Emily Nicklin, '77: Holding the Law School Dear through All of Her Success

Appeared in Record issue: 
Fall 2011

When Emily Nicklin, ’77, arrived at the Law School, it was to undertake a rare joint-degree  program—getting a bachelor’s degree as well as her JD. She had dropped out of the University of Chicago during her junior year to get married, but the Law School recognized her capabilities (she had, among other things, already been elected to Phi Beta Kappa) and gave her the opportunity.Her life and career have validated the Law School’s decision many times over.

Her studies began bumpily, but they were soon smoothed out by an “only at Chicago” experience. “I wasn’t really prepared for the rigors of the Law School when I first arrived,” Nicklin recalls. “I had figured I’d read a few cases and then curl up with some Swinburne, while also attending to my new marriage. It got pretty overwhelming pretty fast.” When the first quarter ended, she and some classmates asked Phil Neal—their Elements of Law professor who had recently stepped down from 12 years as dean of the Law School—whether he’d be willing to meet informally with them as a reading group to discuss various legal topics. Neal agreed, and the group met regularly for the next three years. “Phil Neal’s extraordinary generosity, so typical of the Law School faculty then and now, helped me become oriented to the law in a positive and exciting way,” Nicklin says. She earned her BA in her first year, graduated with membership in the Order of the Coif, clerked for two years, and then began her career as a litigator at Kirkland & Ellis, where she still is today.

Her virtuosity as a trial lawyer has been recognized by virtually every major legal publication: over the past 10 years, eight different publications have designated her as being at the pinnacle of her field. Those honors were capped off last year with her induction into the prestigious and exclusive American College of Trial Lawyers.

At the same time as she was compiling big wins in courtrooms around the country for clients that included Arthur Andersen, Navistar, Dow Corning, Morgan Stanley, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, she was raising her three children after her marriage ended. “The recognition I’ve received for my work means a lot to me,” she says, “but I feel like the Roman matron, Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, who was asked why she wasn’t heavily adorned with jewels like the other wives around her. She called her children to her and said, ‘These are my jewels.’” Nicklin’s son Max recently earned his own joint degrees, a JD from the Law School along with an MBA; Luke, with a University of Chicago master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies, is working at the White House; and Anna, a senior in the College, is an advanced student in Mandarin who has spent the past two summers in China, first through the University of Chicago and now through the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program.

Nicklin is a longtime trustee of the University of Chicago and of the University of Chicago Medical Center. At the Law School, she has been active in many ways, most recently as chair of the 2011 Law Firm Challenge. “The thumbprint of the University of Chicago is so strongly imprinted on my forehead that I’m sure you can see it from behind me,” she observes. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Law School, like the rest of the university, is devoted to rigorous inquiry and real-world impact. Its faculty and students are first rate; it prepares great lawyers and produces pathbreaking legal scholarship. I don’t believe there’s a law school in this galaxy, or even anywhere near this galaxy, that is comparable.”