Carter Phillips (JD ’77) Receives Lifetime Achievement Award from The American Lawyer


After Law School Alumni
from left: Jessica Phillips (JD ’06), Dean Hari Osofsky, Sue Henry (JD ’77), Carter Phillips (JD ’77)

Carter Phillips (JD ‘77) has a long and storied history with Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Not only is he one of the most engaged alumni of the Law School, he is also one of the school’s most decorated lawyers. In honor of his acclaimed work throughout his career, Philips was awarded one of the five Lifetime Achievement Awards by The American Lawyer at the 2022 American Lawyer Industry Awards, held in New York City on November 10. The award is presented to “an esteemed group of seasoned lawyers … recognizing the indelible mark they’ve left of the legal profession.”

A partner at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, D.C., Phillips is one of the most experienced Supreme Court appellate lawyers in the country. He has argued 89 cases before the Supreme Court, more than any other lawyer in private practice. He has also been a co-director of Northwestern Pritzker Law’s Supreme Court Clinic and an adjunct professor for more than 15 years.

“Congratulations to Carter Phillips on receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from The American Lawyer,” said Dean Hari Osofsky. “This is an extremely well-deserved recognition of his tremendous contributions to the legal profession and society. We also are grateful to Carter for all he contributes to Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, including through Supreme Court Clinic, which provides an extraordinary opportunity for the next generation of lawyers to learn from him while making an impact.”

Here, Phillips discusses why he is moved by the honor, why it’s important he give back to Northwestern Pritzker Law, and his advice to current Law School students.  

What does this honor mean for you as a person and as a lawyer, joining attorneys like former U.S. Attorney General Eric S. Holder, Jr., and former FBI director Robert Mueller as recipients of this award?

It is humbling frankly to receive an award that has been given to lawyers who have had remarkable impacts on the legal profession. I have a hard time thinking of myself as being mentioned in the same sentence with them.

Who do you credit for your success?

I would not have had my career without the help of many people. First would be my wife, Sue Henry, whom I met on the first day at Northwestern in Professor Vic Rosenblum’s office. Without her support I never would have achieved what I have. And no one has a successful career without mentors and I have had more than I can list here. But Judge Sprecher gave me my first job out of law school, Chief Justice Burger helped me find my way to the Solicitor General’s office, and Rex Lee was a wonderful boss when he was the Solicitor General — and an even better partner when he joined Sidley with this vision that we could develop a standalone Supreme Court practice at a law firm like Sidley.

Since you mentioned Sidley, how has their support affected you?

This honor really says a lot more about my law firm than it does about me. Sidley Austin gave me the opportunity to develop a Supreme Court practice and my partners have supported that practice for almost 40 years. I have had the opportunity to represent the European Commission and the Ministry of Commerce of China before the United States Supreme Court because of my partners in Brussels and Beijing. In fully two-thirds of the cases I have argued, the client hired me because it was a longtime Sidley client or because one of my partners introduced me to that client. And I was able to argue in the Sixth Circuit in favor of a fundamental due process right of access to literacy for school children (specifically in Detroit) because of Sidley’s commitment to pro bono representation of underserved minorities. At this point in my career, the award reminds me how much I owe to my firm and my family for all that I have accomplished.

You are one of the most engaged and active alums of Northwestern Pritzker Law. As an alum, why is it important for you to stay connected to the school?

One easy explanation is that Northwestern is and always will be on my resume. So anything that improves the Law School’s image and reputation is a personal plus. But the deeper explanation is that I was very fortunate to have mentors like Vic Rosenblum and Marty Redish when I was a student at the Law School, and their friendship and tutelage were fundamental to my professional success. Given what the Law School did for me, it is hard to give back enough to balance the ledger. Finally, the relationship between Northwestern Law and my law firm has been exceptional for a very long time. Sidley has so many extremely talented lawyers who are Northwestern alums and if I can help develop and improve that relationship, then it is a win-win from my perspective.

What advice would you give current law school students as they navigate their academic careers and future law careers?

The key to being an excellent lawyer at least in a large law firm and certainly as an appellate lawyer is being able to write effectively and persuasively. I recommend that every law student at Northwestern take advantage of the senior research program at the Law School. There is nothing like it anywhere else. The student gets to spend hundreds of hours working one-on-one with a law professor and at the end of the process almost always produces a publishable article on a topic of interest to the student. I had the privilege of being one of Marty Redish’s students doing senior research. It was a wonderful experience even as I think back on it after 45 years and realize how much rigor Marty brought to the writing process and legal thinking. I learned more from that opportunity than any other in law school. So I would encourage every law student to seek out and take advantage of as many rigorous writing opportunities as he or she can.