Family Recipe

Charles and Ellen Rittgers built a thriving firm together—and brought son Charlie into the fold 7 years ago

Published in 2018 Ohio Super Lawyers — January 2018

When your family business is a small-town law firm with high-profile cases, dinner table conversations can get pretty interesting. 

Charles H. and Ellen B. Rittgers had two young children, 8-year-old Charlie and 4-year-old Annie, when they started their own firm together in 1991, along with another partner, John Mengle. Charles practiced mostly criminal defense law, while Ellen focused on divorce cases. Sometimes, Charles’ clients made local, even national news—prompting questions from their children’s classmates like, “How can your dad defend murderers and rapists?” 

“So there was a lot of discussion at home about the Constitution, which would then lead to really lively discussions,” Ellen recalls. “I remember having this talk with Annie when she was in grade school. ‘First of all, you’re not the judge and jury,’ I would tell her. ‘But if somebody’s guilty, that doesn’t absolve the prosecution from doing the job of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt—or else it’s all going to become a police state.’”

“The way we look at it,” Charles continues, “we’re not just representing that person who’s accused. We’re representing our family, our neighbors and everybody else by upholding the Constitution. I truly believe [criminal defense lawyers] are the last line of defense against a totalitarian regime.”

As a 6-year-old, Annie once tagged along with Charles for a trial in municipal court. “She asked me if she could go,” Ellen says, “and we both said to her, ‘You can’t talk. You can’t leave. Mommy’s not going.’” Annie agreed, and brought along a bag of coloring books and crayons. 

“After the jury was sworn in, there was a break before opening statements,” Charles says. “Annie asked me why I kept two of these people on. She was right, but I had to explain to her I can only kick off three of them, so I kept the two weakest.” He laughs, recalling his daughter’s sharp legal instincts. Ellen recalls her husband coming home and saying, “Oh, my God. She was my jury consultant, only I couldn’t do anything about it.” Annie went on to graduate from Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, then started her own consulting firm.

 

When Ellen and Charles met at law school in the 1970s, they decided they would share everything: a life, a home, a family. But a law firm? “It wasn't in the plans for a long time,” Ellen says. 

Charles spent a year working in the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office, and the couple moved to Lebanon, Ohio—a quaint historic town with tree-lined streets, grand Victorian homes, antique shops and a family-friendly atmosphere. Charles switched to criminal defense work at a private firm in town, while Ellen pursued her career in family law.

When Mengle approached the couple about joining forces, Ellen says, “We thought it would be a great idea. Then, once we did it, we got nervous. ... I mean, what if something went wrong? Everything was in the same basket.” The couple also talked over how they would balance their relationship at home with running their new firm. 

“We decided that, since Ellen was the boss of me at home, I could be the boss at the office,” Charles quips. “I would be the managing person and there would be no conflict regarding my managerial decisions.” Adds Ellen, “This [approach] was perfect for me, because I didn’t want to do the administration. I just wanted to practice law and be with my kids.”

The firm continued growing throughout the 1990s. Since their partner left in 1998 to start his own family firm with a niece, it’s been Rittgers & Rittgers on the shingle. That same year, the couple bought and renovated adjacent mid-19th-century buildings to serve as their main office, in Lebanon’s North Broadway Historic District. The couple’s home is just outside of town, on 10 acres of land. 

When Charlie (Charles M.) was attending law school, Charles invited his son to the courtroom to serve as technical assistant for the legal defense team of Ryan Widmer, who was accused of drowning his wife in the bathtub of their home in 2008. Charlie sat at the counsel table throughout the two-week trial. “It was very educational,” Charlie says. “But that trial took a pretty emotional toll on the family.” 

Widmer was found guilty, though the verdict was overturned due to jury misconduct. A different legal team defended Widmer in a second trial, which ended in a hung jury. Widmer was eventually convicted in 2011, and is currently serving a 15-year-to-life sentence. 

“After that trial, I was pretty convinced that I would never do criminal defense again,” says Charlie, though he would later change his mind. “I was disheartened by the verdict.” He graduated from his parents’ alma mater, University of Cincinnati College of Law, in 2010. 

While he intended to begin his law practice at his parents’ firm, Charlie first wanted to gain some outside perspective—which he did, in a yearlong stint as an investment banker in New York City before law school. “The training for that job and the job itself—90-plus hours a week in finance—it does have me approach my law practice in more of a business sense than I think I would have if I would have gone straight from undergrad to law school,” he says. Like his dad, he handles a mix of mostly criminal defense and some personal injury. 

Charles and Ellen are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this year, and the family business has reached its largest size yet—16 attorneys and 14 staffers at time of publication. Says Charlie, “If there’s an opportunity, we’ll grow.” 

Asked if he’ll tack another “Rittgers” onto the shingle, Charlie laughs: “I will not. I like the consistent brand.” 

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