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Q&A: Barnes Ellis, Stoel Rives, Portland

Ellis reflects on 44 distinguished years in law. Though his practice tends toward the complex—consumer class actions and corporate governance—his formula for victory is simple: common sense, respect and a dash of humor      

Published in 2008 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine

What was it like growing up in your hometown of Marblehead, Mass.?

People are very deep-rooted there. Two years ago, I went back to my Boy Scout troop’s 50th reunion, and on the list of names, seven out of 10 still lived in the area.

Also, one lesson I learned from my parents was to love your siblings because, as life unfolds, they may be your closest friends. That’s certainly how it’s worked out for us.


When and why did you decide to become an attorney?

I decided in my senior year of college. I wanted to do something where you couldn’t coast; you had to be your best every day. The other thing is, I like to work with people who are involved in stressful situations.


Why this particular practice area?

I was sort of at the right place at the right time, because in the mid-’60s, nobody else really wanted to do business litigation work, and I did. So I got a bit of a head start, and when it really became large with the advent of class actions, I was already there.


What would you have done if you hadn’t gone into law?

I thought for a while of being a literature professor, but I think the world has been spared that I didn’t do that (laughing).


What has changed the most since you began practicing law?

One major change has been the wonderful presence of women lawyers. In the ’70s a generation of really bright, able women were wanting to have professional careers along with family. Women bring not just a skill set but a values set that I think has been good for the legal system. The other obvious change is technology.


What is one lesson you’ve learned in the courtroom?

I was working with the late Manley Strayer, a wonderful lawyer, back in the ’70s and ’80s. We had a case for Bohemia Lumber Co. against Goodyear Aerospace involving aerodynamic balloons. The idea was to fly the logs from where they had been felled to the landing. There were problems with the balloons, and one issue with a balloon that had fallen overnight was whether the winds were above, I think it was, 50 mph. The other side called a witness who was a hermit, an older gentleman who lived on an island in the Umpqua River basin. Of course, I was nudging Manley and saying, ‘He’s not qualified; he’s not a meteorologist.’ Manley let the old gentleman testify that he thought the wind was over 50 mph. Then, a week or so later, Manley—who knew something I didn’t—called the young lawyer for the other side as a witness, and pressed him: ‘How did you locate the old hermit?’ He said, ‘A fellow who used to work for Goodyear gave me a nickname [for the hermit].’ ‘And what was the nickname?’ Long pause: ‘Weak Eyes.’ So the eyewitness really wasn’t able to see.

If Manley had attacked that witness, I think the jury would have resented it.

You can confront witnesses with the problems in their testimony without being disrespectful.


Has your entire career been with Stoel Rives?

Yes, except for a leave of absence in ’67 to ’68 to serve as a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. The Vietnam War was hot and heavy; you had the assassinations of both Dr. King and Sen. Kennedy; you had the country in enormous  turmoil. To see armed guards in the streets of Washington, D.C., was a frightening experience.


You won the Judge Learned Hand Award last year. What were the qualifications?

It was a wonderful award to receive. I’m assuming it was because I’ve practiced for quite a number of years and tried to balance practice and community service. Right now, I’m chair of the Public Defense Services Commission, the state commission that oversees indigent defense provision. That’s been something I’ve been interested in all my professional life.


What is your greatest strength?

I like to think I bring common sense to my cases. There’s a danger that you’ll get too wrapped up in the details, particularly with complex subject matter.


What is your greatest weakness?

I tend to be optimistic, so predicting outcomes is not something I’ve ever been good at. I always laugh and say that, in lawsuits, I need someone with me who sees the dark side.


What historic figure would you like to have lunch with and what would you say?

Wouldn’t you just love the opportunity to meet Abraham Lincoln? I think I’d just listen. You’d just like to hear some of the stories he would tell, because he had the facility to, instead of just making a point, illustrate that point.


What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

My father had an expression: Keep your sense of humor screwed on.        


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