Tina Tchen, CEO of Time’s Up and former Chief of Staff for Michelle Obama, recently discussed her impressive career with MSBA President Mark Scurti as part of the 2021 Legal Summit. Ms. Tchen’s interest in the law developed when she worked for the Illinois state government after she graduated from college, during a time in which people were trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. She quickly learned that all of the interesting work in terms of public policymaking and drafting new legislation was being done by attorneys. This inspired her to enroll in law school at Northwestern University. Rather than going back into the public sector upon graduation, she embraced her love of litigation and eventually joined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Ms. Tchen left Skadden after twenty-three years, and in a seemingly unlikely shift, began working as Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff, a role she kept for eight years. She noted that her prior “extra-curricular” activities outside her actual job, such as work with the bar association, the Chinese-American community, and the gender equity community allowed her to develop the relationships that helped her transition from one position to another, including a friendship with President Barack Obama.
After Ms. Tchen left the White House in 2017, she joined Buckley Sander, where she created the corporate culture practice group. Shortly after she joined the firm, news regarding Harvey Weinstein broke, and she was inundated with work from firms that needed to address sexual harassment issues. Around the same time, she helped create Time’s Up and put together its legal defense fund. She stayed involved with the organization and in 2019 was recruited to become its CEO. She believes this is a critical moment for helping create workplaces that are safe for everyone, especially people of color and women.
One of the high points of Ms. Tchen’s career occurred when she was working as the Special Assistant Attorney General of Illinois and had the opportunity to argue a case in front of the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled 7-2 in her favor in an opinion issued by Chief Justice Rehnquist. The case, Suter v. Artist M., dealt with the question of whether there was a private right of action to sue state agencies for failing to make “reasonable efforts” to avoid the need for foster care placement, or to reunify families after a child has been placed. Ms. Tchen noted that she was an associate working on the matter, and sat second chair, but was given the opportunity to argue the case at the Supreme Court by a partner who believed in helping younger attorneys to develop their skills.
When Ms. Tchen began her legal career, there were few female Asian attorneys, which resulted in challenges along the way. She was often overlooked in meetings regarding cases but waited until she was presented with opportunities to show that her presence was valuable and her input was necessary to make her voice heard, rather than addressing such slights at the outset and taking them personally.
Ms. Tchen noted that two of the communities Time’s Up aims to help, people of color and women, have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. She stated this is largely due to structural barriers, including the lack of a national paid or sick leave policy, the lack of a national childcare network, or eldercare services. Further, the caregiving workforce has never been recognized by the people who create fair labor standards. As a result, we do not have enough people in the industry to meet current demands for caregivers, which is a crisis Time’s Up is working to address.
The cost of legal representation is a significant barrier to justice in and Time’s Up has a legal fund that helps women tell their stories and fight their battles in the courts. Ms. Tchen explained that these funds are critical to combat threats of defamation lawsuits from the often rich and powerful men who are called out for sexual harassment and assault by women. It enables women who often lack the means to bring lawsuits against their harassers to seek justice via the courts as well. They also have a large team of volunteer attorneys who are critical to their efforts. Ms. Tchen urged women who are interested in volunteering their legal services or who are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace to visit the National Women’s Law Center or to text JOIN to 30644 to obtain more information from Time’s Up.
The discussion with Ms. Tchen will be available on the MSBA website.