Learning to Advocate: An Interview with Attorney Robert Barnett

Attorney Robert Barnett ('68)
(Photo by Jay Westcott/Politico)

Attorney Robert Barnett (’68), a partner at the Washington DC law firm Williams and Connolly, has represented major corporations before almost every executive department and administrative agency in Washington. He is also one of the premier authors’ representatives in the world, with clients such as Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tim Russert, Mary Higgins Clark, Khaled Hosseini and many others. But his work with books extends back to his years at Wisconsin, and he took the time to talk with us recently about the value of a UW education. 

So you graduated in 1968, and majored in English and history. How did you come to major in those two areas?

I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison because I wanted to attend a big school and also a wonderful, broad, liberal arts education. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. In fact, I still don’t. And so I was convinced that the best thing to do was to go to a school where there were almost limitless choices, and I had the good fortune of visiting Madison in September not February. That was, of course, encouraging because there are few more beautiful places than Madison in the spring and fall.

Once I got there, I was confronted with a big couple-hundred-page booklet—that I’m sure is now strictly online—that listed every course available, and I must say every course the human mind could imagine. I, of course, started with the basic freshmen requirements, but once I got beyond that and had the wonderful opportunity that Madison presents to pick and choose, I found that the courses in the English and history departments were the ones that attracted me most and that I ended up liking the most. That said, I also took art history and meteorology and a wide variety of other things but I kept being drawn back to the courses in English and history and to the amazing professors that I had the great privilege of experiencing

Any professors in particular?

I remember George Mosse—who, when I was there, was a person, not a building—who was one of the most amazing lecturers I had encountered and have ever encountered. I remember Professor Dessen who taught Shakespeare and who found a way to make you  not just experience Shakespeare but live Shakespeare. I’m sure I could delve back and find ten others.

What in the classes themselves or the ideas that you were engaging with in the English classroom kept drawing you back?

I was particularly engaged with English classes because they involved a whole variety of disciplines. They taught you great writing. They taught you history. They exposed you to the great ideas that our civilization has encountered. As an example, I never thought I would be particularly interested in a class on Milton. I found it to be one of the best courses I took. I never thought I would particularly enjoy late Victorian and early Edwardian poetry, but I still find myself, at my advanced age, coming back to some of the things that we read in that course. There was a universality and an educational element to the courses I took in the English department that intrigued me and kept drawing me back.

You mentioned the writing skills you gained as an English major. How have they translated into the legal writing you have to do for your work now?

I always advocate a broad liberal arts education. Whatever your career goals might be, I believe learning to research, to write, to advocate, and to negotiate. I thought that in the writing courses in the English department, starting with the basic English writing course, you learned how to express yourself in writing and how to advocate and how to illustrate. The basic skill of writing, which so many young people don’t seem to acquire now, stood me well in law school, stood me well in politics, stood me well in working at my law firm, because it’s a fundamental skill that you need to succeed in almost any profession you choose.

You also act as a legal advocate for writers?

I represent authors, mostly non-fiction writers, including three presidents, numbers 42, 43, and 44; journalists, such as Bob Woodward; but also fiction writers, such as James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, and Alex Berenson. I negotiate for them and help plan their rollouts.

And has your background in literary studies aided you in that work?

They don’t come to me to edit their books, but often they ask me to read their manuscripts, and I offer comments and am of course honored when the comments are accepted, so I suppose in that respect I help these writers. But I think, more importantly, the appreciation I gained, going back to grade school, the appreciation of books and literature has allowed me in my professional life, in the niche of doing some representation of authors, which is just a small part of my practice, to help foster what I hope is good writing and good literature.

You mentioned that it’s just a small part of your work. You also have helped with presidential debate practice?

Well, that’s not part of my legal practice, it’s political activity. I have worked on nine presidential campaigns, usually involving the debates. In helping prep candidates, I’ve played the adversary in rehearsals; I’ve negotiated the rules of the debate; and I have coached the candidates.

Given the active intellectual climate that you cultivate in your legal and political work, would you say that an intellectual curiosity has guided the way that you explore those roles?

Working at Williams & Connolly, we are confronted with legal problems that may arise in a myriad of contexts. One day, we’ll be working on a franchise dispute in the automotive industry. Another day, we’ll be working against a prosecutor in a grand jury context. Another time we’ll be strategizing how to pass legislation. Another time, we’ll be dealing with civil litigation between individuals and companies, or companies and companies, and, as you’re confronted with each new client and each new dispute, you learn a whole new industry, a whole new set of practices and rules.

When I was a young associate, a client came to us with a case under the Endangered Species Act, not something I studied in law school. And it involved the potential extinction of the fringe-toed lizard, and my partner and I had to learn the parameters of the Endangered Species Act, and the life and habitat of the fringe-toed lizard. And then we had to apply that knowledge to the dispute at hand. That obviously took some curiosity and some exploration and some research, and the nature of our practice here is such that we get those challenges everyday.

So I understand you also met your wife, Rita Braver, at UW?

Yes, we met on October 15, 1967, otherwise known as the luckiest day of my life. We had mutual friends who thought that we should meet, so we did, and I asked her to marry me on our first date. She declined. Not accepting rejection well, I didn’t ask again for five years and then she accepted.

And you both have stayed involved in the UW community?

Yes, we make it out to Madison to visit once or twice a year. We are on one of the Boards of Visitors. We often speak to students and classes. My wife gave the commencement some years ago, which meant giving it three separate times in the Field House, and so we have great affection and attachment to the school and the state.

And why did you feel it’s so valuable to stay involved in your undergrad community?

I really enjoy it. I hope I can convey some experience, a little bit of mentoring, a little bit of advice to young people. I hope I provide them with some value.

Do you have any particular advice that you offer to students?

Well, as I mentioned, I stress the importance of learning to research, to write, to advocate, and to negotiate. I also encourage them to take a wide variety of courses. I don’t really support being “pre-something,” but to explore the variety of courses that you have available to you. Some of the smartest people in my law class were music majors. And it may be the last chance you have to take an art history or a history course, to delve into Shakespeare, to explore all that life, culture and civilization have to offer.

Also, I always tell students to avoid saying “like” and “you know,” phrases that are rife amongst high school and college students. I don’t “like” and I don’t “know” so don’t tell me that I do. This is very specific advice, but it’s so important to talk like an educated person in order to gain respect and to convey your meaning clearly. I always know whether or not it applies to my audience, because those who say “like” and “you know” don’t laugh when I mention that.
I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.

To end on a lighter note, do you have a favorite book, or a book that you studied that had a major impact on you?

I’d say To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the very best of American literature, and of course the story arises in a legal context, which interests me. It features heroes and villains and the heroes prevail. And it also has some of the most beautiful writing in the English language. Also, in the classes I took, I developed an appreciation for American drama as a unique expression of our culture. There were a lot of courses at that time that involved reading plays and dissecting and discussing plays. Certainly my favorite is Our Town by Thornton Wilder, which is an expression of universality and the greatness of man, and has stood, to say the least, the test of time and has probably been put on by every high school in America.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.