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Kirkland & Ellis’ Bill Burgess Likes His Distance Races on the Rocks

When Bill Burgess tells people he’s heading off to Finland to compete in a nine-hour ice skating marathon in the dead of winter, their reactions range from encouragement to utter incomprehension.

“Some people look at me like I’ve told them I’m going to space,” the D.C.-based Kirkland & Ellis LLP attorney told Law360.

To many, completing a 200-kilometer race around a frozen lake in remote Scandinavia might not seem like a relaxing vacation.

But for Burgess, the son of a former Army Special Forces officer, it’s a great way to blow off the steam that comes with juggling a medley of legal matters across several subject areas.

“I have to be able to clear my head sometimes, or I’d never be able to get my work done,” Burgess said. “It’s kind of nice not to have to think about anything in particular while skating for nine hours or running for hours and hours. You’re unreachable by email and there’s no point in even trying to think about work.”

Though there is no consensus on what to call the sport — ice marathoning? long-distance outdoor speed skating? — the races generally take place on a track cleared along the perimeter of a frozen lake, where racers swap out shoes for skates. The events, which are typically held across continental Europe and Scandinavia, draw their inspiration from the famous Elfstedentocht race, a 200-kilometer competition along frozen canals in the Netherlands that began in 1890 and has happened only sporadically since.

Burgess’ co-workers say his laid-back demeanor belies a fierce competitiveness for long-distance sports; indeed, in addition to ice marathons, he regularly competes in ultramarathons, having recently finished a 100-kilometer run in California.

Chris Mizzo, a Kirkland attorney, recalls a time meeting up with Burgess after he ran a 10K at a firm-hosted charity event and discovered that Burgess was using the race as a warmup for ultramarathon training later that day.

“Who uses a 10K as a warmup?” Mizzo said.

Burgess was first taught to ice skate by his father as a child in Alaska, playing tag with his sister on a frozen pond in subzero temperatures. Somewhere in between hockey games, the elder Burgess told him about the Elfstedentocht race.

The story stuck, and in 2010 the younger Burgess participated in his first ice marathon in Austria. Five years and several races later, the 36-year-old appellate attorney took home first place in the Finland Ice Marathon, seizing on a spike in the weather he says caused some of the ice to melt and top racers to drop out.

“It just reminded me of being a 6-year-old in Alaska skating outside,” he says of that first race in 2010. “The lake in Austria is surrounded by mountains, and it’s just beautiful outside and you’ve got the wind in your face and it’s a real winter with snow and cold everywhere like you don’t get in D.C.” 

Described by colleagues as a “phenomenal writer” and “smart as a whip,” Burgess is a former Federal Circuit clerk with an expertise in intellectual property law who is generally involved in 10 different cases at any given time.

Burgess’ father, who now sits on the bench in Florida’s sixth judicial circuit and hears criminal cases, accompanies his son overseas for the races. Judge William H. Burgess III says they are an integral part of his son’s work-life balance.

“As a sitting judge, the lawyers who do the worst are the ones that are totally wrapped up in being a lawyer, and the ones who do best have a life outside of the law, whether it’s either family or whether it be a sport or a craft or something like that,” Judge Burgess says.

Judge Burgess says his son has always led an active lifestyle, whether it’s when he bikes 30 miles the day he buys a new bicycle or when he would summit small mountains as a child.

“He was always game to go all the way to the top,” he says.