Bruce Ettelson, ’89, Offers Advice for Succeeding in Private Practice

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
April 12, 2013

Bruce Ettelson, ’89, a partner at Kirkland and Ellis, visited his alma mater with a straightforward but important message: Show up. No matter how smart you are, you’ve got to be present and work hard with a good attitude to make it in private practice.

“You can be really smart and you can get perfect grades from this amazing institution, and you can absolutely not move your career if you don’t do those things,” Ettelson said during his March 28 talk, titled, “More than Grades: Building a Successful Career in Private Practice.”

Ettelson, who leads Kirkland’s Private Funds Group, offered a list of practical but crucial advice that applies to any professional career.  For example: “Be on time. You show up late, you’re basically making the statement to everyone around you that your time is more important than theirs.” Also, substance matters in a document, but so does form. Make sure your spelling and usage is correct before you pass it up the chain. “Is it the partner’s job to proofread your document? No.”

Always send the message that you care, Ettelson said, through your behavior, attitude, and dress. Understand that “90 percent done” is not done at all, because you can’t deliver that to a client. Ask a lot of questions, and take a lot of notes. Speak up with confidence if you disagree. Prepare for last-minute hiccups on projects, beat deadlines, and be efficient, not a bottleneck. Be nice. And don’t forget the primary job of a young associate: “To make the more senior lawyer you’re working with look good and be good.”

Ettelson shared stories from his career as illustrations, including being a young associate with Jack Levin, Partner at Kirkland and Lecturer in Law, as a mentor. He recalled giving Levin a memo that the elder lawyer marked up so much that there was barely any white space left. Ettelson was mortified at the time, he said, but now he knows it’s a gift to be pushed to improve.

“When you start out, it’s good to be confident, but know what you don’t know,” Ettelson said. “Seek feedback. Take it well.” 

Speakers like Ettelson are extremely important for the Law School, Dean Michael Schill said.

“Many of our students will go on to careers in private practice, starting as associates and working their way into firm leadership,” Schill said. “It’s great to have someone who has made the journey so successfully, like Bruce, come back to share his wisdom with them.”

Michael H. Schill