Not every law student has a clear vision of where they want to end up in their career, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s more about seizing the opportunities that present themselves than strictly sticking to a plan. In this ABA Law Student Podcast, host Meghan Steenburgh sits down with attorney Robert Barnett to discuss his incredibly storied career. Together they review his career, focusing particularly on his work as practice debate opponent for numerous Democratic Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, his representation of some of the most notable names on both sides of the aisle for book deals (even convincing James Patterson and President Bill Clinton to write a book together), and his experiences working with Hollywood. While we can’t all achieve such an exceptional career, find out what it takes to blaze your own path from one of the most unique individuals in the legal profession.
Robert Barnett is a partner at Williams & Connolly LLP.
Thank you to our sponsor NBI.
*Photo of Meghan Steenburgh and Robert Barnett in December 2019.
ABA Law Student Podcast
Representing Power: A Conversation with Attorney Robert Barnett
(Music Playing 00:00:00 – 00:00:10)
Male 1: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads from finals, in graduation, to the bar exam and finding a job. This show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You’re listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Meg Steenberg: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. I am Meg Steenberg of (00:00:36) Syracuse University College of Law JDI Program. I am also a graduate of Georgetown University and a hold the Master’s from Syracuse Newhouse School of Communications. My status as a law school student follows a career in journalism, politics and government. First, we would like to thank our sponsor NBI. Topped by experienced practitioners, NBI provides practical skilled-based CLE courses attorneys have trusted for more than 35 years. Discover what NBI has to offer at nbi-sems.com. Today, we are speaking with an attorney who is not only one of the most intelligent and powerful attorneys but also one of the most humble. I have the privilege and honor of introducing you to Robert “Bob” Barnett, senior partner of Williams & Connolly in Washington DC. Bob represents major national and international corporations as well as individuals on a wide variety of matters from litigation to media relations. He is lawyer to some of the world’s most powerful, presidents Obama and Clinton and George W Bush along with others like Queen Noor of Jordan and former prime minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, the list goes on. Additionally, Bob’s influence is recognizable in areas of pop culture and network news as an attorney and negotiator of contracts for contestants, network anchors and reporters. While he represents high-profile clients on both sides of the aisle, he is also known as debate prep extraordinaire to democrat presidential candidates. Bob, thank you for joining us it’s such an honor and always such a treat to speak with you.
Robert Barnett Nice to be with you. It’s been all too long. Thanks for doing this.
Meg Steenberg: Thank you. As we record this, there is a presidential election going on between democrat candidate Vice President Joe Biden and Republican candidate incumbent President Donald Trump. One thing many might not know is that campaigns are run not only by traditionally a younger generation but by a team of lawyers whether it’s guiding policy or wordsmithing speeches or debate prepping. Talk about your role over the decades working for 10 presidential campaigns. How did you become the man standing at the podium and peppering democrat presidential candidates with questions?
Robert Barnett: Well in the early 70s. I worked as a legislative assistant for then Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota. I went in 1975 to my Law Firm Williams and Connolly. In ‘76, Jimmy Carter picked Walter Mondale as his vice presidential running mate and just about all of us who had worked for him over the years left our jobs moved to Atlanta where the campaign, the Carter campaign was headquartered and for about two months, September and October of ‘76, we became the Mondale campaign. There had been debates since the Nixon Kennedy in ‘60 but in ‘76 they decided to resurrect presidential general election debates and for the first time in history to have a vice presidential debate. So, i was part of the team that helped prepare then Senator Walter Mondale for his vice presidential debate with then Senator Robert Dole. That was an amazing experience and Carter-Mondale won the election as you know, went to the white house in ‘77. In ’80, I was preparing to help with the same task but for a reason long lost in history, there was not a vice presidential debate in ‘80. In ’84, Walter Mondale, my former employer and dear friend and mentor, was the presidential nominee of the democratic party and he chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, the first woman on a national ticket and Walter Mondale asked Ann Wexler, a Washington lobbyist to along with me run the team that prepared Gerry for her debate with George Herbert Walker Bush. We did that and for the first time I actually played the Republican in the rehearsal site, played George Herbert Walker Bush in the rehearsals with Gerry. it was also the only first and only time that debates became a contact sport because when i would hit Gerry with something and she didn’t like it, she would walk over to the podium and slug me. So i left the debate practices with a black and blue right arm. It was a very painful process. The debate went well.
In ‘88, I played Bush again and helped prepare Michael Dukakis, in ’92, I had the experience of a lifetime and practice debate of Bill Clinton about 20 sometimes as George Herbert Walker Bush and the late congressman from Oklahoma, Mike Synar played Ross Perot. In ‘96, I was recused because my wife was the white house correspondent for CBS. In 2000, I came back and prepared Lieberman for his debate with Cheney and played Cheney. In ’04, prepared Edwards for his debate with Cheney, I played Cheney. In ’08, I did all the primary debates with Hillary playing everyone from Richardson, to Biden, to Obama, Chris Dodd and the list goes on and on. And then when Hillary dropped out, I moved over to the Obama team and helped prepare for the general election debates in ‘08. In ’12, I also worked with then president, incumbent president Obama preparing for those debates and in ’16 did all the primary debates with Hillary playing Bernie in the rehearsals, Bernie Sanders, and then prepared her for all the debates with Trump and prepared Tim Kaine for his vice presidential debate and played Pence in those rehearsals and that’s my checkered career in the world of debates.
Meg Steenberg: And you’ve run us through a history lesson along with that. How did law school — and then as you move through your career and throughout all of these campaigns, how did law school helped prepare you for those opportunities?
Robert Barnett: Well, law school wasn’t too relevant to this except to the extent that law school taught me, as it should teach all those who are law students and who are listening, the basic skills that became so important whether you practice as i did or teach or go into government or whatever, one is to research, the other is to write, the other is to advocate. Those skills which i think are fundamentally, which you learn in law school will certainly transferable and helpful in the debate process. I think that most of my experience probably came from actually high school debate where I was part of that whole process back when i was in high school. I think it’s kind of resurrected now, although with the coronavirus has probably disappeared again. But high school debate was a big deal and learned a lot from participating in that. I think that the skills as I say, the basic skills that you should gain and should seek at law school are helpful with this, but it probably in the end was more high school debate plus the policy things that I learned working for Mondale in the senate and being politically active.
Meg Steenberg: Do you care to say who is best at debate prep with you? Were any of the lawyers stronger at it or did it provide any sort of sense of advantage?
Robert Barnett: You mean the candidates.
Meg Steenberg: For the candidates, yeah.
Robert Barnett: Yeah, i think probably the best debater I’ve worked with is Bill Clinton. Every one of them was excellent in their own right and happily did pretty well but Bill Clinton was magic. i think Barack Obama once called him the explainer in chief. He was so good. He wasn’t good at short answers, but he was good at the substance of the answers and then the process honed the shortness of the answers and the pointedness of the answers. James Carville once described him as a thoroughbred in the debate race and I think that’s probably accurate. He was terrific. But again, each one in their own way had skills, had strengths and the goal was to bring those out and sharpen them and get the best performance you can during that critical 90 minutes.
Meg Steenberg: And since democrat debate prep is your specialty, what’s your advice to Biden at this stage?
Robert Barnett: I wouldn’t give that publicly, that’s probably more for private. But i think that we’ll find that in these debates these two candidates are going to be playing on two very different fields. i think that President Trump will be talking a lot about socialism, a lot about people coming to try to break into your house and such things, the scourge of immigration and i think and I hope that Joe Biden will be talking about climate change and what he’d do about the pandemic and how we bring this economy back and the racial injustice that’s been existing forever but has come to the fore. So, I think they’re going to be on two very different playing fields and how that’s reconciled will be important and course or role on the moderators in that regard will be important too.
Meg Steenberg: You’ve transformed the intersection of politics and government and media. It’s probably more like a roundabout than an intersection now where it’s sort of this seamless confluence under your legal guidance. How did you get into this area and create this area of law and build it?
Robert Barnett: Which one? Which area?
Meg Steenberg: Well, you have — you worked with and that’s true because I’ll continue to pull it out but you worked with these politicians at the same time you worked with advancing their careers after and during office.
Robert Barnett: Well, let’s start with that. The work i do in the campaigns and on debates that’s not law practice. I mean, i don’t get paid for that, that’s strictly is a concerned citizen and a volunteer. In terms of the law practice, I helped, as you say, public office holders when they leave office, established their private sector situations and menus that can involve books, it can involve speeches, it can involve boards of directors, advisory boards, teaching, private equity firms, public interest, on running Washington offices, all those things and I’ve represented dozens and dozens of people coming out of the cabinet, out of the senate, out of the house, out of the white house, staffers, members, confirmed officials to do that and it’s an interesting thing to do. it’s tailored to the individual, it’s not generic. That practice started really with knowing so many of these folks over the years and having them come to me to do discreet things and then over time you get to know all these various areas and I along with my variable partners and associates, it’s not me alone, by any means offer that service to these people coming out of public service. So, that one started just with knowing these people and being exposed to the various opportunities and it built into kind of a practice that arises sort of every two years basically when there’s a changeover in the legislature or every four years when there’s a changeover in the White House.
Meg Steenberg: And your role in this process traditionally, some of the things that you’ve done have been more of a public relations-type role and it’s moving more into that media relations. Is it accurate to say that probably one of the most potent tools for you is that attorney-client privilege?
Robert Barnett: With a lot of these folks, you do advise them on the public presenting of what it is they’re going to do. Sometimes it’s a book helping with the rollout of the book for sale. Sometimes it’s announcing what their next career move is going to be in the most attractive and useful way. But it is almost a public relations role which I perform if the client wishes. It separates me from the traditional agents and in many ways I separate from them in the sense that for instance take books. Book agents charge 15 percent. i charge as a lawyer on an hourly fee basis. Book agents are not bound by legal ethics and certainly don’t have the attorney-client privilege as you mentioned. I’m pleased to have those two things. And third, the public relations, the rollout if I’m doing a book, agents don’t traditionally participate in that, some do, but not most and i help with that too. So, in that respect they differ from the often non-lawyer agent types who do this kind of work.
Meg Steenberg: And you as you’ve mentioned, you work with and represent countless authors. Some of them are even not only on the political side but others like James Patterson and then you pull in some of the politics. I’m assuming you were probably the mastermind behind the thriller with President Clinton and James Patterson. How do you pull all of them in how? How did you come up with these things? How did you work through and create these opportunities?
Robert Barnett: Yeah. I’m honored to represent James Patterson for many years who is the best-selling fiction author in history, the best-selling non-fiction author probably Bob Woodward who I also am honored to represent, we came up with the thought Bill Clinton is a voracious consumer of thrillers, had read all of Patterson’s books, didn’t really know him and met him but didn’t really know him. And so i found myself representing both Clinton and Patterson and I had been after Bill Clinton really since he left office in 2001 to write a novel. He’d written four or five, six non-fiction books but i thought with his voracious consuming of thrillers and his cleverness and his ability, I was sure to conceive plots that would be a great idea. He kind of never got to it, never wanted to do it, so eventually i said, “Well, James Patterson works with collaborators all the time, how would you feel about working with James Patterson on a thriller?” And Bill Clinton’s reaction was, “Well why would he wanted to do that?” And i said, “Well, probably because you won two-term president of the United States and know a lot of details.” So, then I went to Jim and Jim said, “Well, that’s a great idea.” And we put together Clinton’s knowledge of the details of the functioning and realities of the presidency with James Patterson’s storytelling and what came out was a novel called the President is Missing, which was the number one novel of 2018.
So, it succeeded beyond anybody’s expectations except mine, I think. And we’ve now got another one on the line. It’s called The President’s Daughter. It’s not a sequel. It’s a bunch of freestanding characters, but again centered in the White House and this time with a former president and that’ll come out next year and they’re working hard on that and having read the first draft it’s even better than the President is Missing, which was an awfully good read. So, that was fun to put together and very successful and a lot of readers enjoyed it. We got some great reactions to it. Reviews were almost unanimously positive and we didn’t expect that because we thought people in the world we live in now want to take a shot at this idea or take a shot at Jim or take a shot at President Clinton. But they evaluated the book on their merits and almost unanimously the reviews were positive which made everybody very pleased.
Meg Steenberg: Well, in addition to the authors, you also play a role in reality tv. I would say you’re probably at or near the forefront of that. You’ve been named one of the top 100 most influential individuals in the entertainment industry. You worked with so many. You creat4ed ideas and opportunities for your clients in that field and you know, whether you bring it to them, they bring it to you. How did that come to you and how have you seen it change over the course of time?
Robert Barnett: You’re too kind because i don’t do that much of it but I have loved the things I’ve done. The Hollywood world is really to a large degree the province of the agents because you’ve got to be out there, you got to meet with the producers and i live in Washington. So, the projects I’ve done have been discreet and come about really because of who I represent. As you well know, I did Sarah Palin’s Alaska which at the time was the most successful reality show in this in the history of discovery. We did that with Mark Burnett. Most recently, I helped put together the deal for the documentary Hillary, which ran on Hulu, which was nominated for an Emmy and was produced by Propagate and directed by Nanette Burstein and that was just a wonderful project. It used behind the scenes footage and very skillful interviews by Nanette to tell the story of that campaign from behind the scenes and we know all the way back to the war room, which was the story of the Clinton campaign, Stephanopoulos, Carville and president Clinton back in ’92. The people are interested and not just what they see on cable or what they have reported in the Washington Post, but what really it’s like and this documentary is Hulu documentary, I recommend it to everyone of whatever you think of Hillary’s politics, whatever you think of the campaign. It’s a fascinating look at how these things work and also a very interesting portrait of a woman who’s had enormous influence on American political history, on women candidates and on the landscape as we see it. So, that’s been my most recent foray. And then there have been some other one-offs but Hollywood, I don’t want to live there, I’m happy in DC.
Meg Steenberg: Well, thank you for that. We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors.
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Meg Steenberg: And thank you and today we’re here with Bob Barnett, senior partner at Williams & Connolly in Washington DC. what’s been the most difficult legal issue for you to handle or maybe even one that you have refused to handle?
Robert Barnett: The most difficult ones are the ones that you’ll never hear about and that I won’t talk about today because they present situations that are private and that are threatening and that you try to resolve in a private way. Sometimes those are grand jury investigations and threaten prosecution, sometimes those are allegations of private behavior, sometimes they’re in the political context, sometimes they’re in the corporate context, those are really hard. Speaking generically though, not specifically, it’s always the criminal case that’s the criminal case, that’s the hardest because your liberty is at stake and your reputation’s at stake and just about everything you’ve built is at stake and often you find people in these circumstances who have led pretty sheltered lives and pretty good lives.
And they for whatever reason and sometimes it’s their own behavior and sometimes it’s an overzealous prosecutor, they find themselves and their family and those around them and their businesses in incredible jeopardy. And those are the hardest and those are the ones you stay up nights worrying about. Most of the things that have come my way, I’ve tried along again with my variable partners and associates, they don’t do much of this alone, I’ll tell you that, to figure out the facts, to figure out the defenses or in the case of the civil case, the rejoinders and try to bring them to bear in the forum. Sometimes it’s an arbitration, sometimes a grand jury, sometimes it’s a court, sometimes it’s just a negotiation with an employer or a board of directors. These things can come up in so many contexts but again you try to use those skills that I mentioned that law students should focus on during their time in law school, which are the ability to research, find out both the facts and the law, the ability to write because so much of it is still written presentation particularly in the context of the virus and finally to advocate. And advocate can be one-on-one, it could be one on twelve, it could be one on a thousand. Sometimes you’re talking to a judge, sometimes you’re talking to a jury, as I say, sometimes to an employer. But the ability to marshal the facts and then research and the law and present them persuasively and cogently is the best you can acquire and it’s transferable again almost whatever you do with your law degree.
Meg Steenberg: What would you name as the biggest threat to our legal system today?
Robert Barnett: That’s a hard one. I think that some of the judges that have been appointed are — you know, my politics are not necessarily to my taste. I am hopeful that once they get that life tenure and they put on the robe, they’ll dispense with their political inclinations whether they’re appointed by republican or a democrat, but i worry about some. I think that because of the saturation media coverage that we’re all living through from 24-hour cable to everybody having a podcast, to everybody having a blog, to everybody having emails to comments on news stories that it will become harder and hard for the finder of fact whether it’s a judge or a jury or in a private negotiation to get the truth without being influenced by all these powerful presences that surround us these days. So that worries me. I wish the legal system could operate as unimpaired as possible while I know that that’s a difficult challenge.
Meg Steenberg: This next question I’m going to ask you because I would ask a woman. How would you and how did you continue to balance that work-life balance that everybody needs to have?
Robert Barnett: Yeah, it’s very hard. It’s hard for women, it’s hard for men. I’m married as you know to a television news correspondent with an amazing career that’s still ongoing. I travel every week for Chile, every week, not right now, but during normal days and we have a marvelous daughter who’s now 42 with three kids of her own but when she was growing up, we tried very hard to not be both out of town at the same time. We tried to alternate when we were away whenever that was possible. We also had just the most wonderful nanny from birth to college and couldn’t have survived without her and her support and her love for our daughter. we also took Meredith with us a lot particularly before she started full-time school. She had i think by the time she was four, she had 50,000 frequent flyer buyers on what was then the Eastern Airlines and whenever we would go somewhere where we had a relative, we had a friend who she could visit while we were doing our business in that city, we took her with us and so she was a traveler right from the beginning. That’s not easy for everybody, I know that. We were very fortunate to be able to do that. But it’s very tough and it’s so tough right now with the challenges of virtual schooling and the challenges of masks and the challenges of social distancing, it’s just incredibly difficult right now to make that balance. We at our firm have been, I think, extremely good about recognizing these challenges, taking them into account, giving people the time they need, and the freedom they need and I hope other employers, law firms and otherwise are doing the same. I know many of the corporate clients I worked with have just been marvelous in terms of helping adjust to the new realities and my hope is someday we’ll get by this and get back to regular life.
But the whole question of work-life balance has been with us forever and I fear will be with us forever. But i think people particularly in the challenging time we’re in right now are becoming both more aware of it and more tolerant, understanding and productive in face of those challenges.
Meg Steenberg: What advice do you have for law school students? I know that you clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White, that’s not the kind of opportunity that’s available for many. But do you recommend everyone searching that opportunity to clerk or do you — what’s the main piece of advice that you have for law school students?
Robert Barnett: It’s too hard to give generic advice. I guess my first would be what I said earlier, which is use this time to learn how to research, to learn how to write and learn how to advocate. Nothing’s more important to that. Take the classes that let you do that. I said that before, I say it again, I say it to every law student I meet with. In terms of clerkships, fabulous experience. I had the opportunity to work on the Fifth Circuit for Judge John Minor Wisdom in New Orleans. I had the opportunity as you said to clerk for Justice Byron Wright on the Supreme Court. But those aren’t to everybody’s taste. There are people who want to work in State Court, who want to work in the Federal District Court and learn trial, get trial court experience. There are a lot of judgeships, state and federal and there’s also administrative judges who take clerks and a law student should look for the type of experience that he or she thinks would be most beneficial to enhancing their education but also furthering their ultimate career and that doesn’t necessarily mean an appellate court clerkship it can be any one of many things. I think clerking is a wonderful experience. If you can get accepted and get one and it fits with your career trajectory and your financial abilities and everything, take it. You’ll not only build a relationship with a terrific person in the form of the judge but you’ll also experience what lawyers do, how the court systems work, what works and what doesn’t and so again if it fits your career, a clerkship is a great thing which I highly recommend I was blessed with two terrific clerkships.
Meg Steenberg: What advice would you give yourself if you were in law school today?
Robert Barnett: Become a high school English teacher in Waukegan, Illinois and have a better life. No, I’m kidding. That’s what I thought I line to do actually, but it’s hard because it’s so different than when I was there. I mean, we actually used law books. There were no computers. We actually shepardize things. I don’t think that term is even used anymore. It’s a whole different, it’s a whole different thing. I ran hiring at our firm for several years and kept very close touch with law students because they were applying for second year jobs and full-time jobs but I’ve graduated from that now and that’s now the responsibility of the younger generation. So, it’s hard for me to be much more specific than i’ve been with respect to law students because I’m so far removed.
Meg Steenberg: What kind of legacy is it important for you to live?
Robert Barnett: My daughter, my grandchildren and my wife. Family is more important than anything. If you get too tied up in law school or in your law practice and neglect the blessings of your parents and your grandparents and your spouse or significant other and your kids, that’s something you’ll regret. There’s nothing more important than that. Time spent with them is the most important time that I could ever spend.
Meg Steenberg: i will leave it at that. Thank you, Bob. It’s always such a treat to speak with you and thank you all for listening as well. I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast. I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on Apple Podcasts. You can also reach us on Facebook at ABA for Law Students and on Twitter @abalsd. That’s it for now. I’m Meg Steenberg. Thank you for listening.
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