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Loss, Hope and What She Wore

Vivia Chen

March 1, 2017

DunnKaren-webIf the election had turned out differently, Karen Dunn wouldn't be sitting at her desk at Boies Schiller Flexner in Washington. She'd be somewhere in the West Wing, at the red-hot center of the presidency.

Long-rumored to be Hillary Clinton's top choice for White House Counsel, Dunn is a Clinton insider who, along with Ron Klain, served as the Democratic nominee's debate coach for the presidential debates. At 41, Dunn has pretty much done it all for a lawyer in the fast lane of public service: associate counsel to President Barack Obama, assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, law clerk to Court of Appeals judge and Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland and Justice Stephen Breyer of the U. S. Supreme Court.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is that she lost her chance at leading the legal team at the White House. So what's life like now for the woman who might have had Don McGahn's job

Do you think where you'd be today if Hillary had won?
I don't have much to say about that. I haven't thought about what the elections means to me personally. We were disappointed and the result was very sad. I think of the election results globally—what kind of country we live in and what kind of roles we can play.

You were practically joined at the hip with Hillary during the final months of her campaign. Her loss must have been unbelievably personal to you. Have you recovered?
I wouldn't put it in recovery terms. I think Secretary Clinton would have made an incredible president. I've worked for her since I got out of college. One thing I learned from her is the power of resilience.

Do you ever think about what you could have done differently as Hillary's debate coach to turn the election around?
That's a hard question to answer. When you lose an election by 70,000 votes, it's not one thing but a thousand things that could have made the difference. Anything could have affected the outcome.

Are you totally jaded about politics? Did you do the Women's March?
I left D.C. and did not march. But I found the photos of the marches very moving, particularly the one from  Antarctica. Politics is always in the background. I wouldn't say I'm taking a hiatus. I'm in D.C., and it's a political community.

You are back at Boies Schiller, so is that your main focus now?
I've never stopped practicing. I was simultaneously doing my real job while I was doing the debate coaching. It's been a busy year. I had a newborn in December 2015 who's one now. I also had several important cases this past year, then I have three kids at home.

You worked on some splashy cases last year, including representing Oracle against Hewlett Packard. Plus, you're representing Apple and Uber. And you actually do trial work. It all sounds exhausting.
When I started at the firm, I was asked to do a two to three week trial in California. I had a doctor visit, and she was very concerned. She told me that sudden absences can traumatize kids in the "medical" sense. I thought at the time, wouldn't it be great if there were other women trial lawyers I could call who can assure me that my kids would be alright.

So did you do the trial?
I did. Subsequently, when I was six months pregnant with my third child, I did another trial, and I told the doctor that my kids were not traumatized. I love my job and I love my family, and these two parts coexist quite well.

You are someone who does it all: A big career and a growing family. But what would you say to people who say you're an intimidating role model?
I don't think that's for me to say. I know two things: It's hard and it's possible.To me, it's important to have living examples for younger women that you can do it.

Speaking of role models, I'm personally intrigued that you're petite—5'1"—my size. I remember someone once told me I shouldn't go into law because no one would be able to see me in court. Do you think being a small woman is a disadvantage in court?
Every woman I know has a story where someone says something discouraging. When I was training to be a prosecutor, I gave a presentation, and the guy in charge said, "It was excellent but you are so small that I can barely see you." I've learned to deal with it. I move around a lot, and I wear heels.

Like how high? Big platforms?
No. Nothing crazy.

Beside doing trials, what else are you involved in?.
Crisis management and government response. We help company executives deal with legal problems involving the government. I expect that in the coming years, I'll be working with those facing Congressional inquiries. The preparation for executives is not that different from debate preparation for politicians.

Sounds like you expect the Trump era to be good for business. But what about the future for women under the Trump regime?.
No matter who's president, I don't think you can arrest women's progress. Every year, there are increasing numbers of women who are partners, CEOs, office holders. You can't lead the country without taking women into account. Otherwise, you'd be missing something critical about the function of the country and our economy. That's the world we live in, regardless of party.

You sound more optimistic than I am. What do you tell your kids about Hillary's loss and what that means for the future?
Why wouldn't I be optimistic? Both my daughter and older son understood what was going on. They knew if Hillary had won, she'd be our first girl president. My daughter's reaction was that Hillary showed that it was possible. My daughter thinks she'll be president one day. And she's decided that her younger brother would be the vice president.




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I do wish Hilary had won, of course, and I think she handled the debates well. Her mastery of rhetoric (and I use this term in its old sense as "the art of persuasion") left something to be desired. Her constant use of the figure known as "point of opposition," frankly, drove me nuts. Then again, Obama charmed and persuaded a nation without EVER looking straight at the camera.

"Just sayin," but I have worked as a debate coach too in my time.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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