clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Stephen Carlson, Chicago lawyer who mentored Michelle Obama at Sidley Austin, dead at 70

‘I just treated Michelle as I would have anybody,’ he once wrote. ‘I regard it as simply what a Princeton gentleman should do to anyone who asks for his help.’

Attorney Stephen Carlson mentored generations of young lawyers at Sidley Austin, including Michelle Robinson, who would become Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States.
Attorney Stephen Carlson mentored generations of young lawyers at Sidley Austin, including Michelle Robinson, who would become Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States.
Provided

Stephen Carlson once told Barack Obama that he was responsible for his marriage to Michelle Obama.

The Chicago lawyer wasn’t a matchmaker. But Mr. Carlson mentored generations of young lawyers at Sidley Austin and had a role in the future first lady working for the firm, where she met the future president when he was a summer associate there.

It all started with a letter the litigator received around 1984 from a young Michelle Robinson, then a student at Princeton University.

She wrote Mr. Carlson, a fellow Princetonian, to ask whether Sidley “might have a summer job for a college student with an interest in the law,” according to the 2008 book “Michelle: a Biography.”

He responded that the firm hired only law students for those jobs but sent her the names of legal services organizations that might be hiring, author Liza Mundy wrote.

“Two years later, estimating that she would have graduated from college and might be in her first year of law school, he found Michelle’s Euclid Avenue address and sent a letter to her home, offering to talk to her about her prospects, if she had decided to pursue the law,” according to the book.

They met for lunch. Later, in her second year at Harvard Law School, Sidley hired her for a summer.

According to the biography, Mr. Carlson later recalled: “Somebody on our Harvard recruiting team came to me and said that this woman Michelle [Robinson] had said in part she was interested in talking to Sidley because Steve Carlson was so nice to her.”

Services were held last month for Mr. Carlson, 70, who died Sept. 21 from progressive supranuclear palsy, according to his wife Patricia.

He spent nearly 40 years at Sidley Austin. Among his highest-profile cases, he defended General Electric, United Airlines and McDonnell Douglas against negligence claims in the 1989 crash of a DC-10 in Sioux City, Iowa, in which more than 110 people died, according to Sara Gourley Euler, a retired partner with the firm.

He also defended a pharmaceutical company that used donated plasma to manufacture a blood-clotting product for people with hemophilia who, as a result of getting it, contracted AIDS.

“More important than the kinds of cases he worked on, he loved to be a teacher,” Euler said. “He always loved to work with brand new lawyers.”

He was known for leaving “excruciatingly long voicemail messages to the associates he was working with, often in the middle of the night, about what legal strategies we should pursue,” said Eugene A. Schoon, another former colleague. “He never stopped thinking about the cases he was working on.”

Though “a brilliant trial lawyer,” he had a homespun demeanor that endeared him to juries, former colleague Hugh A. Abrams said.

“He had that kind of rumpled nerd look,” he said. “He wasn’t a slickster.”

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was in town, Mr. Carlson took him to baseball games.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (right) said of his friend Stephen Carlson, “The last time we got together was during a trip to Chicago when we took in a White Sox game.”
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (right) said of his friend Stephen Carlson, “The last time we got together was during a trip to Chicago when we took in a White Sox game.”
Provided

“Steve and I were friends for nearly 50 years, going back to our college days, when we were both on the debate panel” at Princeton, Alito said by email. “The last time we got together was during a trip to Chicago when we took in a White Sox game. I like to keep in mind the image of that sunny afternoon with Steve and [his wife] Pat. I will miss him very much.”

Mr. Carlson believed in “the little things you can do about being nice to other people and not pushing them down as you are on your way up,” his wife said. “Even reaching out to Michelle Obama, he had no idea when he helped her she would become such an important person.”

“I just treated Michelle as I would have anybody,” Mr. Carlson once wrote. “I regard it as simply what a Princeton gentleman should do to anyone who asks for his help.’’

He also played a role in the career of attorney Erika Harold, the 2018 Republican Party nominee for Illinois attorney general.

Harold said that, at Sidley, “We were working on a large intellectual property arbitration together, and, when it came time to depose the most important person, he insisted I be given the opportunity to do it. He knew it would help me gain in experience.

“He used to say, ‘Time’s up; pencils down,’ ” Harold said. “That was his mantra to remind us that, once we had given our best to a case or a project, we had to move confidently forward.”

Stephen Carlson with his three daughters in Greece. He loved Greek history and culture.
Stephen Carlson with his three daughters in Greece. He loved Greek history and culture.
Provided

Mr. Carlson often spoke of his wife and three kids with pride. To young lawyers, that conveyed how important it is to have a life outside the office and the immense satisfaction that could bring, Harold said.

Born in Minneapolis, Mr. Carlson’s family moved to Lake Forest when he was in his teens. He graduated from Lake Forest High School. He met his wife at Princeton, where both were on the debate team.

One day, “As we were crossing the street,” she said, “he grabbed my hand.”

Patricia and Stephen Carlson.
Patricia and Stephen Carlson.
Provided

He joined Sidley in the mid-1970s after graduating from Yale Law School.

The Carlsons raised their family in Dearborn Park. He’d been planning to live in the suburbs, his wife said, but realized Dearborn Park “would be a 20-minute walk, as opposed to an hour-plus on the train.”

Every October, when he heard the oom-pah-pah music outside the Berghoff restaurant, Mr. Carlson organized groups of lawyers to attend its Oktoberfest celebrations.

One time at Christmas, he walked past a house that had a basket outside offering free candy canes.

“Steve began putting candy canes in the basket,” his son-in-law Robert Demke said in a eulogy. “He got a kick out of imagining the family discovering — a little perplexed — that the basket was refilling on its own. He left them candy canes for years.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Carlson is survived by his daughters Susan and Julie and Elizabeth Wolicki, his sisters Sue and Melanie Day, his brother Richard and four grandchildren.

He loved Shakespeare and poetry.

A few years ago, Mr. Carlson and his wife made a pilgrimage to the Wisconsin cemeteries that held his ancestral relatives. At each grave, he stood and read a passage from George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”:

“. . . .for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”