5 minutes with... Marc Elias
When did you decide to become a lawyer? Why?
I applied to law school on my brother’s advice. He was already a lawyer at the time and encouraged me to take the LSAT to keep my options open. I had intended to pursue a career in academia in political science. In the end I pursued a joint degree in law and political science. I ended up in law because it opened up a new avenue for a more practical engagement with politics than the more removed perspective of academia. Taking the more practical route is something I have never regretted.
Starting out, what did you expect from a career in the law?
I really had no idea what to expect, except that it would be a lot of work.
Has it lived up to your expectations?
Well, it has been a lot of work! But it's also been a fascinating way to engage in the political process.
How did you get into the areas of law you are known for today? By design? Chance? Both?
I was interested in politics from the beginning, so political law and campaign finance law was a natural fit. I sought out this practice directly upon graduating from law school.
What do you consider to have been your big break?
I had the honor of serving as general counsel to John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. I had worked closely with Senate campaigns prior to this, but this was my first experience serving as the lead counsel on a presidential campaign and personally handling everything that requires. Even though we lost, it was a great experience with a tight-knit group of people, and was certainly a milestone both personally and in my legal career.
"Where good, but not great, credentials may once have been sufficient for being hired, popular areas of the law now have their pick of the most elite students on the market."
What differences do you see in today's legal market compared to when you started?
Two things: first, entry is incredibly competitive. Now that I am in the position of hiring applicants I see this every day. Where good, but not great, credentials may once have been sufficient for being hired, popular areas of the law now have their pick of the most elite students on the market. To be honest, if I were applying today, I doubt I would hire me. Second, the field of political law continues to grow and is starting to develop real sub-specialties. When I started it was barely a practice area; it is now a recognized specialty.
What achievement are you most proud of?
I am very proud of having successfully managed the legal operations of Senator Al Franken’s recount in his 2008 Senatorial campaign. It was a long, hard fight over eight months. We worked tirelessly to ensure that every vote cast was correctly counted. Ultimately we were successful. I have been involved in eight state-wide recounts and have been successful in all of them. This is a unique area of the law and politics to have built an expertise in and I am proud to have done so.
"I find myself in more management and supervisory roles. Most of the time I don’t mind it, but there are days when I barely feel like a real lawyer."
What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?
It is hard to pin what regret I have on only one event or one phenomenon. There are little things over the years that I can now see it would have been better to do a different way, or to have made a different decision. But I am lucky enough to have no major regrets, and I don’t let the little ones hold me back. I’m always trying to do better.
What have you enjoyed most during your career in the legal profession?
Political law also offers unique opportunities to see the effects of one’s practice on broader society given the nature of the groups and individuals we represent. That has been really rewarding.
And enjoyed least?
As my career progresses, I find myself in more management and supervisory roles. Most of the time I don’t mind it, but there are days when I barely feel like a real lawyer.
What law would you change, abolish or create?
I would enact universal voter registration and otherwise modernize our voting laws.
How has the practice of representing public officials, parties and organizations evolved over the years?
The field of political law has grown dramatically in size since I started, and has changed dramatically. What was once a side-practice for a handful of lawyers is not a fully-fledged specialty. We now deal with so many more issues than just campaign finance. We need to advise on intellectual property, business law, leases, employment law, and litigation — to name a few areas. As campaigns grow in size so do their legal needs.
Who is your legal hero?
I have a deep and abiding respect for my mentor and fellow Partner at Perkins Coie, Bob Bauer, who literally invented this area of the law.
What career would you have in your second life?
Before attending law school, I had planned to become a professor of political science. I have a Master’s degree in political science that I got concurrently with my JD, and I still teach occasionally. In another life, that’s probably what I would have done.
"Make sure to take the hard classes in law school that build skills and a useful knowledge base."
What slogan would you like to be remembered by?
Al Franken said I was very funny. (What more could you want!)
What advice would you give to students trying to enter the legal profession today?
There is no magical advice. Go to a good law school, do well and have outside interests that make you stand out.
And secondly, to those who hope to ultimately get into political law?
Experience working on or with campaigns, party committees, or other organizations directly involved in the political process is helpful. It provides a perspective on the context of our work that you cannot get merely by reading about it. Many of our most successful associates and partners worked on campaigns before coming to work for Perkins. Aside from that, make sure to take the hard classes in law school that build skills and a useful knowledge base, even in your third year. And, of course, keep your grades up.
Finally, is there anything you'd like to highlight from the presidential campaign that you've found particularly challenging/enjoyable/interesting?
Representing a presidential campaign is like sprinting a marathon. It is, by its very nature, challenging, and enjoyable, and interesting all at once. Secretly Clinton’s campaign is a great client. The team is smart and dedicated and the candidate is someone who inspires us all. It's a lot of work, but it's really rewarding.