Tina Tchen. (Photo: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani via Wikimedia Commons)
Tina Tchen worked in the White House during President Barack Obama’s entire administration, first as the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, then as assistant to the president and chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama. Her work for the Obamas developed from her decades of volunteer efforts on women’s and community issues. Her job before entering the White House was as a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom’s office in Chicago, where she spent 23 years as a commercial litigator. She talks about firms losing top female talent, how hard it was keeping her nose out of White House litigation, and if she’d ever go back to billable-hour life. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What have you been up to since leaving the White House?
Tina Tchen: Sleep, travel. Actually I’ve been spending a lot of time working with an organization we created to continue some of the work from the White House Council on Women and Girls, The United State of Women. It involves providing a platform and megaphone for the whole range of women’s issues, and for the organizations working on women’s issues. The brand The United State of Women was housed outside the government so that if we needed to continue that work, which we do, clearly, it would be a vehicle for doing so.
Your position at the White House wasn’t a legal one. Was your legal training useful?
Tchen: I thought about the president and the first lady as my clients. The kind of representational obligations and skills you would bring to your client who is in the middle of a bet-the-company case is what you needed to bring every day. And the kind of analytical skills lawyers develop, looking at a set of issues and figuring out the important issues from the less important ones, are critically important. Attention to detail became very, very important because no detail goes unmissed by the White House press corps, to their credit.
Was there any way that thinking like a lawyer wasn’t helpful?
Tchen: I’m not sure it’s as much being a lawyer as of the generation I am, but we had to learn to operate in a whole new media environment. We were the first presidency post-Twitter, and experienced the explosion in how people shifted in getting their news. That caused me to shift how we communicated in ways that, quite frankly, for a lawyer were pretty uncomfortable. Some of the things that are playing out right now — communicating by tweets or communicating through social media — is an enormously effective way of reaching folks, which I think we proved in the first lady’s office, but it’s not communicating in a carefully vetted way that lawyers would be normally used to.
Is there something you think law firms need to be doing better to retain women?
Tchen: Despite the fact that we’ve had 50 percent women law school graduates for over a decade, we’re still not much advanced in terms of the number of women equity partners in large law firms. We clearly have to do more to make sure we are retaining women. It has a lot to do with the working families issues we worked on in the White House, which [is why] we need to be smarter about how we organize work. We seem to have taken the tools that should make it easier to be flexible, and instead of using them to be more accommodating to people’s personal lives and work lives, it’s just being used to wring more work out of people. More and more talented young people who we want to be in the legal profession are choosing other professions, because the legal profession is viewed as not accommodating to people’s personal lives, and is a long haul with a lot of hard work. Some work that we have young lawyers do is important training, and some of it just isn’t, and there’s got to be more efficient ways so that people are really honing their legal skills and not just their email review skills.
You argued cases as a young lawyer. Did you have the confidence to do that immediately, or did you have to actively develop it?
Tchen: I was benefited by the fact I joined the Chicago office of Skadden as the third litigation lawyer in that office. So a lot of things fell my way that wouldn’t have normally happened in a large law firm. You step up to the challenge. Young people need to use their voices — young women in particular I often urge: “You’re there, so speak up.” Getting in the room is only half the battle. Use your time in the room well. Think about what it is and the points you have to make and have the confidence to make them. But I also urge young lawyers, there are a lot of opportunities to get into court. I was the pro bono coordinator for Skadden, and one of the things I urged people [to] do, and the firm was very supportive of, was taking advantage of opportunities to both do good by providing pro bono, but also as a way to hone your skills.
Would you consider going back to Skadden or another firm?
Tchen: It’s certainly one of the options of what I might do.
Anything you would change about the way you practice — things you’d spend less time worried about or more time focused on?
Tchen: I think lots of people have opined about, in the overall practice, how burdensome discovery is, and how rarely things go to trial. I’d probably take a piece of my own advice. Trial work is something I loved doing, so figuring out ways to do more if at a big firm would be something I’d try to do.
Huge legal cases, including health care at the U.S. Supreme Court, happened while you were at the White House. Did you have trouble staying in your nonlegal lane?
Tchen: I did! My friends in the White House Counsel’s Office were very indulgent of me. They’d send me copies of the cases, and sometimes solicit my opinions on issues. It was very useful from the policy work I did weighing in on women’s and girls’ issues, such as when we were litigating things like the contraception requirements in the Affordable Care Act.
What was the best day at the White House?
Tchen: There were so many things, large and small, including witnessing really momentous events like the Pope visiting. We weren’t quite sure we could pull that off. Some of our most fun moments were small intimate moments with ordinary people — my team was partly responsible for bringing in Virginia McLaurin (the 106-year-old woman who visited the White House).