Hillary Clinton as attorney: a mostly favorable verdict

March 19, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK -- In the spring of 1975, Hillary Rodham was a legal unknown, a college professor with Northern ways and owlish glasses who had the audacity to appear before Arkansas Bar executives with a request: She wanted money for a legal aid clinic.

Little did she realize that the 25 lawyers in the audience already had decided not to give her any.

Then again, they hadn't heard Ms. Rodham speak. With the logic of a lawyer and the zeal of a missionary, she delivered an eight-minute speech that won over her jury. She left with a $10,000 pledge for a clinic at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Bar members walked away, from one account at least, asking a vexing question: Who is that woman?

"She came in and marshaled her strong points like a general," recalls U.S. District Judge William Wilson, who attended the meeting. "I leaned over to the guy next to me and, to use a phrase that the Baptists use in western Arkansas when they describe a preacher they like, I said, 'That woman's got a good mouth on her.' "

Now perhaps more than ever, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton may need that eloquence to defend herself.

With Senate hearings expected and special counsel Robert Fiske delving into Whitewater -- a shaky land deal the Clintons made with business partners James and Susan McDougal in 1978 -- Mrs. Clinton has become the center of a legal and political minefield.

Questions abound about the Clintons' involvement in the real estate development in the Ozark Mountains and their relationship with the McDougals, former owners of Madison Guaranty, a failed savings and loan now under investigation.

Probably most damaging to Mrs. Clinton has been the accusation of a possible conflict of interest in representing Mr. McDougal before a state banking regulator appointed by her husband.

After having carefully crafted her image as '90s-style first lady and health care reformer, Mrs. Clinton, 46, now finds the spotlight on another chapter of her life -- her 20-year career as a lawyer.

In the clannish world of Arkansas law, where judges, lawyers and moneyed business executives frequently trade barbs over the buffet table at the private Capital Club, this much is clear: Hillary Rodham Clinton was a bright, capable and articulate lawyer.

'A top-notch litigator'

U.S. District Court Judge Henry Woods, one of the most respected legal minds in the state, says: "People were not anxious to cross swords with her. She was a top-notch litigator. . . . If I needed legal representation, she would have been my first choice."

But in a city with nearly 2,000 lawyers, she faced stiff competition to be among the elite -- and her legal standing may have been more mystique than reality.

Patrick Goss, a lawyer in the firm of Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, says: "She had a reputation as a smart lawyer. . . . But to say that Hillary was head and shoulders above others in town is not true."

A partner in the city's prestigious Rose Law Firm, Mrs. Clinton specialized in labor and litigation, although she rarely appeared in court.

It's difficult to find people who recall cases that distinguished her career, although the National Law Journal named her one of the country's 100 most influential lawyers in 1988 and 1991. Her handling of copyright disputes, divorces and commercial cases rarely brought headlines or even received much notice in the Daily Record, the city's business journal.

"I don't recall her being a big player," says Charles Heinbockel, editor of the paper.

On the other hand, there's a saying in the legal profession: "A good lawyer keeps his client out of court." Mrs. Clinton had success at that.

When she did appear in court, though, she was a formidable rival. Known for meticulous trial notebooks that were typed, indexed and proofread, she did her homework and thought quickly on her feet.

Using her strengths

"She's always known how to use her strengths and hit you in your weakness," says Mr. Wilson.

"She's got that jugular-vein instinct in the courtroom. She can deliver the coup de grace."

Mr. Wilson has first-hand knowledge of this. Mrs. Clinton represented his first wife, Jo Luck Cargile, during their divorce proceedings in 1981.

"When it came time to divorce, I thought, 'Who will I ever ask to represent me in this state against this man who's so respected?'" recalls Mrs. Cargile. "Then I thought, 'Hillary's the one.' "

Not long after the divorce, Mr. Wilson received a call from a Rose partner who was running for the school board and wanted to put up a sign in his yard.

"I told him, 'A year ago I had a yard, but Hillary took it away from me,' " Mr. Wilson says.

Yet in the well-mannered South, being blunt and female -- even in the world of law -- didn't always mix. Mrs. Clinton, who went by Ms. Rodham until it upset so many Arkansas voters that it became a political liability for her husband, was sometimes out of sync.

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