Skadden Arps partner Mitchell Ettinger discusses why he became a lawyer, the most memorable cases, his pro bono work and other interests.
Name: Mitchell Ettinger
Practice Areas: Government Enforcement Defense and Complex Civil Litigation
Location: Washington, D.C.
Law School: LL.B., Columbus School of Law, Catholic University of America, 1983
Undergraduate: B.S., Northern Arizona University, 1980
Quotable, on advice to first year lawyers: “Never say no when an opportunity is presented — no matter how hard the assignment may appear.”
Lawdragon: What drew you to your practice?
Mitchelle Ettinger: I enjoy engaging with clients to solve their legal challenges. In particular, I enjoy learning about the clients’ business, understanding their products, services and sales models. Good litigators fully understand the underlying business or products of their clients in order to be successful in pursuing or defending claims.
So, for example, when we represented The Boeing Company in a False Claims Act suit involving allegations that the helicopter gears for the CH-47D helicopter were manufactured improperly, it was necessary to understand the gear metallurgy, the manufacturing processes and the associated quality control measures. We actually made a film that could be shared with the jury on these topics — it did not hurt that I was a chemistry major in college and love the science side of litigation.
I also enjoy the challenge of developing a complex factual record through witness interviews and document review. The interaction with witnesses can be fascinating and challenging. Often, mastering the facts is the key to establishing or disproving required elements of proof.
LD: What are among the most memorable matters you’ve handled as a lawyer?
ME: Two cases — very different from one another — stand out in my mind. Representing the president of the United States was exhilarating. Interacting with President Clinton was remarkable in every respect, and the subject matter of the Paula Jones v. Clinton sexual harassment case made it surreal. Regardless of your political leanings, being exposed to the sitting president is humbling. Although we prevailed in that action at summary judgment, the impeachment proceedings arising from the parallel special prosecutor’s investigation will forever color that engagement.
The other matter is the pro bono representation of an individual convicted of a murder that he did not commit. We successfully reopened the state proceeding to present evidence of a Brady violation, which simultaneously provided the state with compelling evidence regarding the true perpetrator. The state, however, had destroyed all the forensic evidence, making DNA testing impossible. When our efforts before the state court failed, we petitioned the Fourth Circuit for successive habeas relief. Although the Fourth Circuit granted our request for permission to pursue successive habeas proceedings, the district court held that we failed to satisfy the heavy evidentiary burden borne by habeas petitioners. We continue to hope that additional evidence can be unearthed and, if so, look forward to having the opportunity to clear our client, who continues to serve a life sentence without possibility of parole.
LD: What matters are keeping you busy these days?
ME: I currently represent clients in connection with varying enforcement actions. The majority of my time is spent representing clients in connection with Foreign Corrupt Practice Act or similar anti-corruption investigations. This requires me to travel throughout Europe and Asia and presents challenging factual and legal scenarios. I also continue to represent companies in connection with False Claims Act allegations and litigations, including cost charging or pricing disclosures in the context of government contracts. A third area to which I devote considerable time is anti-corruption compliance, including due diligence of businesses and business partners, analysis of business structures and training.
LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or community activities? Tell us what you find meaningful about them.
ME: Skadden provides ample opportunities to engage in pro bono activities. I have accepted the pro bono challenge of our leadership from the earliest days of my career at the firm. I still enjoy taking on pro bono matters as they typically involve new clients and areas of the law for which I have no prior experience. We recently represented an inmate in a medical malpractice claim arising from nontreatment of a stroke while confined to his cell. This provided the opportunity to help an individual who was left incapacitated as a result of the prison’s inaction. It marked the first time that I served as plaintiff’s counsel in an action. This helped me to grow as an attorney and see a case from a different perspective as well as evaluate the effectiveness of the defense theory.
LD: Why did you pursue a career in the law?
ME: I decided to go to law school while interning at a crime lab. I majored in criminalistics at Northern Arizona University, which involved a dual major in police science and chemistry. Most people who pursue this academic track ultimately work in law enforcement as a forensic chemist. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I interned at the Northern Virginia Forensic Lab. It was an exciting assignment that exposed me to drug analysis, fingerprint analysis, ballistics, serology and arson investigations.
While attending a court hearing with a chemist who had conducted an arson investigation, I witnessed a defense counsel struggle with the cross examination, principally because he did not understand the underlying science or the limitations of the tests performed. Seeing this exercise made me appreciate the benefit of combining a science degree with a law degree. When I graduated from law school and was called to active duty in the Air Force, I immediately was assigned to prosecute cases involving forensic evidence. This resulted in being appointed as the Circuit Trial Counsel in Europe where my sole duty was to try courts martials at the felony level. Through this experience, I was able to develop my trial skills and ultimately find my “dream job” with Skadden.
LD: Did you have a class or professor that was particularly influential in your studies or career?
ME: I had a professor at Northern Arizona University who shaped my thinking about law enforcement and the law in general. He was a former captain in the Los Angeles Police Department who taught a number of different police science courses. He was a great teacher who emphasized the importance of having an educated and dedicated police force on the street (which was my original objective), but also the need to have motivated and talented prosecutors and defense counsel. This professor provided life lessons, not just book concepts, and helped many students see and achieve their potential. He deeply affected my thinking and changed the course of my career path.
LD: What advice do you have for law students and lawyers who are just beginning their careers?
ME: The advice I have for first year lawyers is not to be afraid to accept more responsibility and to take assignments outside your comfort zone. Never say no when an opportunity is presented — no matter how hard the assignment may appear. Have confidence in yourself and your skills to say yes, and the judgment to know when to ask for assistance if the water becomes too deep. By accepting challenges that push you beyond your comfort zone, you will develop skills and judgment more effectively and efficiently — and you will become a better lawyer.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
ME: Everyone should have interests outside their profession. For me, it is basketball. The joy of playing basketball was a gift from my father who spent a lot of time during my formative years teaching me the game. I continue to play every week with a group of my closest friends and consider that two-hour-window on Sunday mornings to be sacred. When I am not playing basketball, I love to work out in the gym or read a biography.