Ted Wells – star trial lawyer

5 minutes with... Ted Wells

Starting out, what did you expect from a career in law?

Like most young lawyers starting out, I had very simple and fairly modest goals. I wanted to learn how to become a jury trial lawyer and I wanted to do well at the law firm that had offered me a job. I did not have any expectations of becoming a nationally known trial lawyer.

What do you consider to have been your big break?

I had a number of big breaks. First, when I started my law career I worked for an outstanding trial lawyer named Matthew Boylan. Boylan was a great mentor and he believed that the best way for a young lawyer to learn to be a trial lawyer was to get them up on their feet in a courtroom examining witnesses and arguing legal motions. So within weeks of beginning my career at the firm, Matt had me in court doing significant work on major cases. Second, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity at a young age to win some very high-profile cases which Matt gave me to try.

What differences do you see in today's legal market compared to when you started?

It is tougher today to get young lawyers into court trying cases, as most cases settle. I often tell young lawyers that after spending a few years in a large corporate firm, they should go and become prosecutors or public defenders if they want to start trying cases at an early stage in their career.

What achievement are you most proud of?  

I am most proud of my years of being the cochair of the Board of Directors of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was the public interest law firm started by Thurgood Marshall. DF is the greatest civil rights law firm in the history of America.

"Hire more minority lawyers and mentor them with the same intensity we devote to our most important cases."

What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?

My greatest regret is that I did not take advantage of some wonderful opportunities offered to me to work for the government as a lawyer. Unfortunately, the timing never seemed right to leave private practice, but in hindsight I think that I made a mistake in this area.

What law would you want to change, abolish or create?

I would like to see a complete review of the mandatory sentencing laws in the United States, especially the drug laws. Because of these laws, a disproportionate number of non-violent, low income minorities are unfairly incarcerated. The toll on society from the resulting mass warehousing of individuals is devastating and incalculable.

Who is your legal hero?  

The LDF lawyers are my heroes: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Robert Carter, Elaine Jones, Julius Chambers, Ted Shaw, John Payton and Bill Coleman.

What career would you have in your second life?

I hope my mind stays sharp and I can continue to try cases into my late 70s or 80s. If not, I will sit on a beach and tell war stories.

How would you like to be remembered?  

"A man of his word, who played hard but always fair."

What is the main thing legal employers could do to improve diversity in the profession?

Hire more minority lawyers and mentor them with the same intensity we devote to our most important cases.