Attorney at Law Magazine Dallas publisher P.J. Hines sat down with Al Ellis, of counsel with Sommerman, McCaffity, Quesada & Geisler, L.L.P., to get his insight into the legal practice gained from his years of experience.
AALM: What is the best advice you received from a mentor figure?
Ellis: This is hard to answer, as I have had so many mentors over the years who gave me great advice. Growing up, there were “surrogate parents,” who I am sure gave me good advice, but mostly they provided direction and security. The next major mentor in my life was John Barnes, store manager of the Wyatt/Kroger food store, where I worked through high school and college. His best advice was given by example: work hard. My next mentors came in high school and college ROTC and as an Army Airborne Infantry officer: Persevere. Ironically, my first law mentor, Robert P. Woodruff, gave the same advice. Whenever I came to him with an issue, he would listen, offer suggestions, and end with: Persevere.
AALM: In terms of retaining clients, what single act do you believe is most effective?
Ellis: No single act. Empathy, compassion, listen, communicate. Be more than an attorney. Be a counselor.
AALM: What advice would you offer a newly licensed attorney?
Ellis: Welcome to the legal profession. Not knowing why you chose to become a lawyer, may I at least make some suggestions for success to consider. For me and for all of the great lawyers I have been privileged to serve with, the legal profession is a calling. Granted, we all entered the profession with different ideas as to why we were here and what we wanted to accomplish. However, as we became involved in the profession and with the legends in the profession, we realized it was more of a calling than just a job. Yes, the legal profession provides most of us with financial rewards to support ourselves and our families, but the most important part of our membership is to do all we can to ensure the justice system is available for all and to be of service to our community. One of my favorite quotes: Do all you can, in the time you have, in the place you are.
AALM: How do you work to maintain balance between your home life and work life? What single tip would you offer a young attorney?
Ellis: Sorry, I don’t have a single tip. Surely you didn’t expect just one!! As a newly licensed lawyer, balancing your life is much more difficult than it is for someone like me who has practiced for 48 years and has developed a certain sense of independence. First and foremost, take care of yourself and your mental and physical well-being. Our profession has twice the national average of drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you will not be able to serve your clients and your community. Second, exercise, exercise, exercise. Enough said. Third, find a community service about which you are passionate and devote as much time as possible to that passion. Last but not least, take time for yourself and your family, whether it be movies, books, travel, being present for your spouse and/or children, or hobbies. The law in your life is extremely important, but it really is not the be-all and end-all. Remember, when you die, your “In Basket” will not be empty.
AALM: What flaws do you see in the legal community? How would you recommend that they be improved or eradicated?
Ellis: I truly believe “flaws” in the legal community is a misnomer. Most lawyers come to the profession as so-called “Type A” personalities, hard chargers, perfectionists and the like. These tools can serve us well when representing our clients. However, if these tools become the sole guiding light for our conduct, they will adversely affect us individually and the legal profession. In short, the answer to this question goes back to the issue of balance. These so-called “flaws” in the legal community can be tempered by following the advice contained in the well-known Serenity Prayer: let me accept the things I cannot change, let me have the courage to change the things I can and have the wisdom to know the difference. Lastly, I would encourage everyone to read and become familiar with the “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff ” series of books by Richard Carlson. Some of the chapter headings themselves are great mantras for living our lives: Make Peace with Imperfection, Do Something Nice for Someone Else and Don’t Tell Anyone, Choose Your Battles Wisely, and Will This Matter a Year From Now.
AALM: Would you encourage attorneys to become involved in legal associations? Where or how do you believe their involvement would be most beneficial?
Ellis: Yes. Every newly licensed lawyer should join the young lawyers association in your community. The benefits are two-fold. First, most young lawyer organizations are active community service providers, and you can often find that community service passion you are looking for. Second, active involvement in a young lawyers association is a great way to meet and make new friends who practice in all areas of the law. Certainly, many of us, as leaders in the bar, experienced our first leadership roles in our young lawyers association. That is not to say every person who becomes involved in a young lawyers association is going to become a “bar junkie.” But involvement will be a significant influencer in the manner in which you not only practice law, but devote yourself to some community service.
In closing, To Live Is To Become Involved. To Become Involved Is To Care. To Care Is The Essence of Being. So….Do All You Can, In the Time You Have, In The Place You Are.