The White House State Dinner that President Barack Obama hosted on Tuesday night in honor of President François Hollande of France featured quite the convocation of legal eagles. As we mentioned yesterday, attendees included such law-world luminaries as Justice Elena Kagan, Secretary Jeh Johnson, and ATL’s reigning Lawyer of the Year, Roberta Kaplan.
Say what? Did the Obama White House get Salahi’d again?
Actually, no. The Ballews came as honored guests of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Because the Obamas have had so few state dinners, invitations to the ones they do host are in especially high demand. How did two recent law school graduates score one of the most coveted invites in the country? I interviewed the Ballews to find out….
Caleb Ballew, 28, is a graduate of UVA and the University of Mississippi School of Law (aka Ole Miss Law). He’s an associate at Martinson & Beason, a small law firm in Huntsville, Alabama, where he focuses his practice on litigation, mostly criminal defense and family law. Kourtney Ballew, 29, is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Ole Miss Law. She’s an associate, handling criminal defense, family law, and administrative law cases, at another small firm in Huntsville, Hodges Trial Lawyers (which has a great domain name, by the way — NotAnAccident.com).
The Ballews graduated from Ole Miss Law in 2010 — a time when the legal job market was “not so good,” as some of you might recall. Neither Caleb nor Courtney had a full-time legal job when they graduated or when they passed the Alabama bar exam that fall.
“We both read Above the Law, and we know life is tough out there for young lawyers,” said Caleb. “We were no exception. Even though we had graduated with honors, moot court awards, and clinical experience, it was tough — the jobs weren’t out there.”
Near the end of 2010, out of financial necessity, the Ballews allowed Kourtney’s health insurance to lapse. She hadn’t had any major health issues up until that point, and they expected that it would be a temporary measure. But during that time period when she was uninsured, Kourtney got diagnosed with a medical condition that could require multiple — and expensive — surgical procedures. The Ballews explored various options for buying private insurance, but because Kourtney’s issue was classified as a pre-existing condition, the necessary surgeries would not be covered under these policies. They also couldn’t afford to wait it out; Kourtney’s doctor informed them that the surgeries needed to be performed immediately.
Luckily, as a result of health care reforms initiated by President Obama, Kourtney was able to avail herself of a government-run Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan. This allowed Kourtney to have her two surgical procedures — which went smoothly, thankfully — at a fairly minimal cost. Had the Ballews had to pay out of pocket for the surgeries, it would have been crippling. As Caleb put it, thanks to the president’s actions, “Kourtney and I avoided a serious medical emergency and potential financial ruin.”
In November 2012, shortly after President Obama won re-election, Caleb sent a heartfelt letter of gratitude to the president. In the letter, which Caleb described to AL.com as “a pretty emotional letter,” he congratulated the president on his reelection, praised him for delivering on his campaign promises, and thanked him for making such a huge difference in the Ballews’ lives.
The White House didn’t respond until January of this year, when Caleb received a thank-you letter with a stamped presidential signature. The delayed reply and the stamped rather than hand-signed signature didn’t bother Caleb: “They must get thousands of letters each year, so I thought this letter was great.”
Caleb viewed the correspondence as concluded — but that wasn’t the end of the White House response. On Monday, February 3, Caleb received an email inviting him to the State Dinner for President Hollande taking place on Tuesday, February 11. Pursuant to White House security procedures, the invitation asked Caleb and Kourtney to submit by email their full names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers, so background checks could be performed.
If a stranger asks you to email them your name, DOB, and SSN, you should be… suspicious. I asked Caleb: did you think it might be a scam?
“As a lawyer, I was initially skeptical,” he said. “But the email looked very legitimate and appeared to come from the White House. It included the phone number of the Social Secretary’s office, with a 202 area code, which we could call with questions. So I called the number and asked, ‘Was I really supposed to get this?’ After the phone call confirmation, I felt comfortable sending over our personal information.”
“I thought it was a scam,” said Kourtney. “Until we made it past White House security, I thought it was a scam!”
With the State Dinner a little over one week away, the Ballews had their work cut out for them. First, they had to figure out what to wear. Caleb had a tuxedo from college, “which fit okay, but it wasn’t ‘White House great’ — so I rented one.” He already had a good tuxedo shirt and all the other accoutrements.
Kourtney faced a greater challenge. “My wardrobe consists of suits I go to court in, and jeans and t-shirts,” she said. “I put up a Facebook post, not mentioning the reason, asking people for advice about finding a formal gown suitable for a black-tie event.” A friend clued her into Rent The Runway, a website that allows users to rent designer dresses. It was a godsend; Kourtney found a gorgeous gown by Monique Lhuillier, a favorite designer among Hollywood celebrities, which she rush-ordered.
“I rented a beautiful gown that I would never have been able to afford,” Kourtney said. “I ordered that one dress, in one size, and had to hope it would fit — and it did! Since the dinner was in honor of the French president, I thought a gown by a French designer would be perfect.”
(Ahem. As a Filipino American, I must point out that Monique Lhuillier is actually a fabulous Filipina. Although her father is of French descent, her mother is Filipina, and Monique was born and grew up in Cebu City, my mother’s hometown. Yay Filipinos!)
Second, the Ballews had to figure out how to get to Washington. They looked into flying but it would have been prohibitively expensive, so they decided to drive — about an eleven-hour trip. They both had to work on Monday, so they left Huntsville after work on Monday, stopped for the night in Bristol, Virginia, and finished the drive into D.C. on Tuesday.
And then they went to the White House State Dinner. What was that experience like?