As we continue to honor Black History Month, we highlight Eliot Cotton ’10, who talked to us about career, his experiences in law school, and his advice for today’s students.
Mr. Cotton has been with Riverstone Holdings LLC in New York for more than five years and serves as the firm’s general counsel focused on energy transition and credit investments. Prior to joining Riverstone in January 2018, he was an attorney at Vinson & Elkins LLP, where he specialized in capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, private equity, fund formation and led the firm’s venture capital and emerging companies practice in the New York office. A native of Houston, Mr. Cotton is a double Longhorn with a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies.
What is your current position and what you like about it?
I currently serve as the general counsel of Riverstone, where I primarily focus on decarbonization, energy transition, and credit. I’m grateful that I chose a career and a path where my number one goal is to solve complicated issues. Often those issues relate to a deal or a specific matter I’m working on, but we’re also tasked with answering broader, global questions–questions about how we fit into and positively impact the world’s energy supply chain. While answering some of these questions requires a pragmatic approach, creativity and an ability to think outside the box are essential.
How did your Texas Law experience prepare you for your job?
Before I started law school, I always heard that law school teaches students how to “think like a lawyer.” Admittedly, I had no idea what that meant. However, throughout my three years at Texas Law, it became abundantly clear. This law school demands that students learn to digest and apply information linearly, dynamically and in the abstract. Problems … in law school, in professional practice, and in broader life … are never presented in a straightforward fashion, but to successfully attack them, being able to understand each component and holistically assess a situation are paramount to achieving the desired outcome. An early mentor of mine told me that in any deal, if there are 20 issues in contention, if you understand the client’s business and their goals, only four of them are likely to be real issues. You certainly need to understand all of the issues, but if you understand the priorities, everything else will fall into place.
What is the role of mentorship in your career, both mentoring you received and mentoring you’ve given?
There are experiences in life where you have to walk every step–sometimes alone–to effectively learn from them. For everything else, which is most things, having guidance from someone who has already walked the path, or who can offer valuable insight, makes a world of difference. Luckily, I’ve had people both inside the legal profession and outside it that have provided invaluable (often, course-correcting) advice. I try to pay it forward, and while my mentors told me that they probably get more value out of giving the advice than I do receiving it, I didn’t know how true that was until I was in a position to do the same.
What is a good memory of an activity in which you were involved while in law school?
There are so many! I enjoyed the classroom setting, but I really enjoyed some of our off-campus activities. I took full advantage of the groups and the intramural program. I’m still quite proud of our soccer team name: Mens Rea(l). A little goofy, but fun. Taking those opportunities is important. Whether they appreciate it now or not, students are building lifelong friendships.
Any favorite professors and favorite classes?
Professor (Patrick) Woolley, Professor (David) Sokolow and Professor (John) Dzienkowski made the study and details of law fun, interesting, and accessible. When you’re a 22-year-old student coming into a professional degree program, not having worked in the real world, understanding pragmatic applications to cerebral concepts can be daunting. I think each of those professors teach in a way that helps students relate to the topic, which I personally valued. I also suggest every student take a seminar. While large classes and the Socratic method have value, I found that the smaller, more-intimate environments where you can ask the whys and wherefores worked best for me. Everyone learns differently—I recommend that law students find what works for them and do that.
Are there ways you’re active in any professional associations that you’d like to share?
I founded a group called Private Investment Legal Roundtable (PILR) in New York. When I moved from the law firm to in-house, I missed the ability to walk next door and bounce ideas off someone who had probably seen the issue I was facing dozens of times. I started this group of general counsels and assistant general counsels at private investment firms in New York to create a place for like-minded individuals to share best practices and to lean on each other regarding issues that only we can understand.
What advice would you give to students today?
It is totally okay to not know exactly what you want to do after you graduate. Your opportunity set is vast and without a doubt your direction will take many turns. But while you are on that campus, in addition to taking in the great education the law school has to offer, listen to others and build relationships. Every student comes from a different background and brings a different perspective – listen to them and try to understand. It will pay dividends for the rest of your life. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t interact with someone I went to law school with. They are my best friends, my colleagues, and often, my counterparties. Building connections with people centered on trust and respect lays a sturdy foundation that you’ll have forever.
As a double Longhorn, what changes have you seen on the UT campus when it comes to diversity?
UT instilled the feeling in me that I was a Longhorn for life. Every institution can continuously strive to create a more equal and just environment, but I’m confident that UT is one of the best institutions of higher learning in working towards that goal.
Anything else you’d like us to know about your law school experience or your life?
Not to sound like a New Age guru, but I would just say to be present. The education, the friendships, the entire experience, become a part of your DNA. Listen, learn, and enjoy your classmates (both inside the school and outside).