Chicago Sun-Times
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Michelle Obama book tells of her discontent at Chicago law firm


WASHINGTON--The title of a new biography of Michelle Obama is simply "Michelle" by Washington Post Magazine writer Liza Mundy, and an excerpt running in the Sunday edition tells of her discontent as an associate at the Chicago law firm of Sidley, Austin, a "challenge to manage."

Barack Obama met Michelle at the firm Michelle joined after Harvard Law School. She was part of the marketing group one of the "fun" practices at the firm--dealing with entertainment, after all, but there still was routine second year associate work Michelle Obama was not crazy about.


"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."

"Not many people went over my head," says White. It was an unusual move for a young associate to make, and he believes it was consistent with her personality. She "wanted something that pushed her harder {lcub}hellip{rcub} Waiting five to seven years to make partner was a good career move for me but not for [her]. There are too many other opportunities out there {lcub}hellip{rcub} that mature faster than that."

Abner Mikva, a former congressman and federal judge who is close to the Obamas and was an early mentor to Barack, finds that account of Michelle's 20-something impatience amusing. "It doesn't surprise me at all," he says."


"Perennially dissatisfied." Michelle? Who'd a thought?
Did she ever pass the Illinois Bar exam? Just askin'.

I had no idea. I take back everything I have written and said about her. I did not know how much she suffered and how much she sacrificed in order to overcome such an obstacle as her only being treated a little bit more special than her peers.

To me, she sounds like a real mental case.

You don't get and keep a job at a major firm like Sidley Austin without passing the bar exam. Her information isn't on the ARDC website because she is an inactive (not currently practicing) attorney.

It's easy to see how someone smart and driven to succeed would be dissatisfied with reading scripts for commercials all day - it's fairly boring and tedious "busy work." Unfortunately, that's usually what associates get in the big firm environment and why big firms have very high rates of associates leaving to work at smaller firms or start their own practices. That's pretty much the only way they can actually work on cases instead of doing the work that the partners don't want to do. That is starting to change as big firms are struggling to retain associates, but without people like Michelle Obama who voiced her concerns in the early '80s, it would be business as usual. Firms, after 20 years of criticism for treating associates as glorified secretaries, are finally starting to give associates some meaningful work in attempts to keep them from burning out and leaving, taking hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on training out the door with them.

People like Michelle, who aren't afraid to speak up for themselves, are responsible for making it better for those of us who came after her.

What an idiot. This, of course, was before the first time she had been proud of America (which, coincidentally! was right after her husband won the democratic primary).

Marlene, you are ridiculous. She sounds like a real mental case because she wanted to be challenged more than she was? You sound like the mental case.

I can see her now in the White House. The staff would be terrified. It would be obvious who would be holding the reins to the nation in an Obama administration.

Everything negative happenstance would be attributed to racism and the victimhood mentality would flourish.

Chalk it up to youth. Most if not all young lawyers are a little out of sync.

Yes, she and Obama both passed the bar, and both have since allowed their licenses in Illinois to expire.

They both seem to have a little filter that colors their experience as inconsequential to their ambitions. And we must all suffer as a result of that dichotomy. The lack of qualification and the "I'm owed" mentality of that pair makes me long for the Clintons.

What a pair of rainmakers. They only success I've seen in either of their lives is the beautiful children they're raising.

Save us all from this puffery.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, First Lady Omarosa!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, First Lady Omarosa!


Why don't you probe Todd Palin like this? If Michelle Obama were a secessionist, it would consume EVERY headline on EVERY paper in this country! What is more unpatriotic besides a secessionist?


Then she should have taken the paycut and worked for a smaller firm - like the rest of us.

I am getting more and more disgusted with the past 15 year's worth of junior associate irrational sense of entitlement. I assure you, no first or second year associate is worth $165 k - unless they are the son or daughter of a $1 million + client.


Why do [white] people make every dissatisfaction expressed by exceptional African Americans about race? There is nothing in the article by Ms. Sweet to suggest that Michelle Obama felt her dissatisfaction while working in a corporate law firm had anything to do with racism. Why, then, have some of the bitter biddies above equated her dissatisfaction with anything other than her ambitious nature? As an African American female, I resent the comparision of Michelle Obama to Omarosa (who probably deserves the derision she receives in the press and elsewhere). Is it because both of these ladies have dark complexions that white Americans are unable to see any distinguishing features between them? Get a grip and get over yourselves!

Having been an associate at a large firm in Philadelphia, I think that Michelle Obama had much too high an opinion of herself. You do what you are asked, pay your dues, try and learn from the best mentors, and don't expect everyone to bless the ground you walk on. This woman clearly has far too high an opinion of her abilities, and doesn't seem to realize that she had a great deal of help reaching the heights she was privileged to reach.



Michelle Obama came from a very humble working class background, got herself into Whitney Young high school, the #1 public high school in Chicago and one of the top high schools in IL, she got herself into Princeton, then she graduated from Harvard Law School. Slaving away for 7+ years as an associate at a big law firm downtown is not going to appeal to everybody. Michelle Obama had other interests, so she took another path. Therefore, so what? Associates leave big law firms for many reasons. Some people criticize Michelle no matter how well she does. I say you go girl!

You go girl!

Yea, right back to you and your husband's corrupt and America hating Chicago friends, Rezko, Blago, Ayers,and Wright

Bad enough we have Obama as president (anti-conservative, no experience), but to have such a butt ugly first lady, and poeple who write books about it, is rather embarassing

Looks have nothing to do with this. By the way, her strong features do not make her ugly when people are paying to get her cheekbones, lips, arms, and figure. She and PRESIDENT Obama were HIGHLY success before the presidency, making millions from books and their works. Get your facts straight. The presidency IS a pay cut!

does anyone have any information regarding michelle's court ordered inactive law licence? this occurred only three years after finally passing the bar (following two or three attempts). the court ordered document cites misconduct.

This commentor called it right one year ago:

"By darwin on October 6, 2008 10:08 AM
I can see her now in the White House. The staff would be terrified. It would be obvious who would be holding the reins to the nation in an Obama administration.

Everything negative happenstance would be attributed to racism and the victimhood mentality would flourish."

Perfect insight in your accurately played out prediction.

There was no misconduct. A simple Google seach will give you the information that the court had to approve a voluntary change in status.

You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts!


Wow. It saddens me that so many people lack integrity and stoop so low as to bash the leaders of our country. Michelle Obama was likely not the first associate to request a more challenging work load, and will definitely not be the last. I am also an African-American female and attorney; there are obstacles that we must overcome in a white male dominated profession. But, without even considering race, why can't people just respect and recognize a fellow American's accomplishments?

I've realized that some will never be satisfied. Our president and first lady are highly intelligent and received a top-notch education. If they had not accomplished these things, then there would be even more criticism and some would say that they lack proper educational achievement. So, since there's nothing you can do about it, sit back, relax, and improve your own quality of life instead of trying to make light of other people's accomplishments.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on October 5, 2008 3:29 AM.

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