"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.So, it turns out that Michelle is exactly how you expected her to be. The Power of Stereotypes is validated once again!
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. 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 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."
By the way, it apparently took Michelle two tries to pass the easy Illinois Bar Exam (81% pass rate), because she wasn't admitted to the Illinois Bar until almost a year after her graduation from Harvard Law School, while her smart husband was admitted to the Illinois Bar only a half year after graduation.