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When Michelle Met Barack: How romance in the sedate corridors of a corporate law firm changed everything for the woman who might become the country's first African American first lady

Twenty years ago in Chicago, two bright young attorneys met and joined forces.

Even so, she acknowledged that her years at Princeton had changed her. She entered the university, she wrote, determined to use her education to benefit the black community. But by the time she was preparing to graduate, she was not nearly so sure where her obligations lay. "As I enter my final year at Princeton, I find myself striving for many of the same goals as my White classmates -- acceptance to a prestigious graduate or professional school or a high paying position in a successful corporation. Thus, my goals after Princeton are not as clear as before."

At Harvard's legal aid bureau, Michelle found herself doing the kind of work she'd envisioned when she entered college: using her education to help those in need. "She handled some of the more complex landlord and tenant issues," says Torbert, who saw a lot of Michelle back then and describes her as "very mature, very, very bright. I just remember her being very serious about the work she did, and she really cared a lot about the people she worked with."

Dave Jones also was struck by Michelle's compassion, recalling her as someone who "came from a place in Chicago where she had very direct experiences with people living in dire and difficult circumstances, and I think she brought that to her work at the legal aid bureau."

The other thing Torbert noticed was that Michelle expected a lot from other people. "If there's one thing that stood out about her, she is not easily impressed," says Torbert, now vice president and general counsel for Barton Malow, a construction management company based in Michigan. "You think you're working hard, and I think her attitude is: 'Well, that's what you're supposed to do.' "

During their third year, Harvard students had to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. Students in the legal aid bureau were perhaps the ones most likely to go into public service, or legal aid, or, if they went with a private firm, to find one with pro bono opportunities. "It was something that a lot of us talked about and thought about," says Torbert. But while many found the idea of public service compelling, "the [recruiting] process channels you toward a corporate legal practice," says Neil Quinter, another of Michelle's classmates. Private firms interviewed incessantly, "offering all this money."

In Michelle's case, Sidley Austin was offering a prestigious name and a lucrative starting salary. Michelle had grown up with parents who lived paycheck to paycheck. She had student loans to pay off. In the end, she went with the private firm, a conventional choice and one she would eventually urge others not to make.

At Sidley, Michelle didn't follow the traditional route for newly minted associates by doing general litigation or antitrust work. Instead, she was recruited by the looser, more fun-loving lawyers in the marketing law group, also known as intellectual property or entertainment law. These attorneys represented companies that sold goods to the public: advertising agencies, automakers, beer manufacturers. One of the clients was the flamboyant boxing promoter Don King, whose appearances always created a stir in Sidley's otherwise sedate corridors.

The marketing group "had the reputation in the firm of being a little more glitzy," says Brian Sullivan, an associate at the time who now practices in Vermont. Glitz, of course, is relative. They were still lawyers; they still wore suits; and they still worked long hours. Nevertheless, "it was the most fun area of practice in the firm, bar none," recalls Mary Carragher, who left Sidley in 1992 and now has her own practice. "We were the coolest people, and we had the best work. It was all popular culture stuff. You could do a lot of dull things in law, and this was, and still is, in my opinion, the best stuff."

The pop culture aspect of the job must have been appealing to Michelle, who was such a huge fan of "The Brady Bunch" growing up, according to her brother, that she knew every episode by heart. And she'd be working within a relatively small group of lawyers, where a new associate could get a fair amount of responsibility. The group also had a sizable contingent of women. One of the partners was Mary Hutchings Reed, a good-humored and gregarious attorney who had worked hard to win advancement for women in the top echelon of the legal profession. Reed, who also writes fiction, would later insert Michelle as a bit character in a novel, "Courting Kathleen Hannigan," that explores the perils of being a woman trying to make partner in the 1980s and 1990s. The fictional character Michelle inspired was "Michelle Richardson" -- a young associate who is part of the defense team in a sex-discrimination case, and who soon after being introduced is usually sent off to research an aspect of the law. The character, Reed says, exemplifies that young associates, even highly competent ones like Michelle, mostly were seen and worked hard, but were not heard.

"I loved her," says Reed, who left Sidley in 1989 and is now of counsel at Winston & Strawn in Chicago. She remembers Michelle as a stylish dresser with a ready sense of humor, not cowed by the senior partners, a young woman with self-confidence who nevertheless was willing to admit what she did not know.

Although she was a new associate, recalls colleague Andrew Goldstein, she would "push back" if she disagreed with an approach or had a different idea. "Michelle -- you didn't want to underestimate her," he says.

The group went out of its way to give Michelle work suited to her interests. When an opportunity came in to handle the budding public television career of Barney, the purple dinosaur poised to become a phenomenon among American children, Goldstein says he and others felt it had Michelle's name written all over it.


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