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…
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.
“Michelle had some smattering of public interest” experience, says Goldstein, who is now at the firm of Freeborn & Peters in Chicago, “and so we said, ‘That’s it: Public television, you’re in on it.’ “
The firm’s task was to manage the trademark protection and distribution of Barney plush toys and other merchandise, Goldstein says, and to negotiate with public television stations that wanted to broadcast the show. “She had very little experience in that area,” recalls Goldstein, “but she latched onto it and did a very good job with it.”
But Michelle could also frustrate her supervisors. Quincy White, the partner who helped recruit Michelle and who headed the marketing group, remembers finding her a challenge to manage. White, who is now retired from the firm, says he gave her the most interesting work he could find, in part because he wanted to see her advance, but also because she seemed perennially dissatisfied.
She was, White recalls, “quite possibly the most ambitious associate that I’ve ever seen.” She wanted significant responsibility right away and was not afraid to object if she wasn’t getting what she felt she deserved, he says.
At big firms, much of the work that falls to young associates involves detail and tedium. There were all sorts of arcane but important rules about what could and could not be said or done in product advertisements, and in the marketing group, all the associates, not just the new ones, reviewed scripts for TV commercials to make sure they conformed. As far as associate work goes, it could have been worse — “Advertising is a little sexier than spending a full year reading depositions in an antitrust law suit or reviewing documents for a big merger,” says White — but it was monotonous and relatively low-level.
Too monotonous for Michelle, who, White says, complained that the work he gave her was unsatisfactory. He says he gave her the Coors beer ads, which he considered one of the more glamorous assignments they had. Even then, he says, “she at one point went over my head and complained [to human resources] that I wasn’t giving her enough interesting stuff, and the person came down to my office and said, ‘Basically she’s complaining that she’s being treated like she’s a second-year associate,’ and we agreed that she was a second-year associate. I had eight or nine other associates, and I couldn’t start treating one of them a lot better.”
White says he talked to Michelle about her expectations, but the problem could not be resolved because the work was what it was. He is not sure any work he had would have satisfied her. “I couldn’t give her something that would meet her sense of ambition to change the world.”
National Review has taken a lot of criticism for putting Michelle Obama on the cover with the headline “Mrs. Grievance.” I don’t think this excerpt is inconsistent with that cover.