office and to marry Barack, who turned down an offer from the firm.
She was an assistant to the mayor and an assistant commissioner for planning and development before leaving city government in 1993 for a job as the executive director of a new Chicago youth leadership organization led by Public Allies Inc. Barack sat on the group's board and recommended her for the post.
Paul Schmitz, now CEO of Public Allies, worked with Michelle Obama in Chicago. Her calm maturity made her stand out among the younger staffers in the office, especially for tough tasks like terminating people, he said. "She was very deliberative in her thinking," Schmitz said. "She would kind of question you, not in grilling way, in a Socratic way. She would try to understand the full situation before making a decision."