Speakers at the Democratic National Convention have spent the better part of the last week crowing about Hillary Clinton’s career in law, ostensibly the story of a journeyman advocate organizing for children.
“It was at the Children’s Defense Fund that I met Hillary,” said incoming Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile. “Steel in her spine, Hillary didn’t want to talk about anything other than how to make children’s lives better.”
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was similarly effusive in her praise of Clinton’s career at the bar in the service of the marginalized. “We have a responsibility to one another,” she said. “It’s about who we are as a nation. It’s why after law school, she could have gone to a fancy law firm, but she chose to work at the Children’s Defense Fund, where she advocated for children with disabilities.”
The reality of Mrs. Clinton’s law career is more complicated.
Before graduating from Yale Law School in 1973, Mrs. Clinton moved in various legal circles of the New Left, often donating spare time to radical causes. She spent the summer of 1971 in California as a summer associate at Treuhaft, Walker, and Bernstein, an Oakland based firm founded by members of the American Communist Party. The firm represented Vietnam protestors at the University of California at Berkley as well as the Black Panther Party, a black power militant group.
On taking her J.D. in 1973, she sat for the D.C. and Arkansas bar exams, marking a fairly prosaic start to her career as a legal practitioner. Clinton failed the D.C. bar exam, an experience Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein characterized as a spectacular flameout in his 2007 biography of the Democratic presidential nominee.
“Of 817 applicants, 551 of her peers had passed, most from law schools less prestigious than Yale,” he said of the experience, noting that the D.C. bar was “hardly one of the toughest in the nation.”
She settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1974, becoming one of the first female members of the faculty at University of Arkansas Law School. She gave classes in criminal law and helped establish a legal aid clinic that would lead her to one of her most notorious clients. During the course of her time on the law faculty, Mrs. Clinton staged a successful defense of 41-year-old Thomas Alfred Taylor, an Arkansas man accused of the rape of a 12 year old girl. (RELATED: Tapes Reveal Hillary Clinton Discussing Her Defense Of A Child Rapist [VIDEO])
Mrs. Clinton later discussed the case candidly on an audio recording first uncovered by the Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman, telling a journalist named Roy Reed that she harbored little doubt as to his guilt. Still, she helped Taylor duck a harsh sentence.
“Oh he plea bargained,” she told Roy with a brief spout of laughter. “Got him off with time served in the county jail, he’d been in the county jail about two months.”
Simultaneous to Bill Clinton’s election as Arkansas Attorney General in 1977, Mrs. Clinton accepted an offer to join Rose Law Firm a white-shoe Little Rock practice with an august reputation throughout the south. Though she continued to publish about children’s issues in academic journals during this period, her legal work was dedicated almost exclusively to intellectual property and patent infringement law. She was the first woman made full partner at the firm.
Rose Law grew in stature during Clinton’s tenure, taking on corporate clients and commercial interests with state business. The firm represented Walmart, whose corporate headquarters are in Bentonville, Ark., and TCBY, a major frozen yogurt franchise based in Little Rock — Mrs. Clinton joined both corporate boards in the mid 1980s. With Mrs. Clinton on the firm masthead, Rose lawyers enjoyed unprecedented access to state legislators and regulators, a major selling point to out of state businesses attempting to navigate Arkansas’s regulatory regime. Firm partner William H. Kennedy III characterized Clinton as the firm’s “rainmaker,” in 1992.
The firm’s billable hours soared in the 1980s, due in no small measure to Clinton’s influence in her husband’s state house. Federal filings obtained by the New York Times indicate firm partners collected some of the highest billables in the state. Nor was her leverage exclusive to private practice — former Bill Clinton aides say Mrs. Clinton was regularly in the governor’s confidence when selecting appointees for the state bench.
Stature and scrutiny grew in equal measure for Mrs. Clinton, such that her time with the firm found itself on the business end of federal investigation during the 1992 presidential campaign, sprawling into a full-fledged congressional probe that engulfed her husband’s first term as president. Though Mr. Clinton’s financial ties to the toxic Whitewater Development Corporation were themselves the subject of protracted inquiry, Rose Law’s role in brokering transactions federal investigators determined were intended to deceive federal investigators. Mrs. Clinton billed 60 hours over a year and a half on the case, which included at least a dozen meetings with one Seth Ward, an individual who facilitated illegal straw purchases. Missing records corroborating the billings and the meetings under subpoena for two years were later recovered in Mrs. Clinton’s book room in the White House residence.
Mrs. Clinton did in fact give time to pro bono representation at Rose Law. She was frequently granted leave from the firm to coordinate state initiatives, including a task force on rural poverty and the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee, leading a lengthy but ultimately successful fight against state-mandated standards, testing and class sizes. While in Arkansas she also cofounded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a Children’s Defense Fund aligned group, and served in the Carter administration as chair of the Legal Services Corporation, all accomplishments for which for which the future presidential nominee was rained with accolades.
Nevertheless, discussion of her decades old ties to the south’s most prestigious firms, her corporate clients, and the blemishes on her probono record have been conspicuously absent in a year dominated by anti-establishment rage.