A Monumental Life

"I was still adjusting to urban campus life when I realized that GW was at the epicenter of the antiwar movement."

Carol Elder Bruce, BA ’71, JD ’74, came of age during the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. She was drawn to study law after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, and the war in Vietnam. 

But what inspired her to become a trial lawyer—and she is considered one of the nation’s top litigators—was a simple visit to a courtroom during orientation to law school.

Classes hadn’t even started in the fall of 1971 when Ms. Bruce stepped into D.C. Superior Court. Before then, she had not set foot inside a courtroom, let alone watched trials in action. 

She and about 40 other first-year students filed into a courtroom, sat on the public benches, and waited for the judge to come down from the bench to talk with them about criminal and civil trials. 

“Almost from the moment I entered that courtroom and sat in the back row, I knew that this was where I wanted to be,” she says. “I didn’t just want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a trial lawyer.”

Since then, Ms. Bruce, a partner at K & L Gates LLP in Washington, D.C., has had a long, varied, and highly decorated career in the private and public sectors. Her career, like her life, has been punctuated by important moments in history. 

She was the deputy independent counsel in the investigation of Attorney General Edwin Meese in 1988 and was appointed the independent counsel to look into whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lied to Congress about political influence in a department matter during Bill Clinton’s presidency. A few years ago, she served as special counsel to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics that found that Sen. John Ensign broke Senate rules and possibly federal laws when he allowed a former senior staffer to lobby him. 

Ms. Bruce has represented detainees at Guantánamo Bay pro bono. She trained lawyers in Russia when the jury trial system was reintroduced under President Yeltsin and at The Hague as part the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. 

Each historical event is etched in her mind, even those from 50 years ago when she was a freshman in high school. She remembers driving in a car when JFK was shot. Four and a half years later, she saw police cars and ambulances racing past the GW campus to the riots on 14th street after MLK was killed. And later that summer, three days before her 19th birthday, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. 

“I remember being on my parents’ living room sofa, knees to my chest, clutching a sofa pillow and sobbing as I watched the news coverage of this latest horror,” she says. 

“The lives led by these three extraordinary men and their individual strong personal commitments to public and social service strengthened my desire to study political science and played a very large part in my later decision to go to law school.”

The antiwar movement was also never far from view. Her first fall at GW, she marched with more than 100,000 protesters across Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon. 

“I was still adjusting to urban campus life when I realized that GW was at the epicenter of the antiwar movement,” she says. 

She recalls one particularly dramatic day during her senior year in May of 1971 when she was a resident adviser in Thurston Hall. The city and GW pulsated with antiwar activities. The National Guard came on campus, “right outside my dorm, setting off tear gas canisters and clubbing some of the protesters.”

Later that month the Pentagon Papers were released. Ms. Bruce started law school in the fall, keeping her job as an RA. That year she met her future husband, Jim Bruce, JD ’74, and her father died on Christmas Day before final exams. 

“I felt I had no choice but to take my exams in January, even though I was in no shape to do so,” she says. Her contracts professor, one of her favorites, Monroe Freedman, heard about her father’s death and shooed her out of the exam room, telling her to come back when she was ready. 

During law school, she interned with the Public Defender Service under Stuart Stiller, represented clients as part of the Law Students in Court program, and testified before Congress and the Vehicle Equipment Safety Commission on the need to build safer school buses as part of Professor John Banzhaf’s seminar on consumer activism. 

“It was a heady, constructive experience that further reinforced my desire to be an advocate,” says Ms. Bruce, whose youngest child, Barbara, is now a third-year law student at GW and senior articles editor of The George Washington Law Review.

Monumental events marked her last moment in law school. As the president of the Student Bar Association during graduation, Ms. Bruce introduced the guest speaker, Leon Jaworski, the Watergate special prosecutor. Soon after, President Nixon resigned. 

She gives this advice to new litigators navigating turbulent events: “Be cool, calm, yet deadly earnest in your work,” she says. “Always have your eye on your case goal and be willing to pivot, change course, or compromise to accomplish it.” 

by Laura Hambleton