Mentors in Law

St. Paul, MN criminal defense attorney Deborah Ellis talks about her main mentors throughout her career.

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Well, Doug Thompson clearly was and he was a premier criminal defense lawyer in St. Paul but he tried cases all over. I had followed his representation of Roger Caldwell in the Glenn Sheen murders he had represented June ______ in a highly celebrated murder case in which she was found not guilty by reason of mental illness that was in Hennepin. So all these were like in the late ’70s I was following those cases, at the same time, I was reading F. Lee Bailey books. So when I got to work for Doug I learned so much I mean he’s a master, his closing arguments are unsurpassed. When he would give a closing argument, the courtroom would just fill up with spectators. They would be from the prosecutor’s office, everyone would try and come and listen to Doug.

So he was a fierce advocate, really a big fighter and I learned a lot from him. But it took me a while to learn that I couldn’t be Doug Thompson. I couldn’t give the same closing arguments. I mean Doug, we fondly refer to him sometimes as Mr. Magoo because he kind of looked like Mr. Magoo but he had this professorial look too. So in his closing arguments he could quote Sir Francis Bacon an Cicero and when I started trying cases I know I did some of those quotes but that wasn’t’ really me.

The second mentor would be Jerry Spence and I have spent a lot of time out in Wyoming at Jerry Spence’s trial lawyer college. I attended the college. I’ve been on the faculty for over 10 years there and I mean Jerry Spence message is you gotta just be you. And I like the phrase of you gotta be the best you you can everyone else is taken. But that I had to just find, I’m not saying that it took me just going to Jerry Spence’s trial lawyer college but it took a while from working with Doug to develop my own style or just be comfortable of this works for me and it’s not Doug and it’s Jerry Spence.