The Talent

August 27, 2008 8:00 PM

ELECTION 2008: Cleary Associate Gives Up Paycheck for Obama

Posted by Brian Baxter


The political temperature of the country is higher than ever with the Democratic National Convention in Denver in full swing and Republicans gearing up for their party next week in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

We've written about what law firms are doing to market themselves amidst all the backslapping and handshaking and about legal powerbrokers are behind the scenes helping fund both campaigns.

Some Am Law 200 lawyers are going a step further by volunteering their own time--and giving up hefty paychecks--to support a campaign.

James Clark, a soon-to-be fifth-year litigation associate at New York's Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, took a two-month unpaid leave of absence from his firm to work on Barack Obama's campaign in Pennsylvania from early June to early August. Clark was inspired by Obama's story--that of a lawyer who left his career at a big firm to focus instead on closing the social and income gaps that separate Americans.

The Am Law Daily checked in with Clark to talk about the experience.

How did the opportunity present itself?
One day at work an e-mail came across my screen about the Obama Organizing Fellowship (OOF). It seemed like the perfect mix, working for the campaign, but doing so on a temporary, structured basis that fit with all that I had going on at work and in my personal life. I was one of 10,000 people across the country who applied for the fellowship and I was one of about 3,000 who got it.

What did you do?
Essentially I was a community organizer for three different townships in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We were tasked with reengaging and mobilizing the existing groups of volunteers the campaign had down there, which were pretty fired up during the primary but after Hillary Clinton won in the area, there was kind of a lull. So we went down there to kick off the general election campaign push. I recruited new volunteers from the Hillary folks and independents not involved in the primary…We did voter registrations and organized house parties to bring citizens of the various townships together.

Did your legal background help at all?
Absolutely. Helping to organize associates and accomplish tasks in the high-pressure, fast-paced litigation world definitely translated over to the similar world of presidential campaigns. Volunteers are kind of like junior associates in that you have to clearly articulate what needs to be done so that everyone is on the same page. And in a law firm you've got to report back to the partners or the client on what you've done and get them to sign off on things. In Bucks County it was a regional field director who in turn reported numbers back to the Chicago campaign headquarters.

The difference in accommodations, going from an office in downtown Manhattan to suburban Pennsylvania, must have been stark.
It was certainly different going from meeting lawyers and clients in conference rooms to meeting with volunteers and Obama supporters in places like Starbucks and Panera Bread. Places with free Internet access were critical. Community organizers have to work with what they have. Your mind is your biggest resource. Working without those resources only helped to make me a better lawyer. Campaign work was just an extension of the advocacy element of working as a litigation associate.

Would you recommend the experience to other associates?
It depends on your firm. One of the reasons I came to Cleary was because they don't have a formal billable requirement. The firm has always made it clear to me that they are committed to the community and they've allowed me to sort of be a pro bono rainmaker (laughing) and go out and find things that are worthwhile.

If someone has a burning desire to engage in the political arena or advocate in a public interest-type setting, I would say that for the good of your community and country it's probably a good thing to do. But just make sure you have an open and frank conversation with your firm to get their perspective on it.

How did you ask for the leave?
When I received the e-mail about the fellowship it seemed kind of prophetic, but there was no formal vehicle [at Cleary] to pursue this. So I went to some of the partners that I had been working for and said that I really had this itch to get out and help Senator Obama, but I also loved what I was doing at the firm and didn't want to do something that would necessarily foreclose my reputation there. I also didn't want to leave my teammates here at work in a bind. They encouraged me to do it and another partner I was working on a case with blessed the idea. So from there I formally asked for permission from the chairman of the associates committee, James Bromley, who brought the idea to the committee. Within days they told me that I had permission to go.

Would you do it again?  I understand the leave was unpaid.
Definitely. I've still got my law school loans and I'm getting married in October. So it was a leap of faith to go out on my own and spend two months unpaid, even though I still had a job waiting for me.

What did you learn from the experience?
One of the often-repeated principles of Barack Obama's campaign is the notion that ordinary people can come together to do extraordinary things. And that's kind of what I saw every day in places like Bensalem, Southampton, and Northampton. These were people who wanted nothing more than to take back their country and change the political landscape in the hope they would create a better life for themselves and their family. None of us were getting paid, we were doing this because we felt we had an obligation to leave the world better than not only the way we found it, but better than it is right now!

Note: Interviews are condensed and edited for grammar and style.

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James is an inspiration.

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