Photo by Justin Clemons.

As Taj Clayton tells it, opposing fans of his high school basketball team in Pennsylvania would taunt players for (allegedly) having no chance of getting to college. Clayton did one better in proving them wrong – attending Harvard twice, the second time launching him towards a renowned legal career that includes inclusion on the Lawdragon 500 Leading Lawyers in America. Clayton excels across a varied mix of cases – the common thread being the high stakes and complexity of his clients’ most pressing matters. In this effort, Clayton says he has found a fitting home in Kirkland & Ellis, where he practices from the firm’s Dallas office.

Lawdragon: Your caseload has been very diverse over the years. That being said, have you tended to litigate more in certain practice areas or industries in the past few years? Are there any trends you are seeing in your practice? 

Taj Clayton: I enjoy having an extremely diverse practice ranging from all kinds of civil actions involving major professional sports teams to the world’s biggest and most successful corporations in jurisdictions around the country. The diversity of my cases keeps my work interesting and fresh. It also keeps me intellectually agile, which I love. The common denominator in all of my cases is that the stakes are high. Clients rely on Kirkland to handle their most sensitive, complicated and important cases. I love delivering when high-caliber lawyering is needed the most. 

One trend I’ve seen is that plaintiffs’ lawyers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and mass actions are becoming increasingly complex, typically spanning across many jurisdictions with strong collaboration among plaintiffs’ counsel and states’ attorneys general. Defending these cases effectively requires tremendous experience with these types of cases, strategic chops and coordination. Kirkland is one of a finite number of firms who can handle these cases effectively by coordinating with a deep bench of talent across the country and across practice groups. It’s become a key differentiator for our litigation practice. 

LD: Backing up: What led you to Harvard in 1995? 

TC: I went to Harvard to change the trajectory of my life. I grew up in Pottstown, Penn., a hardscrabble, working-class community that I love deeply. Even though it’s a small town, it has big city problems (crime, drugs, poverty, teenage pregnancies, etc.) that are hard to escape.  Outsiders questioned our academic abilities and prospects for success. I recall rival fans at our high school basketball games mocking us by chanting “We’re going to college!” as if nobody from Pottstown would. Harvard was my answer. I saw it as my ticket to a better life. It also helped that I met my gorgeous future wife on campus when I visited as a high school senior. I was smitten by the school and definitely by her. 

LD: What did you expect to do with your college degree?

TC: I had zero idea what I’d do with a college degree. My parents never went to college so post-college life was an opaque enigma to me. Right before I left for college, my parents told me that I had to figure out things on my own from that point forward. I only knew for certain that I wanted to be successful, and I wanted to make an impact.

Sports has always been my passion so I started at the NFL after graduating from college. At the same time, my college girlfriend and soon-to-be wife worked at the NBA. We had an extraordinary time living in NYC and working in sports. We met a lot of incredible people and enjoyed amazing experiences fresh out of college. Ultimately, we decided that generating wealth would require us to go back to grad school and pursue careers outside of sports. So we both went back to Harvard. I went to law school and she went to business school. 

Hard work eats raw talent for breakfast.

LD: How did you become interested in law school?

TC: When I was at the NFL, I worked with a group of terrific attorneys who really nurtured and guided me. They taught me about the flexibility of a law degree because I was still unsure about what my career path would be. At the time, the commissioners of the NFL, NBA and MLB all had law degrees. The CEOs of major entertainment corporations did as well. I was informed that there were more Fortune 500 CEOs with degrees from Harvard Law School than any other educational institution in the country, including Harvard Business School. For me, that was all I needed to hear. I was all in and went back to Harvard for law school. 

LD: What advice do you have for current law students who may be interested in a similar type of career? 

TC: First, outwork everyone. Hard work eats raw talent for breakfast. Second is to smile often. Make sure that others around you feel good about themselves, the team and your shared mission. Third, have fun. Life is too short to toil away without having a lot of fun. The fourth piece of advice is to never compromise your integrity, principles or values. Ever. Finally, I would say dream bigger. There are no limits. You are capable of more than you realize. Go for it all. Never settle for less.

LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape your development as a litigator? 

TC: Ken Frazier, the former CEO of Merck has really shaped my career – probably more than he realizes. I met him as a first-year law student when he was the General Counsel at Merck. He told me then that he would become the Merck CEO one day – years before it ever happened. I watched him make it materialize. We didn’t speak often, but when we did it was always impactful. Over the years, he pushed and challenged me in various ways to never settle for being good. He emphasized that greatness is the objective, and success beyond myself is a must. 

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Or, how do you think others see you? 

TC: I see my style as bespoke. Different cases call for different approaches. Even a single case can be dynamic and require different styles and approaches at different times. I really try to be as agile as possible and tailor my lawyering for the specific case depending on my rapport with opposing counsel, the presiding judge, the composition of the teams I’m leading and the facts. My focus is being effective and my obsession is winning. 

LD: What do you like most about the litigation process? What keeps you excited about your practice day to day? 

TC: I love litigation because I love to win. Even at 45, I still self-identify as an athlete. The athlete in me loves the fact that there are winners and losers at the end of litigation. The thrill of competing, performing under pressure, and winning when the stakes are high has never left me. I also identify as a thinker. I require intellectual engagement. Litigation is intellectually fulfilling along multiple dimensions and gives me the opportunity to think strategically, creatively and analytically – all in service of winning for my clients.  

LD: Can you talk a little bit about what led to your decision to join Kirkland? How has it been so far in the first few years? 

The common denominator in all of my cases is that the stakes are high. Clients rely on Kirkland to handle their most sensitive, complicated and important cases.

TC: Kirkland occupies rarified air in the legal firmament. In my view, it has become the gold standard not just in the legal profession, but in the broader professional services industry. The biggest and most successful clients in the world hire Kirkland for their most important issues because they want access to the best talent and the best client service. I had to be a part of that. My first two years have gone even better than my lofty expectations. The firm has over-delivered on what it promised to me. I’ve delivered for the firm. Together, we’ve delivered for our clients. It’s been a lot of fun. I really enjoy practicing at the cutting-edge of our profession. 

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office? 

TC: I’m a family man first and foremost. Nothing in the world brings me more joy than hearing the laughter of my wife and kids over a family board game, a family movie night, or a family trip. I love seeing my kids discover and pursue their passions. Second, I’m obsessed with the game of golf. I love playing with great, interesting people while outside in beautiful settings and engaged in fun, friendly competition. For the rest of my life, I intend to be in perpetual pursuit of perfecting my swing and collecting as many birdies as possible. 

LD: An interesting tidbit from your bio is having run for the U.S. House seat for Texas’ 30th district in 2012, eventually losing to incumbent Eddie Bernice Johnson in the Democratic primary.  Do you think you will ever run for office again? 

TC: I’ve learned to never say “never,” but it is highly unlikely that I will run for office again. My life in the private sector right now is more exciting than I dreamed it could be with some incredible opportunities in store. I’m also creating a path to have a positive impact on the life of others through the private sector rather than through public office.

About the author: John Ryan (john@lawdragon.com) is a co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Lawdragon Inc., where he oversees all web and magazine content and provides regular coverage of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. When he’s not at GTMO, John is based in Brooklyn. He has covered complex legal issues for 20 years and has won multiple awards for his journalism, including a New York Press Club Award in Journalism for his coverage of the Sept. 11 case.