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Stiff, bloodless, sexless, excessively concerned with the appearance of impropriety, lawyers are not much fun at parties. This is particularly true of corporate lawyers. They are professionally risk-averse; relentlessly, unreasonably reasonable; people who look perpetually ready to pull another all-nighter in the library stacks. And they are trained to be exhaustively, expensively argumentative. The culture of corporate law is one in which rigorous attention to detail is richly rewarded, and in which no detail is more rigorously attended to than victory. The female corporate lawyer is a special breed. Her clothes nearly say it all: I am buttoned up. My attempts at personal expression are awkward and sort of silly. Remember when female lawyers wore man-tailored shirts with bouquets of fabric that bloomed just below the chin? Today’s corporate costume makes a more straightforward statement: I am here to do business. I am in it to win. I will eat your entrails for breakfast (and bill you for it), but I will not stain my Thomas Pink blouse as I do so. As Michael Tomasky, the author of Hillary’s Turn, put it, books about Hillary Clinton, like mosquitoes on the tidal basin, arrive seasonally and in profusion. So do theories about Clinton, about who she is and how she came to be that way. An inarguable fact — and lawyers love inarguable facts! — is that Hillary Clinton spent the longest stretch of her professional life working in a corporate law firm. From 1977 to 1992 she worked as a lawyer in the firm of Rose, Nash, Williamson, Carroll, Clay & Giroir (renamed Rose Law Firm in 1980) in Little Rock, Ark. She devotes a single sentence to these years on her campaign Web site: “She continued her legal career as a partner in a law firm.” (And this, in a section called “Mother and Advocate.”) It’s hard to imagine that the hours, days, nights, weeks, and years that she worked with a small group of white men on behalf of big businesses, banks, and brokerage firms had no effect on the singular phenomenon that is Hillary Clinton. In many ways, she is a product of corporate legal culture. I mention this not because it says anything about whether or not she would be a good president, or even whether she would be a good party guest, but because it may have something to do with the trouble we — or at least I — am having warming up to the fierce-minded, breathtakingly competent woman who keeps telling us she’s “in it to win.” And I am not the only one having a tough time liking, to say nothing of enthusiastically supporting, a woman who is obviously smarter, better informed, more focused, and more committed than most of the rest of us. IT’S A GIRL The Rose Law Firm is the ultimate establishment firm. It was established in 1820, before Arkansas joined the Union, and also before the state bar banned women from joining — a ban that lasted until 1912. Rose describes itself, in all official and promotional materials, as the oldest firm west of the Mississippi. (It is not clear why this is a matter of distinction, though Rose certainly was, as Clinton herself said in her Living History, “venerable.”) It has always served the state’s most powerful corporate and banking interests, including Arkansas’ three biggest employers: Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, and Stephens Inc. The Rose Law Firm was not the sort of place that the girls at Hillary Clinton’s 1969 Wellesley College graduation would have expected her to end up. In the commencement speech that she delivered (which got her written up in Life magazine), Clinton bashed “competitive, corporate culture” — “not for us,” she said — and described her Wellesley cohort’s collective longing for “immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” How much immediacy, ecstasy, or penetration Hillary found at the Rose firm is open to debate. Law firm life isn’t exactly a laid-back kind of project in which one is in danger of losing oneself in the bliss of the moment. But for Clinton, the first woman ever to practice at Rose, the pressure and intensity of corporate existence had to have been of an entirely different order. She was, from the start, under constant scrutiny. Several of the firm’s partners opposed the idea of hiring a woman lawyer in the first place and raised questions about possible conflicts. “How will we introduce her to clients?” an associate asked Webster Hubbell and Vince Foster Jr., the partners who had recruited Hillary and became close Clinton associates. And “What if she gets pregnant?” Secretaries gossiped about her frumpy clothes and her issues with her weight. Even peripheral members of the Rose community kept watch over her and felt free to intervene when she crossed what they considered to be lines of proper conduct. The first time Hillary had lunch with her colleagues Foster and Hubbell, a troublemaker called the men’s wives to say they had been seen in a restaurant with “a woman.” In a culture governed by principles of stare decisis (“the past rules”), Clinton was, simply by being there, a source of attention and anxiety. It is hard to imagine that Hillary didn’t know that she was being closely monitored and viciously mocked. Put in a similar situation, most people would crawl under a rock. But that’s not what Hillary did. Instead, she went to work. She continued to lunch regularly with Hubbell and Foster at the Lafayette Hotel and was duly promoted to partner. She found her way onto the board of directors at TCBY Enterprises, Arkansas Children’s Hospital Legal Services, Lafarge North America, and Wal-Mart, where her position as the company’s only female director made her the object of even greater scrutiny. If you look at a photograph of the 1990 Wal-Mart board, you see, front and center — in the style of a “Which of These Things Is Not Like the Others?” puzzle — Hillary, sitting among 15 white men in dark suits. Though she is the only one in the crowd smiling (a genuine, open-mouthed smile), it is hard to imagine that she could actually have been that relaxed. Hillary billed thousands of hours during the years she spent at the Rose firm, and she also did substantive pro bono work, co-founded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and worked for the Legal Services Corp., where she went on to become the first woman chairman of the board. Given all this, it seems possible that she has not relaxed for decades, possibly not since the words “ecstatic” and “immediate” left her lips on the lawn at Wellesley in 1969. THE BILLABLE LIFE Had an entire office and outlying community not been keeping close watch on the Rose Law Firm’s first lady lawyer, Hillary still would have had good reason to keep careful watch over herself. The corporate law firm creates in its employees a state of hyper self-consciousness about their time and its value. The peculiar invention — some would say defining principle — of corporate legal life, the billable hour, ensures that this is so. In most firms, associates and partners must account for every hour of their time, often in six-minute intervals. Daydream, dilly-dally at the water cooler, linger over lunch: That’s time that can’t be accounted for. Lost time. Time without value. The time sheet is the firm’s equivalent of the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, which peer over ash heaps in The Great Gatsby, a kind of all-seeing conscience that creates a rigid, exacting self-regard. The billable hour and the habits of mind it generates promote not just a souped-up sense of self-worth, but also what many lawyers describe as a perpetual state of anxiety. A friend who practiced in a big Chicago firm likes to say that it is a culture of disappointed father figures: Could you do more? Are there precedents that could be unearthed? Additional arguments that could be foreseen — and countered? Hours that could be billed? As a welcome gift to Clinton, Foster and Hubbell gave Hillary a copy of Dickens’ Hard Times. A dark denunciation of materialist culture, the book was an odd choice for the new Rose associate. ( Bleak House, Dickens’ tale of an interminable lawsuit, seems a more obvious choice.) It’s tempting to guess that, by giving her Dickens’ critique of capitalism, Hubbell and Foster were winking at the kind of internal ethical conflict that corporate practice might stir up for their new associate, whose only other law experience consisted of a summer at Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein, a radical constitutional and civil rights firm in Oakland, Calif. The ability to argue all sides of an issue is a hallmark of the lawyerly mind. Hillary’s ability to assert moral residency on different ideological sides of an issue showed itself soon after she joined the Rose firm. The Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, a group that works on behalf of the poor, had helped pass a local ballot initiative that gave low-income residents a break on utility bills and increased rates for businesses. Wanting to put a quick stop to this handout, the business community called upon its lawyers at the Rose Law Firm and asked them to defeat the ordinance in court. Hillary soon found herself battling ACORN’s founder — and her close friend — Wade Rathke in court. Deftly marshaling constitutional theory, she convinced the judge that the ordinance constituted an unlawful taking of property. The law was nullified. Wade Rathke never spoke to Hillary again. For Hillary, though, the matter seemed entirely impersonal: She has maintained strong connections with ACORN and works with them today on minimum wage and election reform issues. She fought with and defeated a friend in court. That’s business. That’s what lawyers do. STILL ON TRIAL One thing Clinton did not do at the Rose firm was spend much time litigating. For the most part, she stayed out of the courtroom and tried only a few jury trials. In the first of these, she represented a canning company that had been sued by a man who found rat parts, specifically rear-end rat parts, in a can of pork and beans. He couldn’t think about the rat or the can without spitting, he said, which made it difficult to kiss his fiancee. So he went to court seeking damages from the canning company. Clearly something had gone wrong, but Hillary argued that the plaintiff hadn’t really been damaged, and besides, the rodent parts had been sterilized in the canning process and might, in other parts of the world, thus be considered edible. She won. The plaintiff was awarded nominal damages — and she endured inevitable jokes about the “rat’s ass case” — but Hillary, in a very rare public statement of inadequacy, said that arguing in front of the jury made her nervous. I’m not sure when the Little Rock Courthouse was built or what its acoustics are like. But I know that courthouses often have high, sometimes vaulted ceilings, which create acoustical problems for women, whose voices tend not to project in the booming way that those of male lawyers can. To be heard, women lawyers have to raise their voices in ways that make them sound strident and shrill, an accusation that is frequently leveled at powerful women in careers in the law and beyond it. In any case, despite a successful track record with juries, Hillary Clinton stayed out of the courtroom, and even today seems deliberately to keep her voice low and well-modulated. Neither Hillary Clinton nor the average corporate law partner is likely to make anyone’s blood jump or heart sing. When you are in trouble, however — real trouble — it may be that the person you want to see isn’t the guy who wows you with his wit and charisma, but someone who has really done her homework, pored over all the boring details, and then gone back over them again, just for fun. It’s pretty clear that the country is in real trouble. Bridges are falling down; the stock market is all over the place; and let’s not even bring up Iraq or Sudan. This might or might not be the right time to look past Hillary Clinton’s cool, corporate, bill-by-the-hour sensibility, her lawyerly inclination to avoid risk and run everything past the pollsters, to smile and keep a stiff upper lip because appearance and propriety matter more than most things — and certainly more than impropriety.
Susan Lehman is a writer and lawyer whose work has appeared in The New York Times , The Washington Post , and The Atlantic Monthly . This essay, excerpted from Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers (HarperCollins, 2008), previously ran in The American Lawyer , an ALM publication.

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