Michelle Obama’s fabulous memoir, Becoming, has valuable lessons for us in legal education and practice. This post first summarizes the book and then describes some of these lessons.
The book is a chronological narrative of Ms. Obama’s life, which is fascinating in itself, though I was particularly interested in her portrayals of the worlds she moved through. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago as part of a strong black working-class family. She describes her large extended family and community, which included a wide range of experiences and perspectives. It was a racially mixed community when she was young, but white flight left it poorer and blacker over time.
Her schools were adequate and she was fortunate to have supportive teachers and to be included in classes for gifted students. In one of her early grades, her teacher was not very good and her mother forcefully intervened to have her transferred to another class. She desperately wanted to meet people’s expectations and she worked hard, always wondering if she was “good enough.”
Her brother, Craig, two years older than she, went to Princeton for college and she followed him two years later. She was one of the few African American students there, and this was her first experience in a predominantly white and upper class environment. She worked hard, as always, and was fortunate to have caring mentors.
After Princeton, she went to Harvard Law School. She didn’t describe her time there much and she didn’t seem to find it very satisfying. She had been interested in helping others throughout her life. At Princeton, she was involved with a group that helped minority students. At Harvard, she worked helping low-income tenants handle housing cases.
When she graduated from Harvard in 1988, she took a job with the prestigious Sidley Austin firm in Chicago (and, surprisingly, failed the bar the first time). She found the legal work unfulfilling and, in 1991, took the first in a series of public service jobs, starting with a job working for the City of Chicago. Then she became executive director of Public Allies, a non-profit organization encouraging young people to work on social issues. After that, she worked for the University of Chicago, where she developed the University’s Community Service Center, and later she worked on community affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals. She took a huge pay cut from her salary at Sidley but was a lot happier.
She met Barack Obama in 1989, when he interned at Sidley over the summer. An especially charming part of the book is Ms. Obama’s account of their love story with their yin-and-yang personalities. He was immediately enamoured of her but she was skeptical at first though soon fell deeply in love with him. (Check out Southside with You, a sweet film portraying their first date.) Throughout the book, she describes the ups (and a few downs) of their relationship, mentioning that they went to couple counseling for a while to deal with communication issues. She focused a lot on being a mother, especially the challenges of being a working (outside the home) mom, as well as her perspective as an African American.
More is known about the history during Mr. Obama’s political career – and she provides her perspective. Like many political spouses, she was not wild about his being a politician and ultimately supported his decisions because he supported her decision to leave legal practice. She extracted a promise from him that he would quit politics if he lost the election to the US Senate. The rest, as they say, is history.
(For more of the back story of his career, check out Making Obama, a wonderful six-part podcast about his career from his start as a community organizer until his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. The podcast features evocative interviews with lots of people who knew him during that period.)
What struck me most about the book was Ms. Obama’s candor about her concerns, fears, insecurities, and pain throughout her life, including as First Lady. These things are not the usual focus of autobiographies of famous people. Occasionally she touted her achievements and included a few (well-deserved, IMHO) criticisms of others, but this was a much smaller part of the book than her concern for others and her authentic and generous view of things.
I listened to an audible version of the book, which I highly recommend. Ms. Obama read the book herself, which adds a lot more depth than simply imagining her voice.
Ms. Obama seemed to go to Harvard Law School and take the job with Sidley because she wanted to achieve as much as she could and rise to the highest echelons of our society. This is an understandable and legitimate aspiration. However, she found that it didn’t really fit her and she wasn’t very happy in these situations. She seemed to know this deep inside. But it took her interactions with Mr. Obama to give herself permission to leave that life and pursue one that was more fulfilling and that enabled her to be more effective. Mr. Obama made similar decisions, passing up opportunities for prestigious clerkships and jobs with big firms.
The lesson for law students – and faculty who advise them – is that students should carefully reflect on what they want to do in their careers. Lawyers are fortunate because a law degree opens the door to an incredibly wide range of possibilities. It is easy to get distracted by misleading images of lawyers in entertainment and news media and the potential for gaining wealth, power, fame, and status in a legal career. In our society, there is no shame in seeking these things. But they generally don’t make people happy in themselves.
In my Last Lecture article, I gave students the following advice.
Consider the size and type of law office you want to work in. Do you want to be in private practice and, if so, what kinds of clients do you want to work for? Do you want to practice criminal law, either as a prosecutor or defense counsel? What about working in a government agency or as an in-house counsel of a business or non-profit organization? Are you more interested in litigation or transactional work? Would you like a career in which your law degree is helpful but not necessary, such as business, journalism, or consulting? Consider these and many other questions about your career. Develop several career options, recognizing the difficulties of finding jobs and the fact that it is hard to anticipate what will be available and what you will like.
This advice is supported by recent research showing that external motivations, such as “’grades, honors, and potential career income, have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being’ (or ‘happiness’) but that you are likely to be significantly happier if your job satisfies your internal motivations for being a lawyer.”
I also advised students to “learn to learn because you are going to need to keep learning throughout your career.” Indeed, they should not only plan to keep learning, but also to keep growing and communicating well with others. This advice is apt for faculty and practitioners as well.
The following passage from the epilogue to Ms. Obama’s book expresses these ideas so eloquently.
It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once. To have one’s feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress. …
For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it, instead, as forward motion. A means of evolving. A way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.
I became a mother. I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children. I became a wife. But I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person. I have become, by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard.
It’s all a process. Steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done. …
Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same.
It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard. In owning your unique story. In using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.
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