Exclusive Interview with William T. Russell, Jr.
Bill Russell represents financial institutions, private equity sponsors, corporations and other businesses in a wide variety of commercial disputes. He focuses on banking litigation, bankruptcy and reorganization matters, securities litigation, and transactional disputes, and has tried cases in state and federal courts as well as in arbitral proceedings. Bill is a member of the American Law Institute and serves as a Panel Chair on the Disciplinary Committee for the First Judicial Department. He regularly co-authors a column on the New York Court of Appeals for the New York Law Journal.
BT (Grace Guan): What was your journey like towards being a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP?
Russell: When I was at Princeton, I always thought about going to law school, but I hadn't completely made up my mind. I had some other potential plans, but I blew out my knee playing rugby my senior year. I needed to be in the U.S., near a place where I could do physical therapy, so I decided to do law school. I worked at another firm over the summer, joined my current firm after law school, and went [to my current firm] expecting to spend only two or three years there. I didn't think I would like working at a large NYC law firm that much. I had heard horror stories about long hours and uninteresting work. I was pleasantly surprised. I did enjoy the work. I still thought, though, that I'd leave after a few years to do something more fun. However, I was working on a large case, and all of the people left except me, so I was the one person left who knew all the facts. I didn't feel right about leaving the firm while that case was still pending.
After I had been at the firm for 3.5 years, the case settled. I said, now I can look for another job. For a month or two, I was kind of depressed, because I couldn't figure out what to do. Did I want to go to a smaller law firm, international, to another company? It was like in the cartoons when a lightbulb goes off over someone’s head. Even though I had thought about leaving after 2-3 years, I thought that I liked my job. The work is hard, but the fact that’s challenging makes it interesting. Clients don't come to us with easy cases. The clients come to us with hard cases. That makes it interesting. Also, I love the people. People junior to me; people senior to me. They are all terribly smart, ethical, and they all have a great sense of humor. Because of all of this, I stayed in and tried to make partner. After years, I've made partner, and I've been here ever since. Working as a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP has been my only real job in my entire life besides landscaping and summer internships. I am 52 years old, and I am still on my first job.
BT: What are some challenges that you've faced with this job?
Russell: Some of the challenges are, being a lawyer, it's a client service. Clients don't always have problems arise between 9 in the morning and 6 at night. Occasionally you get calls and emails over the weekend, late at night, with a crisis that you have to deal with for your client. As a lawyer, you're expected to work pretty hard, and if you have a trial coming up, or a hearing, you have to do what it takes to get the job done and do the best job for the client. That can sometimes conflict with your personal life. The whole thing is balancing your professional life and your family life. There are times when there is an important family event, and that has to come first, and you have to schedule around it; there are times when there is just something very important for a client and you've got to miss a family event. Balancing that is one of the hardest aspects.
BT: I think that advice is really applicable for all undergrads. What was your background going into all of this law?
Russell: I majored in politics at Princeton (BA), and I got a certificate in East Asian Studies. I originally thought about when I was in law school working as a lawyer with a practice involving East Asia, but I also really wanted to be a litigator. Those two things were not compatible. If you have to do a lawsuit in Tokyo, you hire a Japanese lawyer, not an American lawyer. I really wanted to pursue my interest in East Asia but also the kind of law that I really wanted to practice. I decided to be a litigator because that is ultimately what I really enjoyed. Unfortunately, I was unable to have a professional practice in East Asia.
BT: What were your favorite classes at Princeton and which classes were the most applicable to what you do today?
Russell: The nice thing about being a lawyer is that anything you study is useful. So, obviously, I took a lot of history and politics courses, some English courses, and those are great, because they teach you how to write well, how to analyze issues and explain them well, but I work with lawyers who were science majors, and they learned a lot about problem solving, with engineers and people from technical backgrounds, they learn how to analyze an issue and come up with a solution. People with classics majors learn how to read and write well. There is no set curriculum that you need to go to law school. You can really take any course of study and find something useful as a lawyer. That being said, I enjoyed my political science courses. I took a great course on Chinese Politics, and as a freshman took a 300 level course on Soviet Politics.
BT: Do you have any general advice for undergrads going into what you are doing?
Russell: Certainly not with respect to a course for study. I think that my advice to undergraduates is if you want to go onto graduate school, law school: to work hard while you're in college, but also don't lose sight of the fact that Princeton is an incredibly special place, and you should enjoy your four years there. Take the opportunity to try different things, even if you know you want to be a history major, take some art or music classes, or some science classes. If you are an engineer, take a literature class. Take advantage of everything you can that Princeton has an offer. It's rare that you get that opportunity again in life to pick and choose from so many different options.