Vol. 28, No. 10
Profiles of Success
Ellen Stuart Roberts
by Doris B. Truhlar
The Colorado Lawyer Board of Editors has approved space for bimonthly profiles of practicing lawyers. The newly established Profiles Committee has chosen Colorado Bar Association members who were nominated as outstanding lawyers by their peers. With these profiles, the CBA hopes to: promote the image of lawyers by emphasizing qualities that should be emulated; show the benefits of public service to both the lawyer who serves and the community; emphasize professionalism; provide role models for new lawyers; manifest ways of becoming successful and respected; and reward deserving lawyers for their contributions to the profession. Standards and procedures for these profiles differ from those established for the annual July issue featuring outstanding lawyers in Colorado history. These profiles of lawyers are an opportunity to highlight the qualities that are important for effective lawyering in today’s legal practice. We welcome feedback at any time. Please send your suggestions, comments, or questions about this ongoing feature to: Arlene Abady, Managing Editor, 1900 Grant St., Ninth Floor, Denver, CO 80203; (303) 824-5325; fax, (303) 830-3990; e-mail, email@example.com.
Set yourself earnestly to discover what
you are made to do, then give yourself
passionately to the doing of it.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Faith. Hope. Charity. Love. These are old-fashioned values for a small-town lawyer and mother who aspires to the words of one of her heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr. Ellen Stuart Roberts, a sole practitioner who lives and practices in Durango, Colorado, is the personification of those values. She is sustained by her faith in God and in her own ability to "make a difference." And she is full of hope for the future. Anyone who knows Ellen will tell you that she lives her life by being charitable to others. Ellen believes that the world will be a better place for the next generation because "faith communities" around the world are improving our planet.
On the Way to the Practice of Law
Ellen was born Ellen Losee Stuart, in Hudson, New York, in 1959, the middle child of three and one of two daughters. Her father taught high school science; her mother still works at a hospital. Ellen graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1981, majoring in environmental policy. She graduated from the University of Colorado School of Law in 1986. Her practice emphasizes estate planning, probate, and business law.
Ellen’s path to becoming a sole practitioner was not a straight shot—there were detours along the way. After her graduation from Cornell in 1981, she was traveling to Texas to apply for jobs in the energy industry when she called home and learned that the Park Service had offered her a job at Rocky Mountain National Park.
"I asked my girlfriends I was traveling with if it was okay to leave them to head out for Grand Lake," she recalls. "Thankfully, they said, ‘sure.’" Ellen worked in the park for two seasons before enrolling in law school at the University of Colorado.
Ellen had fallen in love with Rick Roberts. At their first meeting, she thought he was a "ski bum." In fact, Rick was a skilled carpenter and builder during the off season, working on the lifts at Winter Park in the winter. Ellen also was working on the lifts. "When you’re working in Rocky Mountain National Park, you have to find something to do in the winters to support yourself." She didn’t much like Rick at their first meeting. A few months later, though, Ellen and Rick were assigned to work together on a ski lift. They started talking and lobbing snowballs at each other, and both took a second look. They fell in love and were married during Christmas break of her first year of law school, in 1982.
Once at CU, Ellen realized the job market for environmental lawyers was extremely competitive and that environmental lawyers almost always located in urban areas. Her grades were so mediocre, she wondered if she would be a good lawyer after all. "My professors at law school wouldn’t know my name from Adam," Ellen says. No one "would have guessed that the back row, quiet C student" would eventually be profiled in the state bar journal. Law school is not an experience Ellen remembers fondly. In fact, Ellen was so disappointed after her first year that she left to work at a law firm in Granby as a legal assistant and thought that she might never return to law school.
Ellen credits John L. Baker, an attorney in Granby and her boss for that year, with steering her back on course. "He helped me decide that returning to law school was worth doing. I’m grateful. John took time with me, to show me the challenges and the interesting life of a small-town lawyer."
Ellen believes that she has been helped by many people—family, teachers, mentors, friends—and that she has an obligation to do the same for others. "John Baker did not have to take all that time with me," she says. "It was wonderful to be on the receiving end of that. I try to be the same kind of person—‘what goes around comes around.’ It has been a privilege to go to law school and become a lawyer. It’s a gift. We have to give some of it back." After having the opportunity to gain some practical experience, she decided to go back to law school. Ellen made up her mind to practice law in a small Colorado community—she had fallen in love with the mountains and small-town living.
Law Practice and Life
Determined to stick to her goal of working in a small town, after graduation Ellen took a job in Hot Sulphur Springs as an associate to the Grand County Attorney. Her practice also included family law (which she hated, especially arguments over the dish drainer), criminal defense (better than domestic), and serving as prosecutor for Winter Park. Ellen and Rick decided that there were opportunities in Granby. They moved there, and their two children were born there. Eventually, they moved her practice and his home-building business to Durango, where she has primarily practiced solo.
The mother of Caitlin, 12, and Ben, 10, Ellen "absolutely loves being a mom." The greatest blessing that flows from getting her law degree is the ability to plan her own time so that she can be with her children. She goes to work at eight, when she drops them off at school, and heads home at four.
Ellen’s practice—probate, estate planning, and business—keeps her mainly in the office. Although she loves going to court, being a litigator and a mom, for her, are not "the right fit" at this time. A goal Ellen has had since law school days is balance, making sure that no one area of life subsumes others. Balance includes being an attorney, wife, mother, and an elder in her church.
The Question of Balance
An important aspect of balance, Ellen believes, is humor. "You need to try to be happy and healthy and have fun. You’ve got to have a good time. There is a lot in life that is overwhelming. A sense of humor can keep you going. And children are a wonderful source of fun."
One of the turning points in her life occurred when she was struggling in the early 1980s with the balance issue. She did not see how a woman could "do it all"—have a career, a husband, and a family. A friend’s mother advised her to redefine "career." Ellen thought about it and realized that, for her, "career" encompassed much more than a job. It meant all the things that she was called on to do.
"My career might not be what anyone else wants; sometimes it’s been part-time, in terms of practicing law, and other times it’s been not at all," when her children were newborns. She has placed a "greater emphasis on my family and community service" than on generating income. Ellen credits Rick with being very supportive and encouraging her to pursue her interests. "We both believe life is short so you have to make the most of it."
Concentrating in the area of estate planning and probate gives her an opportunity to focus on life issues, Ellen says. "It also requires care and sensitivity to other people’s problems. It’s a privilege to be there for people when they are making important decisions. And—despite what some people think—it’s not boring. It’s fascinating. Life deals out scenarios that you would never dream of, even though you thought you already heard everything."
In addition to her practice, Ellen is or has been extremely active in the community, with bar and other volunteer activities. She is past-president of the Southwest Colorado Bar Association and is active in the Southwest Colorado Women’s Bar Association (of which she is a founder and past-president). Over the past several years, she has been active in Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, Southwest Environmental Youth Corps Coalition, Hospice of Mercy (a volunteer), Alternative Horizons, Children’s Museum of Durango, and the High Noon Rotary Club of Durango.
A Small-Town Lifestyle
Ellen’s office is in a restored Victorian home that she and her husband refinished. It is listed in the city’s Historic Register. A talented home builder, Rick’s "homes have been featured in Mountain Living, Better Homes and Gardens and other national magazines," Ellen notes. Nevertheless, Ellen and Rick do not own the home in which they live. "It’s kind of like the cobbler’s children who have no shoes," she laughs. They lease.
Ellen, Rick, and their two children live with a menagerie of pets (dog, cat, fish, newt). They have a goal of building their own home; Rick has poured the foundation. Due to the heavy demand for his services, however, Ellen predicts that the children could be in college before it’s finished. "Oh, well," she says, "if that happens, we’ll be able to build a smaller house, because we won’t need as many bedrooms." The Roberts live about ten miles outside of town. Ellen can’t stand "looking out my window and seeing other houses." She likes peace and quiet. She also loves the seasons and the weather in Durango, not to mention the many cultural and recreational opportunities there.
Faith as a Foundation
Ellen is an elder at First Presbyterian Church and also is involved in its Mission Committee. She will make a trip this fall to Magdalena, Mexico, to help build a church. A year ago, she went to Nogales, Mexico, to help build a bakery store. It’s important to be concerned about areas of the world that are impoverished and about social justice, Ellen believes. Although she is a registered independent, her political philosophy sounds very much like that of the social activists of the 1960s. She believes in helping others.
The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship is an organization of which Ellen is particularly fond. Many of its members participated in the civil rights marches of the 1960s and have been activists in promoting peace—"They walk the walk. I know that I’m not going to make world peace, but I can work toward it. I can do something about it. We all can." Ellen believes that small "faith communities" all over the world are serving as a catalyst for change. "I have lost faith in government as the true agent of change." She believes that such communities "globally will accomplish a lot more for the common good than governments."
The foundation of Ellen’s life is her faith in God, a topic she thinks is particularly difficult for many lawyers. Ellen believes that "the power of God" in her life has guided her. At the same time, she doesn’t want "to come across like a religious nut or self-appointed saint." She believes that being spiritual "gives you the continuing energy to do your work," to be a good attorney.
A turning point in her life was seven years ago when her father died at the age of 66. She was devastated. He had been a strong, enthusiastic person and had transmitted a great deal of his strength to Ellen. After he died, she realized that "he was mortal and I had to find a source of strength other than my father, and that source was God."
Ellen’s favorite Biblical passage is short and to the point, from Micah 6:8: "Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God." And her love for her God, her family, and community keep her going. In fourth grade, Ellen dreamed of being President of the United States. Now she dreams that "when I die, God will look at me and say, ‘This is Ellen, my servant, of whom I am well pleased.’"
Doris Truhlar, Littleton, is a partner in the firm of Truhlar and Truhlar, and concentrates in the area of domestic relations. Truhlar spends much of her spare time doing pro bono work.
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