LITTLE ROCK -- In the spring of 1975, Hillary Rodham was a legal unknown, a college professor with Northern ways and owlish glasses who had the audacity to appear before Arkansas Bar executives with a request: She wanted money for a legal aid clinic.
Little did she realize that the 25 lawyers in the audience already had decided not to give her any.
Then again, they hadn't heard Ms. Rodham speak. With the logic of a lawyer and the zeal of a missionary, she delivered an eight-minute speech that won over her jury. She left with a $10,000 pledge for a clinic at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Bar members walked away, from one account at least, asking a vexing question: Who is that woman?
"She came in and marshaled her strong points like a general," recalls U.S. District Judge William Wilson, who attended the meeting. "I leaned over to the guy next to me and, to use a phrase that the Baptists use in western Arkansas when they describe a preacher they like, I said, 'That woman's got a good mouth on her.' "
Now perhaps more than ever, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton may need that eloquence to defend herself.
With Senate hearings expected and special counsel Robert Fiske delving into Whitewater -- a shaky land deal the Clintons made with business partners James and Susan McDougal in 1978 -- Mrs. Clinton has become the center of a legal and political minefield.
Questions abound about the Clintons' involvement in the real estate development in the Ozark Mountains and their relationship with the McDougals, former owners of Madison Guaranty, a failed savings and loan now under investigation.
Probably most damaging to Mrs. Clinton has been the accusation of a possible conflict of interest in representing Mr. McDougal before a state banking regulator appointed by her husband.
After having carefully crafted her image as '90s-style first lady and health care reformer, Mrs. Clinton, 46, now finds the spotlight on another chapter of her life -- her 20-year career as a lawyer.
In the clannish world of Arkansas law, where judges, lawyers and moneyed business executives frequently trade barbs over the buffet table at the private Capital Club, this much is clear: Hillary Rodham Clinton was a bright, capable and articulate lawyer.
'A top-notch litigator'
U.S. District Court Judge Henry Woods, one of the most respected legal minds in the state, says: "People were not anxious to cross swords with her. She was a top-notch litigator. . . . If I needed legal representation, she would have been my first choice."
But in a city with nearly 2,000 lawyers, she faced stiff competition to be among the elite -- and her legal standing may have been more mystique than reality.
Patrick Goss, a lawyer in the firm of Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, says: "She had a reputation as a smart lawyer. . . . But to say that Hillary was head and shoulders above others in town is not true."
A partner in the city's prestigious Rose Law Firm, Mrs. Clinton specialized in labor and litigation, although she rarely appeared in court.
It's difficult to find people who recall cases that distinguished her career, although the National Law Journal named her one of the country's 100 most influential lawyers in 1988 and 1991. Her handling of copyright disputes, divorces and commercial cases rarely brought headlines or even received much notice in the Daily Record, the city's business journal.
"I don't recall her being a big player," says Charles Heinbockel, editor of the paper.
On the other hand, there's a saying in the legal profession: "A good lawyer keeps his client out of court." Mrs. Clinton had success at that.
When she did appear in court, though, she was a formidable rival. Known for meticulous trial notebooks that were typed, indexed and proofread, she did her homework and thought quickly on her feet.
Using her strengths
"She's always known how to use her strengths and hit you in your weakness," says Mr. Wilson.
"She's got that jugular-vein instinct in the courtroom. She can deliver the coup de grace."
Mr. Wilson has first-hand knowledge of this. Mrs. Clinton represented his first wife, Jo Luck Cargile, during their divorce proceedings in 1981.
"When it came time to divorce, I thought, 'Who will I ever ask to represent me in this state against this man who's so respected?'" recalls Mrs. Cargile. "Then I thought, 'Hillary's the one.' "
Not long after the divorce, Mr. Wilson received a call from a Rose partner who was running for the school board and wanted to put up a sign in his yard.
"I told him, 'A year ago I had a yard, but Hillary took it away from me,' " Mr. Wilson says.
Yet in the well-mannered South, being blunt and female -- even in the world of law -- didn't always mix. Mrs. Clinton, who went by Ms. Rodham until it upset so many Arkansas voters that it became a political liability for her husband, was sometimes out of sync.
"She wasn't rude, but she got right to the point," recalls Mrs. Cargile. "There was none of this jockeying with "Oh, hi. How are you?' People weren't sure if they were comfortable with that. To have a woman come in who was very businesslike and very direct and so intelligent was intimidating."
At times, that bluntness verged on anger.
"She lost her temper with me a few times," Mr. Wilson says of the days they worked as co-counsel on cases. "She didn't think I was getting to the point quickly enough. She doesn't suffer fools lightly. But it wasn't anything that lawyers don't have to put up with regularly. We're a contentious bunch."
In a city in which most lawyers received their law degrees from the University of Arkansas, Mrs. Clinton's Ivy league background elicited both respect and suspicion.
After earning degrees at Wellesley and Yale Law School, she moved to Washington in 1974 and became a staff attorney with the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment investigation of Richard Nixon. (Her mentor there, Bernard Nussbaum, became the White House counsel and recently resigned over Whitewater.)
Although she entertained offers from Washington law firms, she moved to Fayetteville, Ark., to be near Bill Clinton, whom she married in 1975. They taught at the University of Arkansas Law School, where they stood out in the white-haired professorial crowd. At school social functions, they were sometimes mistaken for students.
In 1977, they moved to Little Rock after Mr. Clinton was elected attorney general.
Mrs. Clinton accepted a $40,000-a-year job at Rose.
With its simple red brick facade, the Rose Law Firm looks more like a schoolhouse than a power base.
In a third-floor corner office, Mrs. Clinton honed her legal skills while forming deep, and now controversial, friendships with Rose partners Vincent W. Foster Jr., the White House adviser whose suicide is under investigation by the Whitewater special counsel, and Webster Hubbell, the former Justice Department official who resigned last week over allegations that he overbilled clients at Rose.
A delicate situation
From the beginning, Mrs. Clinton had to walk a delicate line between being a lawyer and politician's wife. Shortly after being hired, rumors surfaced that she was handed the job because she was the wife of Bill Clinton, then attorney general.
Once Mr. Clinton was elected governor and she became the first female partner in the firm, Mrs. Clinton said that she would defer any Rose profits from state business to avoid a potential conflict of interest. But she still earned a sizable salary -- reportedly $150,000 in 1990 -- that made her the breadwinner in the family. (While Mr. Clinton was governor, his annual salary was $35,000.)
Some say the very fact that the governor's wife was in the firm gave it an unfair advantage in luring clients and state business.
"A few people would say that the Rose Law Firm was married to [Governor] Clinton," says George Wells, who has covered courts for several newspapers in town.
"And there were businesses that thought it was to their advantage with the state to go with Rose," Mr. Wells continues.
"But no one in the firm that I know of ever solicited business based on the governor's wife being a partner there."
Although Mrs. Clinton was a full partner, her career was curtailed by her husband's political aspirations. Her caseload was lighter than other partners' so she could serve on panels dealing with women and children as well as spearhead the state's education-reform initiative.
Mrs. Clinton sat on prestigious boards around the state, including those of Wal-Mart and TCBY Enterprises Inc., a yogurt franchise.
She also wanted to have sufficient time with their daughter, Chelsea. Mrs. Clinton was known to end meetings abruptly to catch Chelsea's softball games.
"She always had too much on her plate," says Steve Engstrom, Little Rock lawyer who has worked with and against Mrs. Clinton on cases.
"She thrived on it, but when you have to juggle 20 balls it's difficult to meet your potential," Mr. Engstrom said.
Using unusual methods
At Rose, Mrs. Clinton developed the firm's "intellectual property" practice, an esoteric aspect of the law dealing with copyright infringement and the ownership of ideas. Some colleagues say she took these cases after many lawyers dodged them.
Others believe that they allowed her to practice law and avoid the spotlight.
Trying these cases sometimes involved unusual measures.
In a 1986 case, her client, Maybelline Co., alleged that Noxell Corp. was competing unfairly by contending its mascara was waterproof. When a researcher with decades of experience couldn't testify in person, Mrs. Clinton won permission to let the witness appear in the oak-paneled courtroom over closed-circuit television, a first in the state and one of the first times this technology was used in the country.
The testimony proved instrumental in helping Mrs. Clinton win.
But whether Mrs. Clinton, the tenacious lawyer from Little Rock, can now win the most important case of her life -- Whitewater -- remains to be seen.