Great Lawyer Series: Ted Wells



Dean Kagan characterized Ted Wells (JD/MBA ’76) as the “common denominator” on everyone’s list of the country’s most influential attorneys. He is one of the nation’s leading white-collar criminal defense attorneys. A partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind,Wharton & Garrison, Wells has served as general counsel to the New Jersey Democratic party and the New Jersey NAACP.

Last Tuesday, he visited Harvard Law School, giving insights into the legal profession and anecdotes from his own career, peppered with advice.

After attending Harvard Law School, Wells clerked for Judge John J. Gibbons on the Third Circuit, rubbing shoulders with none other than Sam Alito, nominee for the Supreme Court. Alito was then clerking for Judge Leonard Garth. Wells said, “Sam Alito is one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever met.” He characterized him as “John Roberts with more of a record.”

Wells said that he viewed his Harvard degree as a “security blanket,” allowing him to take chances. He recommended that Harvard Law students today view it in the same way. “You’ve got a safety net, and it’s called a Harvard Law degree, so don’t be afraid to take chances.”

And Wells has followed this philosophy himself. His first job after his clerkship was at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in LA. While driving from New Jersey to California, the native of DC decided that LA was “too damn far.” He worked at Paul Hastings for ten days and then returned to New Jersey to work for Lowenstein Sandler.

The cases that he worked on at Lowenstein gave him a reputation in New Jersey as a great “law guy,” but it was when he defended US Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan that he gained a national reputation as a great defense attorney.

But what makes him a great defense attorney? For one, he makes strong opening and closing statements, without notes. His advice to future trial lawyers included the adamant imperative, “Force yourself, force yourself to put your notes to the side.” It is much more effective, he said, to interact with the jury: “[When I’m giving openings or closings] I’m right in the box and I’m talking to them.”

He was also adamant about community service and political activity. “From day one I started being involved in politics,” he said, adding that it is important for everyone: “Being a responsible member of a community means you take part in the community… you’ve got all these skills, and there are people out there that need them.”

Wells said that he spent as much time as he could in his early years doing pro bono criminal defense work, even though it made his schedule “a little crazy.” It gave him an opportunity to practice what he was learning, and it gave him the “freedom to fall off and not be too embarrassed.”

1L Ryan McCarthy said, “His accomplishments are extremely impressive.” He continued, “He made me realize that I don’t have to limit myself to one area of law; and if you’re willing to put in the hours, you can have a meaningful experience.”

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