Syracuse University Magazine

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Elliott Portnoy '86

Global Influence

One way to frame Elliott Portnoy’s success story is to look at some of the significant numbers along the way—his status as SU’s first Rhodes Scholar, for example, or the fact that he earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts and Sciences in only three years. Or consider that, while studying at Oxford University, he founded Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN), a nonprofit organization that trains volunteers—more than 45,000 in the United Kingdom and in seven U.S. cities—to coach kids with profound disabilities. And in his role as the global chief executive officer of Dentons, an international law firm based in Washington, D.C., he leads an organization comprising 8,000 lawyers serving clients from 144 locations in 59 countries.

Not bad for a guy who—before deciding to attend SU—had thought that, rather than venture far, it would be nice to go to college in the university community where he grew up. “My parents wisely said I could go anywhere in the country that I could get in, other than stay home,” says Portnoy, a Syracuse University Trustee who jokes that he chose SU for the opportunity to watch his “beloved” West Virginia University Mountaineers play football here. “The real story of course is that, in Syracuse, I found an institution with an extraordinary commitment to excellence, where students’ desire to learn and passion for discovery is celebrated. I was blessed with the engagement and support of exceptional faculty and administrators who really wanted to help students propel their lives.”

Portnoy credits the University with helping shape his interest in public and community service through opportunities to become engaged with the Syracuse community and to complete two internships—one with the U.S. Senate, and the second with a legal aid society. “Both taught me that the blending of the legislative and legal process would give me the best intersection where I could make a difference,” says Portnoy, an attorney who holds a Ph.D. degree in politics from Oxford and a law degree from Harvard. “Those two disciplines—the practice of law and the legislative process—were most interesting to me. And Syracuse worked to help me pursue both, for which I’ve always been very grateful.”

Portnoy makes his home outside of Washington, D.C., with his wife, Estee, and their three children. He began practicing law in Washington 25 years ago, moving into the role of chairman of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in 2007 and embarking on a series of mergers and combinations that led to the 2013 launch of Dentons, now the world’s largest law firm. “Each of the firms that has come together has a rich history, wonderful people, and great values,” says Portnoy, who among numerous honors has been recognized by Washingtonian magazine as one of the nation’s top lobbyists. “To have the privilege of knitting it all together to be an integrated global law firm has been extraordinarily challenging and rewarding. And many of the leadership lessons I first learned at Syracuse and the experiences made possible there continue to infuse what I do every day with particular meaning.”

Expressing his appreciation for SU takes many forms, including service on the College of Arts and Sciences Board of Visitors, the Washington, D.C., Regional Council, and the Board of Trustees, where he enjoys collaborating with “a group of extraordinary, generous people” who share his passion for the University. And in his travels around the world as global CEO, he often comes across someone who loves Orange as much as he does. “One of the biggest treats for me is being able to blend my professional life with the chance to spend time with great people who share that Syracuse connection,” he says. “The reach of the place astonishes me.”    —Amy Speach