Michelle Obama: Career Changes Over the Years

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Becoming" by Michelle Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why did Michelle Obama give up her high-paying job as a corporate lawyer? How did Michelle’s relationship with Barack influence this decision?

At 26, Michelle Obama was on track to become an equity partner at her corporate law firm. She was career-driven and disinterested in relationships. However, when she met the new summer associate, Barack Obama, everything changed. They started dating and Michelle started to question her career path.

Keep reading to learn about Michelle Obama’s major career changes.

Michelle Obama Rethinks Her Law Career

In the summer of 1990, Barack returned to Chicago as a summer associate at a different law firm and moved into Michelle’s apartment in her parents’ house. This gave Marian, Fraser, and Barack a chance to get to know each other. But he soon returned to Cambridge to attend to his duties as president of the Harvard Law Review. Barack was the first African-American to hold this position. 

Michelle realized that Barack’s future looked bright and bold while hers seemed lackluster. She felt serious doubts about her choice of career. Practicing corporate law held little meaning for her. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, and she felt somewhat intimidated by Barack’s confidence that he was ready to make a difference in the world. She started writing in a journal to sort through her confusion. 

Michelle considered her options: She thought perhaps she might like teaching, working for a nonprofit, or helping kids. She wondered if she could pay her bills if she abandoned her high-paying job. When she discussed her dilemma with her mother, Marian told her to focus on making money while she was young and worry about being happy later. Michelle wasn’t surprised by her advice: The Robinson family had always emphasized practicality. 

Swerving Off the Law Career Track

Losing her best friend and her 55-year-old father served as a wake-up call for Michelle, reminding her that life was precariously short. It was time to make what she calls “the first real swerve of my life.” At 26 years old, she no longer wanted to follow her lifelong path of high-profile achievement. 

Michelle sought advice from anyone who might know what job would suit a lawyer who didn’t want to practice law. She thought she might want to work in public service, so she began sending resumes to nonprofits, foundations, and universities all over Chicago.

An acquaintance introduced her to Valerie Jarrett, the deputy chief of staff for the Chicago mayor’s office. Like Michelle, Valerie had worked at an elite law firm but quickly realized the legal profession wasn’t her calling. Valerie offered Michelle a job as an assistant to Mayor Richard M. Daley.  

Michelle believed that Valerie would be an excellent mentor. But she was also skeptical about working in politics, especially at Chicago’s City Hall. And she was worried about taking a huge pay cut—the new job would pay only half of her current salary. 

Before she could accept the job, she wanted Barack to meet Valerie. Michelle and Barack had recently become engaged, and she didn’t feel comfortable making a decision of this magnitude without his input. 

New Job and Life Partner

Barack met Valerie and encouraged Michelle to accept the job at City Hall. Although everyone in her family thought she was crazy to give up her high-paying law job, Barack insisted that if she followed her heart and her principles, everything would work out. Meanwhile, Barack had accepted a position in a Chicago public interest law firm. He also had a contract and a large advance from a New York book publisher who wanted him to write a book about race and identity.

To celebrate their engagement, the couple journeyed to Nairobi and visited Barack’s relatives. Michelle was amazed by her first trip to Africa, a land completely different from anything she’d known. Barack’s grandmother Sarah welcomed them to the family’s ancestral home, and neighbors and friends came by to meet Barack’s bride-to-be. 

Career at Chicago City Hall and Newlywed Bliss

Michelle’s work at City Hall was completely different from that of being a corporate lawyer. She enjoyed public service, she liked learning about Chicago’s inner workings, and she had the benefit of two female mentors who were both working mothers. They wielded their power skillfully at work but dropped everything if their children needed them. Michelle realized this was the kind of mother she wanted to be.  

The newlyweds settled comfortably into married life. They purchased and moved into a Hyde Park condo, and their days were relatively happy and uneventful. After two years at City Hall, Michelle was offered a leadership role at a nonprofit, and she made another career leap.

Michelle Obama: Career Changes Over the Years

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michelle Obama's "Becoming" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Becoming summary:

  • How Michelle Obama went from the South Side of Chicago to the White House
  • Why much of her success came from her being determined from a young age
  • How Michelle Obama continues to push herself and discover new opportunities

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