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A Guiding Light Profile of Steve Ellis, King County Bar Bulletin

June 2, 2011


"Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world;
but here the earth was the floor of the sky."
—Willa Cather
Death Comes for the Archbishop

Growing up under the expansive skies of Eastern Washington provided Steve Ellis his particular sense of place in this world. The sky, ever changing in hue, clouds and light, nonetheless remains constant. The visible layer leading to infinity, an individual is inconsequential in comparison. One's sense of self is unlikely to become exaggerated and overblown in the constant presence of the unavoidable sky.

"I don't like folks who hog the limelight because for me it is all about teams," was Steve's reaction when this profile was first mentioned.

Steve Ellis left Walla Walla when he graduated from high school, but he has never lost the perspective of the presence of the limitless sky and the humility it creates. Living on a floor of relative flat land and rolling hills, the view of the sky unhampered by tall buildings and old-growth forest, makes one feel a very small part of something much, much bigger. Consistent with that experience, he sees himself as one man working within a larger community toward mutual goals.

In the Beginning

Steve decided in middle school that he wanted to be an attorney. He cannot precisely pinpoint what or who inspired him. True to form, he set his sights and became a lawyer, exhibiting at an early age what his son Peter identifies as a "sense of urgency" — taking ownership of something and not being willing to rest until your part in that thing, whatever it is, is completed. At times and in certain situations it might be called persistence and, perhaps less charitably, stubbornness.

At the University of Washington, Steve majored in economics. He credits Henry T. Buechel, his Introduction to Economics instructor and respected professor, with shepherding him through his studies and his major, serving as one of his first mentors. After graduating from the University of Washington, Steve received his legal education at the University of Michigan.

A Generalist's Career

Steve began his law practice in Seattle in 1970 with Reed McClure. Early in his professional career, he took on firm leadership roles and has served his firms in a variety of capacities from member of the board to managing partner and many other responsibilities in between.

Steve left Reed McClure in 1987 to open the Seattle office of what eventually became Weiss Jensen Ellis and Howard. That firm merged with Holland & Knight in 2001. Steve's gift for leadership was quickly recognized and within a matter of months he was appointed chairman of professional development and recruitment of a 1,400-lawyer firm.

It is often in times of turmoil and challenge that outstanding leadership and character are displayed. In 2005, the local office of H&K was unexpectedly closed. Steve personally offered to assist each employee, staff and attorneys alike, in relocating. He did it because it was the right thing to do. How a team is disbanded is just as important as how a team is put together.

He is now a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. Steve specializes in being a generalist: serving as outside general counsel to a number of companies, managing their legal affairs with particular experience in corporate matters, mergers and acquisitions, cross-border transactions and a wide variety of contracts.

His friends, colleagues and family consistently describe Steve as having a strong moral compass, an unshakeable sense of right and wrong, fairness and justice. Bob Weiss, his good friend, mentor and former partner, relates that Steve is fearless in maintaining his standards, unintimidated in defense of them.

Those who have practiced with Steve or observed him practice, use terms such as "versatile," "outstanding lawyer," "stellar negotiator." They say Steve knows when to stand his ground, is pragmatic and practical, while maintaining his standards and perspective. His strength is building teams that work together, either as a legal team, an office or a group of volunteers and moving as a community toward a shared goal. Successfully motivating others to action, Steve enjoys introducing people who would benefit from knowing each other, both personally and professionally.

He finds inspiration in the variety and creativity of approaches his clients bring to business and livelihood. He believes in disarming potential misunderstandings about cultural differences by discussing issues openly and asking questions freely.

Sense of Purpose

Steve's legal career has been devoted to service — to his clients, his colleagues and his profession. He leads by example through his service.

"I have the privilege of serving as a trusted advisor — part lawyer, part counselor and part mentor," Steve said.

His approach to work is guided by his belief that the practice of law is a service profession. Several years ago, in order to provoke discussion among a group of attorneys, Steve proposed that the law was a service industry, referencing P.G. Wodehouse. Discussion was successfully provoked — as were many of the attorneys present. Steve has never faltered in his firm belief that service is not demeaning; rather, it is his privilege to provide legal services to his clients.


One of his early mentors at the University of Michigan was Paul G. Kauper, a nationally recognized authority in constitutional law, including church-state relations. Steve took Kauper's church-state seminar and served as his law clerk for three years, researching and collaborating on a law review article.1 Recog­nizing how much he had learned and benefited from Kauper, Steve acknowledged his inability to ever adequately repay his mentor. Kauper asked him to continue the tradition and to help others in the same fashion in the future when the opportunity arose.

Steve is committed to helping others develop professionally, mentoring, giving back in the broad sense — and in doing so repaying in-kind Professor Kauper and all of those who helped him.

He has mentored a wide range and number of young, not-so-young, and getting-older professionals. He is proud of those relationships, enjoys the exchange and the growth and development that results. Perhaps, as his older son Don (an attorney practicing in Boston) speculated, it fulfills a professorial streak in him. Depending on the individual and the circumstance, his mentoring can be formal or casual; specifically planned or evolving, running the spectrum from lunch conversation to "assignments."

"Steve is a great advocate for young lawyers. There are many of us who owe a big part of our success to Steve and all that he did for us (often behind the scenes) along the way," said Joanie Y. Kim, an attorney mentored by Steve for many years.

He was there for her when she was a young associate and remained there as she became a partner and then moved to an in-house position. "Steve is the best teacher and mentor I have ever had," Kim continued. "He has an uncanny way of leading you to discover for yourself how to handle a situation. He instills the confidence to handle it. If you do not make the discovery on your own, he will tell you."

Adds Alex Baehr, another former mentee, "The thing that makes Steve a wonderful attorney and person is that he truly cares about the person to whom he is providing advice. Steve has a great way of understanding your concern and giving you advice that you can tell will make a positive difference."

Steve provides insightful suggestions, compassionate but exacting, on such topics as practice focus, time management, marketing, and professional as well as interpersonal relationships. He attempts to guide subtly; when that fails, he does not hesitate to state clearly what he thinks you need to realize and work on.

Several of those whom he has counseled over the years continue to call him for advice today, even as they are well into their own successful careers — and call him friend.

In Service of the Bar

Steve has given back to the profession, providing an example to other lawyers and in doing so providing leadership. Over the years, Steve has collected a number of volunteer positions and titles, performing an extraordinary amount of unheralded work. His sons expressed admiration at his humility about his accomplishments in his profession and his leadership. He does not often talk about them; both sons are certain there is much they do not know.

He excels in facilitating cooperation and team building, working together to accomplish a goal, all the while making sure all goals are articulated and forward motion occurs, always staying on task.

His work as a King County Bar Foundation trustee furthers his commitment to social justice, increasing diversity in the profession and access to justice for those otherwise unable to afford it. He has served as a trustee since 2005, and has been both secretary and president.

His presidency (2009–2010) provided solid leadership in a time of challenging economics. He oversaw the development of a conservative budget while judiciously accessing reserves to maintain core programs, all the while advocating increased fundraising efforts by the board and staff. The budget produced a $125,000 surplus, including the most successful joint law fund campaign in KCBF's history, as well as acquiring significant new revenue commitments from outside sources such as the Seattle Foundation. When his tenure ended, the board raised money for a KCBF endowment gift in Steve's honor.

The KCBA president tapped Steve to chair the Quasquicentennial Social Justice Forum Committee, a high-level bar committee (including several judges and the deans of both local law schools). The Committee is planning a conference in the fall to celebrate the KCBA's 125 years of commitment to social justice.

The Public Law Library of King County is fortunate to have him as its current vice president. This position has revealed another set of challenges that will benefit from his dedication and single-mindedness as many relate to access to justice for those who have no other recourse and limited resources.

He has held many other positions within the bar, as well as on boards of community organizations such as The Village Theatre, Seattle Children's Home and The Northwest Theological Union.

Steve's presence is felt in the numerous subcommittees, executive committees, ad hoc committees, mentoring meetings and lunches he attends; he also plays racquetball every morning, while still maintaining an active legal practice. To accomplish all this, one might suspect that he starts his day early — and he does. His day does not start at dawn; he is a predawn riser, a time many of us consider the middle of the night. He uses every minute well.

Steve is not satisfied with what he has accomplished and what he can do. He expects the same from others. He does not relent until his job is done. He expects those whom he has mentored to become involved and give back to the profession and the larger community.

More than Meets the Eye

Steve is an attorney with the proclivity to be a writer — writing his own blog — who has an affinity for the well-written phrase or lyric, often quoting imagery appropriate for the occasion (see introductory quote, lifted from one of his blog entries, Even more unusual, he is an attorney with a sense of humor. He maintains an ongoing list of "Hamheads: Headlines that raise far more questions than the accompanying text could ever answer," a collection of unbelievably bizarre and sometimes down-right foolish behavior culled from reading a wide variety of publications. The list currently stands at 40.

A message in his own words, originally written when his son moved to the eastern side of the state, is a fitting closing paragraph, a reminder of perspective and the value of working together.

"[L]earn to love the spirit and magnificence of this sky for only in its immensity can one fully appreciate one's position upon this earth and discover the singular sense of wonder and magnificence that is to be found in the struggle of each living thing to survive and endure."

1 Paul G. Kauper and Stephen C. Ellis, "Religious Corporations and the Law," 71 Mich. L. Rev. 1499 (1972–1973).

As published King County Bar Bulletin, June 2011.