This month, the University of Colorado Law School celebrates the career of Judge Eric Elliff. Elliff’s talent and passion for complex civil litigation helped him throughout his career at law firms; his time on the bench of Colorado's Second Judicial District, which encompasses the city and county of Denver; and as an adjunct professor at Colorado Law.
Before attending law school, Elliff obtained a BS from Washington University in St. Louis. "My undergraduate degree was in civil engineering," he said. "One of the classes they made us take was engineering and the law; this was during my junior year in college. That class really grabbed me, and I really liked it. By my fourth year, I realized that I needed an advanced engineering degree or something else. Because of that class, I thought I’d take the LSAT. I ended up doing well on the LSAT, and I pivoted toward law school."
After applying to a number of law schools, Elliff valued his time at Colorado Law and decided to move to Boulder. "I had learned somewhere that it was best to attend law school where you wanted to settle eventually, so I applied to schools in the upper Northwest, California, and Boulder. The only school I didn’t get into was UCLA. Boulder was my second choice, so I came here," he said. "I was born and raised in Colorado, so it was like coming home."
One aspect of Colorado Law that he appreciated was the network that began during his 1L year and the opportunities for mentoring. "During our first year, the school assigned us a third-year mentor. Your mentor was like your law school whisperer. Our 1L class was really close with the 3L class at the time, and we all really bonded. Jim Coyle (’85) and Greg Berger (’86), among others, gave me great advice and direction."
Elliff’s experiences during law school helped him find his passion for civil litigation. "During my 1L summer I worked for a small litigation shop. I did a lot of research and writing that summer in addition to figuring out what was going on, a typical 1L experience,” he joked. “I quickly became a civil procedure nerd. I wanted to do complex civil litigation, and I focused on those classes, especially those taught by Professor [Christopher] Mueller. At the time, he taught evidence and complex civil litigation. I continue to use both those classes in my career. I also did the civil clinic with [Clinical Professor Emeritus] Norm Aaronson, and I was on law review."
His experiences in engineering also proved useful to his law career. “I do use my engineering degree,” he said. “It teaches you to figure out complex structures and problems in a linear way. It really helped me in law school and after in analyzing legal problems.”
“During my 2L summer I clerked at Lewis, Roca, Rothgerber, Christie [then known as Rothgerber, Appel, Powers and Johnson]. The market was very different than it is now,” he noted. “They hired about 13 of us as summer law clerks and offered 11 of us permanent positions. At the time, firms would give you a permanent offer if you got a summer clerkship and performed well. I was very impressed that Rothgerber took nearly all of us. As an example of just how good the market was at the time, I turned that offer down. I had a friend clerking at Morrison & Foerster, and he thought I might like it there,” he said. “I had lunch with a partner, an interview, and then they hired me.”
Elliff was fortunate to watch the firm grow at the same time as his career. “I worked at Morrison & Foerster from 1987 until 2010 and eventually became the managing partner of the Denver office. The firm actually outgrew my practice. While I was there it grew from 200 lawyers to close to 1,000,” he said.
However, growth wasn’t exactly what Elliff was looking for, and he began looking elsewhere for a new chapter in his career. “I lateralled over to Husch Blackwell which solved some of the practice issues,” he said. “However, when I first started out in my career, I thought I would do a few years at a big firm and then go try cases either in a district attorney’s office or for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The idea was to get some big-law experience and then move into public service. I wound up being able to try cases as Morrison fairly quickly; 20-some years later, when I got to Husch Blackwell I thought, ‘wait a minute, what happened to my public service goal?’ About that time there were three vacancies in the Second Judicial District Court. I applied, and was privileged to receive a position. I was sworn in on January 21, 2011.”
While he doesn’t miss all aspects of his time at a law firm, Elliff did note the particulars he enjoyed the most. “I really liked private practice, and I miss the travel a bit,” he reminisced. “I had clients all across the United States and even internationally. I primarily did defense work, and I liked formulating the strategies to dig my clients out of difficult situations. It was often very challenging, but I relished that challenge. However, I don’t miss the business development aspects; I’m not really a self-promoter.”
In his spare time, Judge Elliff also enjoys teaching advanced trial advocacy at Colorado Law. “[Former Professor] Dayna Matthew called me out of the blue one day and asked if I’d like to teach trial ad,” he remembered. “I was flattered to be asked, and I said I would do it. I’ve just finished my tenth or eleventh year of teaching, and I love it! It’s great because anyone who takes advanced trial ad is clearly into it, so it’s self-selective. As I get older it keeps me connected to younger generations. I stay connected with their issues, and it’s just a blast to teach.”
From his years of experience in the courtroom, Elliff does have a few tips for new lawyers. “Really know the rules of evidence and procedure,” he noted. “You would be shocked at the number of people who don’t know them. It’s a problem if you’re across the table from someone who is better versed in the rules than you are. Also, you can’t prepare enough! The more you prepare, the more effective you’ll be; preparation is key in the courtroom.”
Outside of the courtroom and teaching, Elliff spends his time skiing and working on old cars. “I’m a big skier; I’ve been skiing since I was four. I’m also an old car nut,” he joked. “I’ve got old cars that I tinker with; I’m not that talented but I try.”
What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?
The camaraderie and the friends that I made there.
What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?
Understand why you went to law school, and what your goals are after you graduate, and be true to that vision.
Who are some of your role models, professionally and personally?
Stewart McNab and Stan Doten were at Morrison & Foerster when I was there. Stan was managing partner at the time I started. He trusted me to handle a significant new client very early in my career, which I really appreciated. Stewart was a senior associate and later a partner there. He showed me the ropes with infinite patience and humor. Steve Dunham, who was firmwide chair and is now general counsel at Penn State, taught me the value of precise and thorough legal and factual analysis.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
I learned to drive at age seven or eight on a late 1940s vintage Ford tractor. It had no brakes, so you really learned to plan ahead!
What is a book that you read recently that you would recommend?
Grant, by Ron Chernow. [Ulysses S.] Grant’s personal story is amazing. He was, of course, a great general and a brilliant strategist, and was probably a better president than he generally gets credit for.
If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
Chair of the Federal Reserve.