Living (and Lawyering) the Liberal Arts

Jonathan Putnam [Senior Student '81] is a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, a global law firm with approximately 1,500 lawyers and offices in Europe, Asia, and North America. Practicing litigation and intellectual property law in Kirkland's New York City offices, Jonathan has been lead counsel in multiple jury and bench trials, and in 2007 was named one of "Litigation's Rising Stars" by The American Lawyer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Jonathan served as a summer associate at Kirkland in 1991 while still in law school and in 1993 accepted a first-year associate position with the firm. "I have an easy employment history," he says. "I started here in September 1993, and I'm still here."


Exploration Alumni: What kind of law firm is Kirkland?

Jonathan Putnam: There are lots of different law jobs. For many big firms, acheter viagra they're not really focused on going to trial. A typical, big New York City litigation practice, for example, represents banks and other financial institutions in securities litigation. Those sorts of cases almost never go to trial. Kirkland is unusual and arguably unique among the big firms in that we try a lot of cases. Our senior lawyers have to have the skills to try cases, if it comes to that.

EA: What skills does a good trial lawyer need? There's a public perception, I think, that trial lawyers are slick.

JP: If you're a really good lawyer, you'd like to think that you can take your side of the argument and the facts and win the case. And if it was flipped, you could take the other side's set of facts and arguments and win the case.

Jurors are very perceptive. We often have trials that last a month or so, and so jurors will see how the lawyer comports himself or herself for eight hours a day for a month. In that amount of time, you come to learn people very well -- not personally, but you learn their ticks.

EA: So jurors are judging the lawyers, you'd say, as much as they're judging the facts of the case?

JP: Typically, we represent corporate clients, so I and the other lawyers working with me become the company, become the personification of the company. You want to present the image in the courtroom that your client would want to present in the real world.

EA: Is that different based on the client?

JP: That's a good question. The answer is no, because jurors are also very good at spotting a phony. I don't have a folksy southern charm. If you present yourself in any way different than your true personality, it will not last. In other words, you don't want to get in the way of your advocacy.

EA: How often do you take a case that you don't believe in? Does that happen?

JP: Not really. If I felt like our client was not telling me the truth, which has occasionally happened, then I'm not going to represent them.

But honestly, I can't think of any cases in my career that I have personally worked on where there was a overriding moral issue implicit in the case. Typically, we handle disputes between two companies, between the individual and the company, and our job is to be the best advocate we can be for our client. We're not really involved in divisive social issue-type litigation.

EA: As a lawyer who works with large companies, how pervasive is corporate corruption?

JP: There are individual incidences where corporations do something wrong. You'd be naive to say it never happens, and of course, there are obviously well-publicized cases where the heads of corporations go to jail. But overwhelmingly, the management of companies wants to do the right thing and wants to act ethically. There's such an emphasis, especially these days, on good corporate governance and on rooting out bad conduct within organizations. And in those cases where they find individual employees acting unethically, they get fired before lunchtime.

EA: I was reading up on some of your recent cases, and it's such a wide range of subjects.

JP: I always say that being a trial lawyer is a very liberal arts pursuit. You are learning new things about new areas of business or technology every day. And what best prepares you for that is a liberal arts education -- learning methods of thinking, not particular thoughts. If you're going to be an engineer, you learn certain engineering concepts and you become a specialist in that. But if you have a liberal arts education, what have you learned? You've learned different methods of thought and inquiry, and you've learned different ways to think about the world, different ways to puzzle about the world. And that's what we do.

EA: Do any of your cases lead to personal interests or new hobbies?

JP: Oh yeah, all the time. I'm spending a lot of my time now on a case learning about the Florida real estate market, a development that went under when the real estate bubble popped a couple of years ago. I've never done real estate investing and based on this case, I'm certainly less inclined to do real estate investing. It's certainly made me think about investment and risk and bubbles and manias in a new way.

To me, that's one of the most interesting things about my job. Every case, you're learning about a different facet of life or business and a different way of problem solving.

EA: What would you say to someone interested in the law field?

JP: First off, there are many, many law jobs to get. Being a lawyer isn't just one thing. The other thing I would say is, not to listen to other people but to listen to yourself in terms of what your interests are. When I was a second year at Harvard Law School, I did a trial practice program where you did mock trials, and we had experienced trial lawyers from around the country come in and serve as instructors. At the end of that program, a trial lawyer, I think he was from Texas, literally came up to me, put his arm around me, and suggested I do something other than become a trial lawyer. And I'm glad I didn't pay attention to him.