Ellis & Winters: The One Where Friends Started a Law Firm

Ellis & Winters
Cannabis Law Special Issue

What started as a creative workaround for a rainy forecast on the day of our photoshoot with litigation and commercial real estate firm Ellis & Winters, morphed into one of the story’s main themes. Recall the ’90s hit TV sitcom, Friends, and its theme song “I’ll be There for You.”

“We started the firm as a group of folks who knew each other very well,” said founding partner Mike Winters. “We’ve been good friends for many years and determined to keep our friendship a priority as we grow. We didn’t have a particular plan to grow at any certain pace but to make new hires feel like they’re part of the group who remain good friends and want to be here.”

The firm was launched in 2000 by Dick Ellis, Winters, Leslie Packer, Andrew Chamberlin, Chuck Anderson, Paul Sun, Alex Hagan, Mary Dillon, Donna Blumberg and Tom Blue. They came from a leading national law firm and formed a smaller and nimbler firm that could adapt to client needs quickly.

“I would say we deliver greater efficiency than a large firm because we’re a leaner organization,” said founding partner Andrew Chamberlin. “We supply right size teams to work on a project, instead of having a partner and 10 associates like you might see with big law.”

The firm’s primary focuses are complex litigation and commercial real estate. The litigation side serves hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical manufacturers, universities, industrial manufacturers, among other industries. “Our commercial litigation practice continues to grow. Our business court litigation is very strong right now,” said Winters. The firm’s commercial real estate practice handles a broad array of projects, including purchases, sales, leases of all kinds, and a variety of commercial loans, and numerous developments.

“We were as busy as ever during COVID and have seen steady increases in our litigation and commercial real estate practices since then,” said Leslie Packer, the firm’s managing partner and a founder. “Ellis & Winters’ primary client base is companies with interests in North and South Carolina and surrounding states. We are seeing a steep uptick in our South Carolina client base.”

“Being in the Research Triangle and the Piedmont, which are such high-growth areas has fueled opportunities for us,” Winters said. “There are so many good things happening in the Piedmont, like the huge announcements that have been made of late with mega sites.”

Entrepreneurs Wanted

Ellis & Winters added 14 new attorneys last year, bringing the firm’s total to 47 lawyers in its Raleigh and Greensboro offices. The new attorneys run the gamut from recent law school graduates to a former district court judge, a former member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and laterals with years of experience. According to Packer, all new attorneys were added to address existing clients’ needs. The firm expects to add depth to its current practice areas in the future to stay ahead of client needs. Other practices may be added if they complement the services it now provides.

“We like to find lawyers who are entrepreneurial and figure out how they want to develop their own practice, their own book of business, and handle things on their own,” Winters said. “The type of lawyer that doesn’t expect everything to be handed to her or him, and be told what to do.”

“We are looking for someone who can fit in with our client-centered culture and philosophy and who is a self-starter and has a lot of initiative,” Packer said. “We don’t recruit what I call project-based attorneys; we want someone who is totally invested in the client, the client team, and will throw out ideas even if they’re the junior person on the team. We are training people who we hope will be owners of this business as our partners someday.”

Training and Hiring Diversity

Ellis & Winters works with the Leadership Counsel on Legal Diversity to recruit, hire and train diverse attorneys. This along with the firm’s commitment to new and more innovative recruiting practices is enhancing the firm’s culture as well as its diversity.

Beginning several years ago, the firm reviewed and revised its recruiting practices and continues to review and update the program annually. Ellis & Winters targets specific high-tier law schools that are more diverse and works hard to support the students. Additionally, the firm recruits at the Southeastern Law School Minority Job Fair, which has been very successful. These changes, along with networking in diverse legal groups has helped the firm grow from two diverse attorneys in 2021 to 18% of its attorney ranks being diverse today.

“Diversifying our firm is our number 1 strategic goal,” said Packer. “But it’s not just diversifying for diversity’s sake, it’s because we want to continue building an inclusive firm culture that benefits our clients with multiple viewpoints and strengths. And we want to continue as friends who are there for one another and are always there for our clients.”

Bob Friedman

Robert "Bob" Friedman is the publisher of Attorney at Law Magazine North Carolina Triangle. He contributes articles and interviews to each issue.

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