Choosing the Law
Art Elk, managing partner of the Ohio law firm Elk & Elk Co., Ltd., has been a lawyer for many years. In fact, he says he never seriously considered doing anything else, even at a very young age. He loved watching “Perry Mason” and other courtroom dramas as a child and wanted to get into the courtroom himself. Once he made the decision to become a lawyer, there were few deviations from the path. His choice was confirmed when his older brother David, also a partner in Elk & Elk, decided to go to law school.
Although the road to becoming an attorney was pretty straight, Art did consider a few brief detours along the way. His father owned a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, and Art worked there beginning in junior high school, detailing cars and even making a few sales himself. Although he never seriously considered going into the auto business, he says that it’s in his veins. He still loves cars and has owned sports cars for many years.
Once he’d decided to be a lawyer, Art went to Case Western Reserve University, where he majored in business management and marketing. He then attended Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, where he found that his casual interest in becoming a tax lawyer was overshadowed by his love of torts, or “wrongs” in legalese. Learning how the legal system could be used to right wrongs fascinated him, and his goal quickly changed from what he saw as pretty dry (taxes) to what he found fascinating (torts). In fact, he says, “Once I got the taste of torts, it was the sweet tort that tasted best to me.”
A Detour Into Criminal Prosecution
Although his path to law school was quite direct, the road to practicing personal injury law was less so. Art’s first job was as the assistant prosecutor in Ashland County, Ohio, a job he saw advertised in the placement office at Cleveland State.
Because Ashland is a relatively small county, he got immediate access to the courtroom, which had always been his goal. He was second chair right away on aggravated murder and robbery cases. The next year, he tried murder cases on his own – at age 25. He found it easy to connect with juries and explain complex legal issues and events in ways that they could understand. That was rewarding, but even more satisfying, Art says, “was putting bad guys away.”
After two years as an assistant prosecutor, Art was asked to run for elective office as prosecuting attorney in Ashland County and he won, making him the youngest prosecutor in Ohio. Two years later, he was chosen Prosecutor of the Year by his peers throughout the state. He was honored by fellow prosecutors and was the subject of resolutions in both houses of the Ohio Legislature. “It was a big deal,” he says.
Not only did he gain valuable courtroom experience while working as a prosecutor, but he believes he benefited enormously from the counsel and advice of other attorneys he met while in Ashland County. The Ashland County prosecutor who hired him, Anthony Auten, was a charismatic lawyer and a great mentor.
Another influence was Dr. Lester Adelson, who was the assistant Cuyahoga County coroner when Art was in Ashland County. As a small county, Ashland did not have its own coroner, so the bodies of murder victims were sent to Cuyahoga County for autopsy. Dr. Adelson was able to explain highly technical medical issues in language laypeople could understand and was, according to Art, a poetic witness on the stand when testifying. Dr. Adelson was a key witness in many high-profile cases, including the Sam Sheppard murder case that garnered headlines in the 1950s and 1960s.
When asked if he would ever again run for elective office, Art says that the gridlock in Washington and the role money plays in politics make a political career unlikely. “I’m just not feeling it right now.” He notes, however, that if things change and if he thought he could make a difference, he would consider it.
Finding a Home in Personal Injury Law
After working as a criminal prosecutor, Art found that making the transition to personal injury law was not that difficult. As a criminal prosecutor, he represented the state and victims of crime. As a personal injury attorney, he represented victims of torts against large corporations and insurance companies. In both instances, someone had been hurt and his job was to right that wrong.
Cases often involve representing the families of injured children. He finds it very satisfying to obtain justice for them by providing high-quality legal representation – the same level of representation enjoyed by insurance companies and large corporations. Art believes that Elk & Elk gives ordinary individuals and families a chance in a legal system that often seems controlled by those with money and power.
Art finds it very gratifying to be able to get resources for the families of children who will need care for the rest of their lives because of someone’s negligence. It’s worth the fight, he says. And it is a fight. The insurance companies “muscle up” and hire their own experts, but their goal is never justice – it’s to pay out as little as possible. And, he says, this is getting worse. Insurance companies are stronger and more rigorous in defense of their bottom lines. Even if their clients are in the wrong, insurance companies don’t seem to care.
When asked whether he ever considered practicing another type of law, Art says that he has found his niche. “I can’t think of anything more rewarding than helping injured people,” he says.
Art finds it disheartening that big corporations and insurance companies will always take advantage of hardworking Ohioans whenever they can. He hates the “profits over people” attitude and finds that seeing the greed operating on the other side of a personal injury case just strengthens his resolve to get justice for clients. He believes that because Elk & Elk is a big firm, his clients benefit. The firm can afford to hire the same level of experts, investigators and analysts as the insurance companies and big businesses, which gives clients a significant advantage.
One reason insurance company lawyers seldom have any interest in fairly settling a case is that they are on the clock – they get paid whether they win or lose. Unlike plaintiffs ‘attorneys such as Art and his colleagues, insurance company lawyers personally benefit if the case drags out. The longer a plaintiff has to wait, the better the chance he or she might just give up, leaving the insurance company victorious and rich. An important job of a plaintiffs’ lawyer is making sure that clients don’t give up needlessly – which is exactly what the insurance companies want them to do.
Advice to Young People
“I would always advise a young person to go to law school if they are passionate about some area of the law or about business,” Art says. “I think a law degree is a great graduate degree that gets you ready for many different careers, not just being an attorney. A law degree trains you in real estate, property – even taxes! The kind of training you get in law school makes it easier to function in any business setting. I would definitely recommend that young people consider law as a graduate degree, even if they aren’t planning to practice law. Many professions draw upon the training provided by law school.”
He notes that being a lawyer can mean late nights, long days, and difficult and challenging adversaries. But this is true of many careers, he says. And challenging opponents just sharpen a lawyer’s skills. As long as one is passionate about the job, passion outweighs anything negative that comes down the road. He says that if you are passionate about the job, “you will never work another day in your life.” It’s not a paycheck, it’s a calling. He urges young people to not be deterred by the seeming oversupply of attorneys and says, “The cream always rises to the top. If you love going to work in the morning, you’ve made the right choice.”