Attorney At Law Magazine: Steven M. Ellsworth, Attorney of the Month

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Steven M. Ellsworth

This certified family law specialist brings nearly 25 years of professional expertise to his practice.

By Vicki Hogue-Davies

When it comes to how he built his law career, Steven M. Ellsworth believes that his decision to specialize in family law was a major contributor to his success. Ellsworth, founder of Ellsworth Family Law in Mesa, Ariz., has practiced in his specialty area for nearly 25 years, helping hundreds of clients navigate through divorce and other life challenges.

“[Specialization] proved to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made as far as the development of my career and my practice,” he says. He gives credit for his decision to a law office management consultant who visited a firm where Ellsworth worked early in his career. The consultant emphasized specialization, which was a novel concept then, Ellsworth notes. Ellsworth now gives the same wise advice to younger lawyers he meets.

“When I talk to young lawyers today … my first advice to them is that you need to specialize,” he says. “I don’t care what area of the law you choose but become the very best you can be in your chosen area and if you do that you will be successful. For me, it doesn’t matter how many lawyers are admitted to the bar in Arizona, I know I will always be busy because I carved out a specialty area that is in demand.”

Expert Credentials

Ellsworth has worked to become the best he can be in his profession by staying at the forefront of his field. It is this preparation that enables him to successfully handle complex divorce cases, custody disputes, child support issues, prenuptial agreements and a myriad other family law areas. While he personally loves arguing before a judge, he understands that litigation is not always the best course of action. “Resolving a case through the court is the absolute worst way to do it. People are happier with a result they choose rather than one that is forced upon them,” Ellsworth says, which is why his goal is to help clients reach a settlement outside the courtroom.

Toward the goal of keeping people out of court, Ellsworth recently became a certified family law arbitrator by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and is now devoting more of his practice to offering mediation and arbitration services. “This is all part of the trend across the country to resolve cases outside of going to trial,” he says.

“One of the things I didn’t understand as a new lawyer that I do now with age and wisdom is that experience really does matter,” he says. “That is why it is called the practice of law. You increase in knowledge and skill year aft er year. When you are a new attorney you don’t realize how much you don’t know.”

Ellsworth is one of just 29 lawyers in the state accepted into the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Becoming a fellow of the academy and becoming a certified family law specialist by the State Bar of Arizona were big achievements, he acknowledges. Ellsworth was also recently appointed to serve on the Arizona Board of Legal Specialization. He notes that while these accomplishments are very important to him, he is most pleased with the referrals he receives from judges and people throughout the community, including many whom he doesn’t even know.

“That makes me feel good about my accomplishments,” he says. “Your reputation as an attorney is one of the most valuable things you can have and even though we are in a big town it is still a small legal community. Judges learn early who the ethical attorneys are. Having a good reputation is a huge asset and an important benefit to your clients.”

Ellsworth says that when he was a young attorney looking for role models, he looked no further than Phoenix attorney, John Herrick. “I looked at John and the way he practices and said, ‘That is the kind of attorney I want to be.’ He is a gentleman and a professional and he influenced the way I practice law.”

Family Ties

Practicing law runs in the Ellsworth family. “My two older brothers are both attorneys practicing in Arizona,” he says. “I also have two sons-in-law who have chosen law as their profession.” Ellsworth, who excelled in reading and writing in school, also considered those strengths when deciding on a law career. “They lend themselves really well to being an attorney,” he says.

How did he end up specializing in family law?

“The field sort of chose me,” he says, recounting how he took on a friend’s divorce case for free when he was first starting out. “He asked if I could help and I thought, ‘How hard could that be?’” he laughs. Ellsworth later went to work for the Mesa firm of one of his brothers, which had a lot of family law cases coming in that he took on. “It just evolved from there.”

He opened Ellsworth Family Law 10 years ago aft er leaving a partnership at another practice.

“Part of the reason I started it was that I wanted to have a specialty, boutique law firm,” he says. “I didn’t want to be part of a firm that did everything. In addition to working as an attorney, one of the things I enjoy about the practice is the challenge of running a law firm, the business side of it. I like being able to create jobs and employ people.”

The firm employs two associate attorneys. Like Ellsworth, attorney Glenn D. Halterman, who has been with the firm since 2006, is also a certified family law specialist by the State Bar of Arizona. Attorney Spencer T. Schiefer has practiced since 2011 and focuses on family law and personal injury. Schiefer is also Ellsworth’s son-in-law.

“Both are excellent attorneys and litigators and aspire to the highest ethics,” Ellsworth says about his associates.

The office is managed by Ellsworth’s wife, Gail. Three paralegals, two legal assistants and other support staff round out the team.

In developing his own firm, Ellsworth considered the culture he wanted at work. “I’ve worked at firms where the environments were stuffy and oppressive,” Ellsworth says. “I didn’t want that here. I wanted everybody to enjoy coming to work and to enjoy the environment we work in, so I’ve worked hard to make it that way. I wanted us to work as a team and I think we work together really well.”

“That said, we are here for the client and our first concern is dealing with client issues and addressing them quickly,” he continues. “I have a policy that when anything comes into the office, such as court orders or correspondence from other attorneys for example, the items are immediately scanned into the system and emailed to the client so they get them right away. Quite oft en clients will see things before I have even seen them. We are as timely as possible so clients know what is going on.”

A Balanced Life

Even though Ellsworth is an expert in handling the dissolution of marriages—70 percent of the firm’s cases are divorces—his personal experience with marriage is highly successful. Ellsworth and his wife have been married for nearly 31 years. The couple have six children and three grandchildren.

“We have been able to work in this field and not become cynical,” he says. “And not everybody can work with their spouse, but we are able to do that and it has worked very well.”

Away from work, Ellsworth has many interests that help keep his life balanced. Before entering law school he had considered joining the Air Force and aft er passing the exam and physical was selected for a pilot slot. Although he ultimately turned it down to attend law school, his interest in flying remained and he earned his private pilot’s license approximately six years ago. He holds a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and both of his sons have achieved their first-degree black belts in the Korean martial art. He and both sons are Eagle Scouts and Ellsworth is also a scout leader. He collects guns and loves target shooting with family and friends. Additionally, he is a certified scuba diver, along with two of his children, and he enjoys boating, skiing and golf.

To truly relax, Ellsworth makes the time to travel throughout the world with his wife. The couple has visited Great Britain and Italy several times as well as other parts of Europe, Canada and the United States.

“One of the reasons Steve loves to travel, especially off the continent, is that he needs the break from such a hectic, difficult type of law practice,” Gail Ellsworth says. “Family law can be a highly stressful form of law and we oft en get people at their worst. He jokingly calls these trips his ‘reasons to live’ and will oft en say to me, ‘time to find another reason to live’ and asks me to contact our travel agent to book our next adventure.”

“Psychologists say that divorce, death and bankruptcy are the biggest stressors in peoples’ lives,” he says. “Quite oft en people I am dealing with are going through two of those, divorce and bankruptcy. They are in crisis. I oft en tell people when I meet with them that what they are experiencing is like entering a dark tunnel where you can’t easily see the end, and I will guide them from the beginning to the end. I also tell them as bad as things seem right now that they will get better and they will find happiness again. Doing this job helps you be empathetic. You are giving hope— helping people.”

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