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On the day he sat in his apartment as a law student, opened his real property textbook for the first time and read the very first case, Carter G. Phillips said he knew “I was exactly where I should be.” More than two decades later, his colleagues, clients and others would add that practicing in the U.S. Supreme Court is also exactly where the ex-Midwesterner with the easygoing manner should be. Phillips, managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office of Chicago’s Sidley & Austin, argued three of the seven cases that Sidley had before the Supreme Court last term, and his clients prevailed in all three. It’s an outstanding record, considering that few lawyers ever get a chance to argue in the high court, that those who do generally get one chance in a lifetime, and that those who appear more regularly usually feel fortunate to get one argument per term. “Just the success in getting the court to grant review in seven cases, especially when the court is going to take only 75-80, made this an extraordinary year for me,” he says. While his winning record sets this runner-up for Lawyer of the Year apart from other high court practitioners last term, it’s not the most accurate accounting of Phillips’ influence on the course of the law. He tackles cases that cross “the waterfront of legal issues.” In the term that ended last June, he was lead counsel in the high court’s first foray into the managed care world, a multimillion-dollar contract action against the federal government, and a pre-emption challenge in a railroad tort action. He also provided his now-trademark, firm-but-gentle assist to other lead counsel defending the Warren Court’s landmark Miranda ruling, fighting a commerce clause challenge to a provision in the federal Violence Against Women Act, asserting Vermont’s sovereign immunity in a qui tam suit, and defending Missouri’s campaign finance law from a First Amendment attack. And in the week he won his third high court case of the term, Microsoft Corp. hired him to handle its Supreme Court appeal in its antitrust war with the federal government. “I would say that whatever legal issue is before him at any given moment is the legal issue he thinks is the most interesting in the world,” says a close member of his appellate team, partner Virginia Seitz. “It’s a tribute to his concentration, not nerdiness. He is excited about law and legal issues. That holds true not just in Supreme Court cases.” HIS ROUTINE On mornings when he has a high court argument, Phillips, 48, gets to the office early and always nods to the bust of Rex Lee in the 9th floor lobby of the firm. Phillips helped to recruit the highly regarded former solicitor general to the firm. Together the men launched what was the first Supreme Court practice in the nation’s capital. While he speaks with awe of the ability and advocacy of his late friend and mentor, Phillips, a former assistant to the solicitor general, has surpassed Lee’s high court argument record in private practice. And while he was equally impressed with Lee’s ability “to close a deal” and bring in clients, Phillips keeps a steady stream of Supreme Court business — about 50 percent of his practice — coming into the firm. “The cases that I argue tend to be for business — not always the most sympathetic of clients,” he says. Almost a decade ago, he started a high court assistance project for public defenders after being approached by a federal court official concerned about the quality of advocacy by these lawyers in cases against the United States. And since the late 1980s, he has volunteered to do moot courts for the National Association of Attorneys General when its members have high court cases. That effort has spawned paid work for the firm from a number of states. USER-FRIENDLY ASSISTANCE “In all of these relationships, we’ve responded in the same way,” Phillips explains. “We’ve tried to be user-friendly: We offer advice on briefs — which we do exceptionally well — and we help prepare the person for oral arguments and dealing with substantive issues. “I think we have a pretty good reputation. We’re the firm without sharp elbows,” he says. Arizona Chief Deputy Attorney General C. Tim Delaney endorses that view. “Each year that I was solicitor general — from 1995 to 1999 — we had a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court,” he says. “I’m certain the reason for that record was Carter. He is a gifted lawyer and a talented team member. Those do not always go together.” What distinguishes Phillips from other talented lawyers, Delaney says, is that he understands the nature of human beings as well as the legal process and the policy implications of a case. After inflicting a moot court grilling, “he would have the savvy to help us pick up the pieces and leave the room feeling like a complete human being again,” says Delaney. Brian F. Corey, general counsel to Conseco Finance Corp. of St. Paul, Minn., hired Phillips to handle an arbitration case at the high court (which Phillips won on Dec. 11). “One person told me Carter was within the top three practitioners at the Supreme Court, and the reason he was within the top three is he didn’t want to offend two other people,” Corey chuckles. “He did an outstanding job at oral argument, where it was clear he had a wealth of experience. We couldn’t be more pleased.” Phillips says, “I come to work excited every day. I have extraordinarily interesting cases and extremely talented colleagues.” As for the U.S. Supreme Court, he says, “It’s pretty easy to convince me that this is the neatest thing you can do.”

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