WASHINGTON D.C. — Though she’s sitting in a cool, crisp conference room, perched high above the sultry concrete jungle of downtown Washington D.C., University alum Laurie Miller is very much in the thick of things.
As chair of power law firm Nixon Peabody’s government investigations and white-collar defense practice, Miller is charged with defending some of the nation’s most powerful and influential figures. Her clients have included multiple Congressmen, presidents of Fortune 500 companies and officials in both Bush administrations and the Clinton administration. But Miller isn’t much of a namedropper.
“I can tell if I’ve done a good job if nobody ever knows that my client is under investigation,” she said in an interview in late August.
When she’s not writing briefs or defending her clients’ good name in the courtroom, Miller finds other ways to get involved in the Washington scene. As co-chair of the National Women’s Forum for President Barack Obama, she held one of the first fundraisers for the then-senator from Illinois.
And after becoming president, Obama didn’t forget Miller. She was there when he announced his nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
Though Miller has been in Washington for more than 30 years, she wasn’t always a power broker. In fact, her rise to the top began with a letter to another University alum that she penned when she was a junior majoring in political science and French at the University.
“My Congressman at the time was the House (of Representatives) Minority Leader named Gerald R. Ford,” she said, reclining in a board room chair and sipping a can of Diet Coke. “And I wrote a letter asking for an internship.”
A few months later, Miller moved to Washington for the summer.
“I got hooked on it,” she said. “Washington was everything I had been hearing about and studying about in Ann Arbor.”
When she got back to the University in the fall, Miller continued to pursue her degrees and soon thereafter found out that her former boss was going to become a much larger player in American politics.
Carolyn Burgess, Miller’s roommate at the Delta Delta Delta sorority house, remembers sitting around the television with other girls in the house on an October night in 1973, when Spiro Agnew resigned from his post as vice president.
As the history goes, Ford replaced Agnew.
“My recollection was that (Miller) had had (Ford) write her reference letters. We all said ‘Oh my gosh, she’s got the U.S. vice president writing her reference letters,” Burgess said. “Typical Laurie just being herself, she had these amazing people that thought well of her.”
But Burgess added that she wouldn’t have expected anything less of Miller, who spent many of her nights staying up late in the Undergraduate Library.
“I’ve got some really stupid pictures of us horsing around the sorority house and she’s not in some of them because she was a more serious student,” Burgess said. “But she was never holier than thou about it. She just did what she did.”
Burgess said she can often remember Miller coming in to the sorority house with stacks of books in her hands and her red hair flying everywhere, and though she was frazzled she always had time to talk through problems with her friends.
Burgess added that Miller always takes the time to meet with her son, who lives in Washington, something that especially important to Burgess given that she lives in Australia.
“She just has a way with people,” Burgess said. “Most of our friends would tell you the same thing. No matter how busy she is, no matter how’s she’s risen in the Washington scene, she’s always made time for her personal friends.”
And her ease in communicating has helped her professionally as well. David Feldman, a partner at Nixon Peabody who has worked with Miller on countless cases said she’s just as comfortable talking about the Wolverines’ most recent football game as she is talking about a legal brief.
“She’s obviously incredibly smart and a terrific lawyer but I think what sets her apart from a lot of other people that you could say the same things about is that she has a really unique talent for making everyone on a team feel like they are an essential component of the team,” he said. “Laurie just has a knack for communicating in a way that makes everyone feel invested in the effort.”
Miller even got the chance to try out her communication skills overseas. She was chosen as one of 10 lawyers by the American Bar Association to travel to Sudan and train Sudanese lawyers to represent refugees from Darfur in the International Criminal Court.
During the process, Miller was adamant that all parties be able to talk with each other on the trip, despite language barriers.
“I insisted that we get interpreters because otherwise how would we to be able to communicate?” Miller said. “And ultimately I was pretty tenacious, probably stubborn was the better word for it.”
But even once interpreters were secured for the trip, Miller wasn’t satisfied because they would only be working with the group from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“What happens at breakfast? How do we talk to people if we have different languages,” she said. “I went down to Borders — a tradition from my Ann Arbor days — and I picked up Arabic tapes about three weeks before we went and played them non-stop in and out of work so at least when I was sitting down with people I could ask them how they were.”
In addition to representing the ABA on the trip, Miller is also the managing director of the group’s litigation section. Though she’s risen to prominence in the legal community — she was named one of the 50 most influential women lawyers by the National Law Journal — the law, her first love, has been her second career.
After graduating from the University in 1974, Miller relocated to Cambridge, Mass. to pursue a joint degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a law degree from Harvard Law School. But her dreams of becoming a lawyer were put on hold.
“The only really sad part of this entire story is that when I was at the Kennedy School my dad got very sick,” she said. “He had a heart attack, which he ultimately died from, but it meant that I didn’t have the resources to do a four-year degree.”
So Miller came back to Washington, and by then Gerald Ford had become president. She worked in a consulting firm for a couple of years until she was able to get a job in government, when Jimmy Carter was elected president.
She worked as a special assistant to Joseph Califano, the then-Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and a larger-than-life character. Eventually Miller became the deputy director of the United States Administration for Children, Youth and Families.
At 25, Miller was suddenly in charge of a $1.4 billion budget and 440 people.
“I would probably be terrified to take the job now, 30 years later, but at the time I didn’t know enough to be scared,” she said.
But Helen Kanovsky, the general counsel for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who worked with Miller during her time in the Carter administration, said Miller was wise beyond her years.
“As a policy person and as a manager she was superb,” she said. “And I got to say I’m shocked that someone as young as she was did as phenomenal a job as she did.”
Many of Miller’s friends and colleagues attribute her success to her unique mix of raw intelligence and unmatched sensitivity to the needs of others. But Miller said she owes much of her good fortune to the place where she spent many Football Saturdays and nights with her friends at the nearby watering hole, the Village Bell.
“My experience at Michigan was a fortunate one,” she said. “It was a gender-neutral series of opportunities and I’m not sure I really understood when I arrived in 1970 how lucky I was to be experiencing that. That comes on the backs of generations of women having to plow ground in order to give me those opportunities and I’ve felt pretty strongly ever since that I in turn have an obligation to other young women coming up.”
But it’s not just the University’s women that Miller tries to look out for. She’s the chair of the Michigan in Washington program and always makes herself available as a mentor to the students in the program.
“Michigan was very important to me,” she said. “My dad was a vegetable salesman. Michigan gave me all sorts of opportunities that I never would’ve had otherwise, it’s quite clear to me that it’s a debt I want to repay all my life.”