News Releases
May 16, 2024

Meet WilmerHale’s New Partner-in-Charge: Felicia H. Ellsworth


Felicia Ellsworth was recently named Partner-in-Charge of BBA Sponsor Firm WilmerHale’s Boston office. We caught up with Felicia to learn more about her new role, her advice to new lawyers in Boston, and more. Check out the full interview below:


Boston Bar Association: What inspired you to become a lawyer, and specifically, what drew you to appellate litigation?

Felicia Ellsworth: I’m not one of those people who always knew they wanted to be a lawyer. I actually thought I was going to be a foreign service officer. I thought I would go live abroad and work in embassies and consulates.

I went to college down at Georgetown, and there are a lot of lawyers around in DC, and I ended up taking a class taught by a law school professor. That was my introduction to law, and I just really loved it. I thought that maybe this would actually be something I’d be interested in, so I took the LSAT, but I didn’t apply to law school right away. I went and I worked for two years at a law firm as part of a paralegal-type program. I really wanted to get a sense of what being a lawyer was like and see if it was something I actually wanted to do, because I didn’t want to do all this additional schooling and commit myself to a career path before having more of a sense of what it was all about. But I really loved it.

I had the opportunity to work with some really talented lawyers in those two years and to understand what they did and different types of practices. So that really inspired me and confirmed that I wanted to do this.

The interest in pursuing appellate litigation as at least a part of my practice just grew organically throughout law school. There were a lot of people from my law school who were planning to go into appellate work, so I got some exposure to it through that and decided it was something that I wanted to try.

BBA: What are some career highlights, or moments you still look back on with pride from your career?

Ellsworth: Two examples stick out most prominently in my mind.

The first was when we were fortunate to work as co-counsel with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the Defense of Marriage Act challenge with Maura Healey, when she was then the head of the Civil Rights Division at the AG’s office. We were honored that she asked us to pair with the office on bringing and litigating the case, which ultimately led to the United States v. Windsor decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. That was an incredibly important result, and we were happy to play a part in it.

Another short-lived, but equally impactful, case involved representing both Harvard and MIT in their challenges to proposed changes to the student visa rules in the summer of 2020, during the height of COVID. The case revolved around whether colleges that were going to be partially or fully remote in the fall of 2020 would be allowed to have international students stay in the country legally, and it was a hugely meaningful case. The Trump administration announced a sudden change to this policy in early July, well after schools had already made a decision about how they would operate in the fall and students had already decided where they would be for the beginning of the academic year. In 25 hours, we put together a complaint and a request for preliminary injunction and got it on file. The rule ended up being voluntarily withdrawn by the administration about ten days after we filed our papers, which we viewed as not just the right result but the result of the great—and very quick—legal work that was done by our team.

After we filed the suit and then after the rule was rescinded, we received this outpouring of personal stories from within the firm and from strangers, stories from people who had come to the United States on a student visa or whose parents had come to the United States on a student visa, and how that had changed their life. The stories of how impacted they were by the firm’s work were really moving, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

BBA: As co-chair of WilmerHale’s Pro Bono & Community Service Committee, you’ve dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to pro bono work and serving the community. Along with the case that you just mentioned, are there other specific community-facing issues that have resonated with you recently? How do you approach getting the rest of the firm to match that dedication to pro bono, community-oriented work?

Ellsworth: Everybody who comes to this firm has a commitment to pro bono and community service when they walk in the door. It’s why a lot of people chose to join this firm, because we are so well known for having a historical commitment to this type of work and living up to that commitment to this day.

The type of work that we do in the pro bono arena really runs the gamut. Some of that work is impact litigation—important cases that have the potential to impact large numbers of people across the nation or across the world, trying to change the law in a way that will impact many people. And those are very, very important cases.

We also have a lot of individual representations where the impact is on one person’s life, and that is just as important as the “splashier” larger cases. I had the opportunity to work with a woman who had been seeking asylum for decades and her case just kept getting pushed back and it was sort of stuck in the immigration system. When we finally obtained asylum for her, it was the happiest moment of her life. It was such a pleasure and honor to be able to be a part of it and to be able to provide the resources and the expertise that we had to make such a difference in one person’s life.

And so those are two, in some respects, polar-opposite types of cases, but they’re both equally important and equally valued by both the firm and, of course, by the clients who are affected.

Everybody who comes to this firm has a commitment to pro bono and community service when they walk in the door. It’s why a lot of people chose to join this firm, because we are so well known for having a historical commitment to this type of work and living up to that commitment to this day.

BBA: Moving on to your new role as Partner-in-Charge of WilmerHale’s Boston office, what is your vision for the firm for the next year, five years, 10 years?

Ellsworth: We have had such a storied history in this town and continue to view Boston as an incredibly important market for our clients and our practices. We have this renowned life sciences practice and of course Boston is a place where you can find a lot of interesting life sciences businesses, both new and old, small and large. We have a lot of great clients already and there’s a lot of opportunity in that area for our transactional lawyers, our corporate lawyers who do M&A work, IPOs, and licensing work.

And then on the litigation side, we have always had a great trial practice based here in Boston and throughout the country. Being able to appear here in the Massachusetts state courts and in the federal courts here with our new and exciting bench—a lot of new district judges—it’s a great time to be a firm in this town.

I’m really excited about continuing to grow in all these important areas of the firm and continuing to be a part of the Boston legal community, which is a very close community and one that I really enjoy.

And then one thing that’s really top of mind for all of us at the firm this year is, this is the 20th anniversary of the 2004 merger between Hale and Dorr and Wilmer Cutler Pickering. We’re doing a bunch of celebration events this year, including one to commemorate the actual date of the merger later this month. It’s been fun this year to look back on what the firm’s been doing for the past 20 years and what a bright future we have for the next 20 years and beyond.

BBA: What would you consider to be some of the challenges that your firm specifically, and the legal community more broadly, might be facing now or that you foresee coming up in the future?

Ellsworth: I think it’s both a challenge and an opportunity, but we can’t have a conversation about the future of the legal profession without talking about AI.

Both the challenge and the opportunity for the legal profession is understanding how we can use and integrate AI into what we do. There are still so many questions. How is it being regulated? How is that going to play a role in the work that our clients do? What might we see with federal and state governments as they try and confront this new frontier and decide whether and how to regulate it? It’s fascinating and very unknown new legal terrain.

BBA: WilmerHale has been a BBA sponsor firm for decades. How has that partnership with the BBA helped your firm, and how do you envision that partnership growing in the years ahead?

Ellsworth: The BBA is such a great organization and we’re so fortunate to have such a longstanding historical partnership with it. One of the things that our lawyers have historically done, and will continue to do, is take advantage of all of the different, really interesting programming—panels, knowledge opportunities, CLEs—that the BBA puts together that our lawyers have the opportunity either to attend and learn from or participate in and present.

We encourage our younger lawyers to get involved with the BBA: Join one of the committees, present on a panel, write something for the Boston Bar Journal, because it’s a great community. It’s also an opportunity for our younger lawyers to get to know some of their peers at other firms and at companies and to share some of their knowledge. The BBA has done a great job of providing those opportunities.

BBA: In addition to making the most of their BBA membership, what other advice would you give to your newer attorneys or to those who might be entering the profession?

Ellsworth: I encourage people to try and see their work as an opportunity to learn. We all learn every day. I become a better lawyer every day by learning from my colleagues, my peers, the courts, and my clients. It’s a continual improvement process.

I always encourage our younger lawyers to figure out how to make everything a learning opportunity, whether that’s the ability to be in someone’s office and listen in while they take a phone call, or join a drafting session, or to observe a court hearing to see how different lawyers might present their arguments. People should view the work as not just a job, but an opportunity to learn and improve their craft.

The BBA is such a great organization and we’re so fortunate to have such a longstanding historical partnership with it.

BBA: When you do get a chance to unplug and step away from work for a moment, what do you like to do?

Ellsworth: Spending time with my children. They’re both teenagers, so harder than anything I do at my day job is trying to understand what goes on in the mind of a 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.

Big law firms get a bad rap for being difficult on work-life balance. And, of course, there is a lot of work to be done and the hours can be punishing sometimes. But on the flip side, the flexibility and supportiveness that I have experienced at WilmerHale is critical. I’ve never had to miss a school event, or a dance recital, or a baseball game in 16 years.

BBA: One final question: When a client comes into the city for the first time, where are you taking them?

Ellsworth: Oh, that’s a great question. It really depends on the time of day. If it’s breakfast, I always love Henrietta’s Table over in Cambridge. You’ve got to go to Neptune Oyster Bar in the North End if you want a lobster roll for lunch. And then my new favorite spot for taking somebody for dinner is at Committee over in the Seaport. There are so many choices throughout the city, but those would be my three recommendations.