Photo by Amy Cantrell.
Photo by Amy Cantrell.

Dennis Ellis knew his mother was proud of his football career. She came to all his games. She cheered. But the look of gratification on her face when her son successfully defended General Electric from a claim that its full-body scanners were defective was one he had never seen before.

Ellis couldn’t resist asking her about it afterward, he recalls.

“She said pretty succinctly, ‘You know, when I watched your football games, I thought you were doing good, because you were out there all the time, but I didn’t really know for sure what was going on. But this, I know. I do this, I know how hard it is, and I know what I saw, and you were as good as I have ever seen."

It was an exhilarating moment for Ellis, who as a scholarship student athlete at California State University Fullerton, had once dreamed of a gridiron career but opted to pursue the law instead. He mirrored his mother, Sharon Majors-Lewis, a single parent who earned her law degree in night school and went on to become a deputy district attorney in San Diego; judicial appointments secretary to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; and now a Superior Court judge.

At early points in his legal career, their respective victories seemed almost synced. In 2002, the San Diego Union-Tribune covered the $92 -million verdict that a Paul Hastings team including Ellis won against investment firm William Simon & Sons in the same week that Majors-Lewis earned a conviction in a high-profile murder trial.

Later, Ellis was named attorney of the year by California Lawyer magazine after he captured a $2.87-billion judgment for Chinese telecom giant New World. Just about the same time, his mother was chosen to become the judicial appointments secretary, the first woman  and African-American to hold the position.

“In some way, there was this symbiotic connection with my mom all the way through,” he said. The law “wasn’t a path I initially sought out, because I was trying to be successful as an athlete. But when I decided to move forward into practicing law, I benefited from having seen my mom do it at such a high level for so long, first as a kid watching her go to law school when I was in high school and then, the early stages of her career as a prosecutor.”

Ellis has recently made headlines protecting restaurants desperately trying to survive, winning a ruling that L.A. County acted arbitrarily in shutting down all outdoor dining.

Lawdragon: Dennis, can you tell us how you got involved in the restaurant lawsuit? I know Browne George Ross O’Brien Annaguey & Ellis routinely is hired by private and governmental powerbrokers in L.A.

Dennis Ellis: Depth of practice.  We have some of the most talented, experienced and well-versed litigators and trial lawyers in the industry, and as a result we are always in demand by all clients in both the private and public sector. What we are building here is going to be disruptive to the industry, because we will stand alone as a litigation firm that can operate equally on either side of the “v.” as both a Plaintiff and a Defendant in nearly any type of case.

LD: What has been your pandemic dining regime? I know you have a new baby, Townsend, so did that impact your routine? And what does this lawsuit mean to you?

DE: Well, first of all, my regimen has been changed dramatically with the birth of my first son in September.  My wife Ashleigh, who has been a tremendous supporter during this transition to my new firm, and a tireless mother to our son Townsend, has shouldered most of the load at home leaving me to continue to develop my practice on this new platform. However, because I am and have always been an early riser, I handle the 4:00 a.m. feedings for Townsend.  After that, I head to my office in our home to begin my day.

One of the few days I had to miss my feeding shift, was the day we first appeared before Judge [James] Chalfant seeking to challenge the L.A. County order prohibiting outdoor dining.  I had to be at Court with the ex parte papers so early that Ashleigh had to finish pumping and then take my turn feeding Townsend. She must have been up the whole night.

That began what led to a landmark decision for our client the California Restaurant Association.  CRA’s President, Jot Condie, and I were staffers together in Sacramento as twenty-something year olds, and we have remained friends throughout the past 30 years. But we never really had an occasion to do much work for them other than a couple of research projects. The decision is a landmark - Chalfant followed the rule of law and confirmed that the decision process of County Public Health Departments is not free from judicial scrutiny.  While their decisions are entitled to great deference, their ability to act is not unbridled. Their decisions must be supported by evidence and rationally related to the interest they seek to protect – public health. In our case, there was no evidence supporting an increased risk of COVID transmission through outdoor dining at restaurants, and thus the Court rightfully issued an order prohibiting the L.A. County order.

This all comes full circle too. The verdict that I was a part of against William E. Simon and Sons, was before Chalfant also. He took that jury verdict away with a similar lengthy order. It feels much better to be on the other side of one of his carefully-reasoned decisions.

LD: Can we take it back to the beginning - you were playing football throughout undergrad, right? Go Titans!

DE: I played in college, but then that was the end. I do still watch football. I’m not a fan of any particular team, but I’m a fan of the game. I'll always love the game. It's hard to say, because I've not been a football player more of my life than I was a football player, but I still view myself as an athlete, a football player. It's hard for me to look at myself differently.

LD: By the time you went to Howard, to law school, where was your head at? After watching your mom progressing as a lawyer, what kind of lawyer did you think you'd be?

DE: I had just left the state legislature, where I had worked for San Diego area Assemblywoman Carol Bentley after college; that’s who Jot and I worked for. When I was going to law school and going to Howard, I thought - like a lot of Howard students do - that it was my time to be a social engineer and to work on things that are affecting our society. My thought was that I would have a different approach and be a different, balancing voice for a conservative viewpoint. This was also during the time that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was going through the confirmation process.

LD: That’s an interesting context for figuring out your future.

DE: I was 24 years old and trying to figure out what my path was going to be. I thought, “Maybe I'll come back and be a legislator or do something along those lines.” I wanted to be a prosecutor, like my mom. There were a lot of things going through my mind, but I definitely thought I was more likely to be in public service in some capacity – federal prosecutor, district attorney, or one day running for public office.

Despite my feelings that I had a very balanced view of the world and could be a good voice of reason for others, for Blacks and conservatives in 1992, watching the Clarence Thomas proceedings and other things that were going on in the country at that time, I was a little concerned that my voice would never be heard. Being misunderstood based for my conservative views definitely concerned me.

So I started thinking about other things to do. Although I thought being a U.S. attorney could still be really good, I wound up performing much better in my first year of law school than I anticipated and finished fourth in my class. That gave me the opportunity to take advantage of going to a big firm, which I had never even considered. There was also an importance in interviewing and showcasing some of the good students at Howard - and the diversity at Howard, in mind, body, and ability. The professors there impressed upon me that even if I didn't desire to go to a law firm, I should at least consider the process and think about it and interview.

LD: I always find it so interesting where the inflection point occurs in legal education where we focus on joining a law firm, for many different reasons.

DE: A professor at the time, a former dean, sat me down and said, "You've just got to do it. We need you to do it. We need you to interview, we need employers to see there are people like you here. For the people that come on campus from these firms, this is a place where they say, “OK, let's go interview so we can do our due diligence to say that we tried to bring in people of color for our law firm.”

Now they can see that there's a broad swath of people that come from different experiences, they're talented and good. I did it and I was still in the back of my mind thinking, “I will never take these jobs.” But man, with the challenge they presented and the people I met, I came out of that feeling like I had to try to be the best and practice at the highest level, something I was never able to accomplish as a football player.

LD: Be still your competitive heart.

DE: As a football player, I relished those opportunities when we played big teams. My philosophy of life was that I wanted to play on the biggest stage and perform well. At Howard, I was getting this opportunity to go to the biggest firms and I got an offer from one of the top law firms in the country at that time, Coudert Brothers. They were a big New York firm and I think at the time they were paying more than anybody else.

Paul Hastings also made me an offer, as did Fulbright & Jaworski. I met a guy named Kelvin Westbrook, a Black attorney who had just made partner at Paul Hastings, and he knew how to speak to me. He said, “It won’t be easy. This is a different type of practice.” He knew the challenge would resonate with me. It did, and I decided to go to Paul Hastings. It was a great decision because it really helped me to become the lawyer I am today.

LD: And here you are after attaining partnership at Paul Hastings and rising to be its global chair of complex litigation and arbitration, your name has recently been added to Browne George Ross O’Brien Annaguey & Ellis in recognition of your amazing accomplishments.

DE: There were all these times over the years that I was like, “OK, is now the time to go be a U.S. attorney? I just never did it. It even went so far as having an offer to join the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego and go back home since I am from San Diego, and I was really thinking of doing it. One of the partners I worked for was a former U.S. attorney, one of the true gentlemen of the legal profession and just a great mentor and trainer. His name was Nick DeWitt. He was a paraplegic, and a great attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Central District. He passed away, oh I guess now it’s been about 8 years ago.

He just had this great perspective on life: If you're 15 and they tell you that they're going to operate on you and it'll save your life but it'll make you paralyzed, you have to live that way. He just always lived like every day was a blessing. He never let all the pressure and all that goes with practicing in a big firm or practicing law generally get to him, he was always better than that. He never let anybody drag him into the petty fighting that can happen in litigation. He taught me never to do that either, to have the tools that were needed, to always be prepared, to understand that it’s just litigation and you’ll figure it out.

Because of all of that, I always feel like I had this unique perspective coming to Paul Hastings because I had Nick on the one hand and a guy named Alan Steinbrecher who was a former F4 fighter pilot during the Vietnam war, a very strict military-type guy. He was the kind of father figure who would be very stern and provide discipline and structure, and Nick was like the big brother who would hug when it was over and say, “It’ll be OK.” I had that great balance. While I didn't see that path, I'm glad that path came to me because it certainly put me in a good place to do well in my legal career.

LD: Mentors are so crucial to career success, especially in terms of providing balanced perspective and clueing you in about how the system works. Tell me about some of your early cases.

DE:  The first time I was the first chair at a trial was in Sonoma County. We represented a company called MRV Communications in a civil case brought on behalf of a company called Broadlink. My second chair was a young associate, a woman named Gillian Garrett who had never tried a case before. Being Black, I always thought it was important to try to give diverse lawyers an opportunity. Which is what I did in this case, albeit with a young female attorney. So there was this big guy, me, and she was this demure, small petite woman. The guy who was the lead plaintiff witness was my size. I thought, “OK, if I cross-examine this guy and I draw with him, it would just be like two big bulls hitting at each other. But if she cross-examines him and even comes close to getting him, we’ll look like the winner.”

So I gave up the most critical witness in the case to her, and she cross-examined him. He was one of two witnesses I gave her, and she did great. Not only did she come close, she got him good.  Made him admit a critical fact for our side during cross-examination – that he had never sent a termination notice regarding the contract.

Then the first trial I did as a partner was VitaScan vs GE Healthcare. I've had some great successes throughout my career but the most difficult, most significant victory of my career - regardless of the numbers but in terms of what was at stake for me as a lawyer - was VitaScan. I think it's my best performance and my most difficult challenge.

This was during the period of time in 2006 when a lot of private companies had bought full-body scanners from General Electric. There was this whole notion about doing a full-body scan to determine whether you had a risk of heart attack, which would allow you to get preventative care. Oprah Winfrey had a program about this. VitaScan had bought these scanners and they were, according to VitaScan, temperamental, so they made this massive lost-profit claim for $24 million, saying that their business failed because GE’s scanners didn’t work. There were people across the country making similar allegations. It wound up that this case that we believed to be a challenging case was the first one to go to trial.

LD: No pressure.

DE: Here I was, a partner, newly minted, and I was going to try the first case on the matter for one of our longtime legacy clients, GE. One of the legacy partners at Paul Hastings was representing them, and the pressure was on. The second chair was an associate who was up for partner. It was a big case. Only $24 million was at issue in the matter, but if we lost, there were like 10 to 20 more cases out there.

LD: Right, it could cascade.

DE:  At one point in time, I heard GE say the problem could be an $800 million problem. On that case alone, it was 57 trial days, with essentially my whole career on the line. I remember at one point in time, I went to the lead relationship partner in our firm for GE, Kurt Hansson, and said, "I get it. If I lose this case, it'll be the shortest partnership in history." I always laughed and joked after the fact that he didn't say, “No, it’ll be OK.” He just was like, "OK, as long as you know ...."

But we went through that trial, basically three months, and we won. A complete defense verdict.

There was an article in one of the Santa Barbara papers talking about GE versus a small company and the David vs. Goliath dynamics. It was entitled, 'Goliath Wins.' Even though I felt like the underdog up there, I always took it, since I'm such a big guy, it's like Goliath did win, finally. Wilt Chamberlain always says, "Nobody roots for Goliath." The person that's supposed to win doesn't get a lot of support.

LD: That's really incredible. You were such a young partner when you accomplished all that and then you just never looked back.

DE: There's some truth to that, but when you have those kinds of accomplishments, what happens next? Does it keep going up like a V-shaped curve or is there a plateau, followed by a smoother progression? In my career, it was more of a smoother progression over a couple of years where I was doing fine. But when you have the kind of start that I had, fine is not what is expected. So I had those issues like every other partner has: Concern, self-doubt. This is hard stuff. Nobody just says, ‘This is it, I made it, I don't need to do anything else.”

LD: What drove you to make the switch from successful partner at Paul Hastings to Brown George?

DE: It was a process, really. One of the critical things that happened to me was that in 2016, I got really sick; I got a staph infection. I had sepsis, and it was really scary. I was working on a case in Hong Kong, and I got a really bad pain in my shoulder, so I went and got acupuncture.  We cannot be sure, but that is what we think might have gave me the infection.  How the sepsis affected me was that my knees got infected, and I had to have 4 knee surgeries over an 8 day period.  There was a time amputation was not being dismissed. In any event, the great doctors at Cedars-Sinai got me back in good health and I began the lengthy rehabilitation process.

When I got better, I did an arbitration that I won and then I had one more trial left for L’Oréal that was coming up that I thought would be my last case. I was tired, and thought I would retire.  We lost that trial, and it was my first real trial lost ever.  It hurt then, it hurts now, but it also inspired me to keep going.

Who knows if I would be at Browne George had we won that trial, but we didn't. There was no way I could leave the profession on that note. There's no way I would live with that being my last case. That made me think about what I wanted to do and one of the things that came out of that was with the Paul Hastings model, you might try a case every couple of years if you were lucky like I was, but then you could go long stretches without doing any of them.  I needed to be back in court before juries more often was my conclusion.

LD: Sometimes it’s the low moments that really focus us.

DE: I wanted a new model where I could be in the courtroom using the skills that I have as a trial lawyer because that’s where I believe my real value lies. I wound up considering some other big national firms, and I discovered that in the in the end, this was the move that was right for me. I'm very, very pleased that I did it, and it’s freed up a lot of time for trial work. Once we get back to a more normal world, you'll see the effects as we get more and more into the courtroom.

LD: You’ve talked a little about your experiences as a Black man and an attorney. What have the events of 2020, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, meant to you professionally and personally?

DE: I think every Black person in this country right now is wondering, “Where are we going to go from here? Is this going to be another time where there's been attention on a point but then it just dissipates?” We're also always wondering, “How can we help with that? How can we help with these things?”

In my case, I was blessed to be offered these unique opportunities, but I’m certainly not so vain as to believe that I was the only one to deserve them or that I was the only one who could have leveraged them. If you really think about it, this kid from the inner city who was raised by a single mother going to night school winds up being taken under the wing by a professor at Cal State Fullerton who helps him get a job with the legislature in Sacramento, who then works for an assemblywoman who helps him with the experience and credentials he needs to get into law school. He winds up getting a scholarship to Howard, one of the most prestigious schools in our country, and gets all the training that he could need to do well and gets the guidance to go pursue this path when he doesn’t even expect to go into practice at a major international law firm.

It doesn't have to be in the practice of law, either. What if somebody who was a sales manager got that opportunity, what would he deliver? That's really what we need, the opportunities, and we need to be seen as agents for change and agents for success, not as criminals who might rob or hurt you. I myself have been that guy in a car who got arrested for no reason but my race. I’ve had officers come into my home holding their guns, and that happened while I was a Paul Hastings partner.

So despite what I've accomplished, there have been these moments where I could have been George Floyd. What would my  universe look like if any of them had gone the wrong way? They didn’t and so I am here.  But there are many people just like me that weren’t as blessed.  What would they be today?