In his books, speeches and campaign commercials, Sen. Barack Obama often harks back to his days as a civil rights attorney.
It is fundamental to his autobiography, displayed on his campaign website and woven into his appeals for votes. In one of his television ads leading up to the South Carolina primary, Obama recalled “working as a civil rights attorney to make sure that everybody’s vote counted.”
Senior attorneys at the small firm where he worked say he was a strong writer and researcher, but was involved in relatively few cases -- about 30 -- and spent only four years as a full-time lawyer before entering politics.
Obama arrived in Chicago in 1993 with a degree from Harvard Law School and was hired as a junior lawyer at the firm then known as Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Gallard. He helped represent clients in civil and voting rights matters and wrongful firings, argued a case before a federal appellate court, and took the lead in writing a suit to expand voter registration.
But the firm also handled routine legal matters and real estate. Obama spent about 70% of his time on voting rights, civil rights and employment, generally as a junior associate. The rest of his time was spent on matters related to real estate transactions, filing incorporation papers and defending clients against minor lawsuits.
In one instance, Obama defended a nonprofit corporation that owns low-income housing projects against a lawsuit in which a man alleged that he slipped and fell because of poor maintenance. Obama got the suit dismissed.
In another case, Obama appeared on behalf of a nonprofit corporation that provided healthcare for poor people. A woman who claimed income of less than $8,000 a year had sued Obama’s client to obtain a $336 payment for baby-sitting services; Obama’s client paid up, and the case was settled.
In 1994, Obama appeared in Cook County court on behalf of Woodlawn Preservation & Investment Corp., defending it against a suit by the city, which alleged that the company failed to provide heat for low-income tenants on the South Side during the winter.
Those were not the cases Obama highlighted in the self-portrait drawn in his first memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”
“In my legal practice,” he wrote, “I work mostly with churches and community groups, men and women who quietly build grocery stores and health clinics in the inner city, and housing for the poor.”
Obama had made a name for himself at Harvard, where he was the first African American president of the law review. That accomplishment generated press accounts and prompted Judson Miner, head of the firm that bears his name, to recruit Obama. Obama took time to complete “Dreams From My Father,” then joined the 13-attorney firm.
“He was doing the work that any first-year or second-year associate would do,” Miner said. “In litigation, he was doing basic research and writing memos. . . . In the first couple years he would play a very minor role. He wouldn’t know [much], so he would take the lead from whoever was supervising his work.”
He did have some noteworthy cases. Among them, Obama filed a major 1995 suit that successfully forced Illinois to enforce the 1993 federal Motor Voter law, which sought to make it easier for people to register to vote.
Obama took what Miner called the “laboring oar” on some cases. He took the lead arguing a 1994 case before the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of a securities trader who had been improperly fired. The court ruled for his client.
“This is a central part of his life and story,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist. “He could have written his ticket at any law firm in the country. . . . He decided instead that he wanted to be a civil rights attorney, and he signed up with a small firm that had a reputation for doing this kind of work.”
People who knew Obama in the early 1990s said he made it clear that he aspired to run for public office. For that, the firm, now called Miner, Barnhill & Gallard, was a good place to start.
The firm has been a force in Chicago politics. Carol Moseley Braun, one of Obama’s predecessors in the U.S. Senate from Illinois, briefly worked there.
Miner was counsel to the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Allison Davis, a co-founder of the firm who since has left, is a major Chicago developer.
Miner, Davis and other partners and clients have been a regular source of campaign money for Obama, giving him $100,000 over the years. Miner said he organized fundraisers for Obama’s first state Senate run, his 2000 congressional campaign and his 2004 U.S. Senate race.
Davis, who could not be reached for comment, has been a partner with other Chicago developers who also are clients of the firm and are Obama backers. One Davis partner was Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a major Obama patron who is now on trial in a federal public corruption case.
The law firm says Obama logged 3,723 billable hours during his tenure from 1993 to 2004, most of it during the first four years.
In 1995, the year his first book came out, Obama started his successful run for the Illinois state Senate, and stopped working full-time once he took office in 1997. He remained associated with the firm until he was elected to the U.S. Senate nearly eight years later.
In some instances, Illinois state Sen. Obama took action that could have benefited some of his firm’s clients. In 1998, for instance, he used state Senate stationery to urge that state and city officials provide tax subsidies to help a partnership consisting of Davis and Rezko develop low-income housing, the Chicago Sun-Times reported last year.
In 2001, Obama was coauthor of a law that created a tax credit for people who donate land, buildings or construction material to help develop low-income housing.
Illinois state Rep. Jack D. Franks, a Democrat, lauded the bill, which garnered near-unanimous support. But Franks said that while the measure helped Obama’s low-income constituents, it raises questions because his law firm’s clients could have benefited from it.
“Someone else should have carried this legislation,” said Franks, who has endorsed Obama’s Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I can’t fault him for the idea. But he is wearing two hats. He is a legislator, and he is serving as a private attorney whose client interests benefited here. This goes to the judgment issue.”
Obama strategist Axelrod scoffed at the notion that Obama should have avoided such legislation.
He said that the beneficiaries were nonprofit corporations and people in need of low-cost housing.
“The shortage of affordable housing is a major public-policy concern of his and of the state,” Axelrod said.
“His view of public policy is that you should use the tools of government to deal with some of the crying social needs that we have.”