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Cappellanti ready for upcoming Jackson Kelly promotion

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There was a time when Ellen Cappellanti wasn’t sure what it was she wanted to do with her life.

“A lot of the people who started law school were going to be third-generation lawyers, they’d wanted to be lawyers their whole life,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but law offered a lot of options for me. It was a good match.”

Cappellanti, who joined Jackson Kelly in 1980, is poised to become the firm’s managing member in January. The honor is not lost on her.

“I was really thrilled,” she said. “To command the respect of your peers, there’s not much more professional satisfaction you can get than that. It’s really important to me.”

At Jackson Kelly, managing members are up for reappointment annually. If they’re doing a good job, they’ll continue. Under their operating agreement, the firm’s managing members can serve no more than eight years.

Nominees “were extensively interviewed by our executive committee, they gathered input from other lawyers in the firm and then the executive committee made a recommendation,” she said. “The firm accepted that recommendation and I was selected last year. For the last year I’ve been working with our existing manager member so we’ll have a seamless transition.”

Then there’s the whole glass ceiling thing.

“Law360’s Glass Ceiling Report: 2014” ranked Jackson Kelly 15th on its list of 25 top firms with the highest percentage of female partners — 31.96 percent.

And a recent survey by Law360 found a dearth of women in leadership positions at the nation’s top law firms: Working from their list of the top 400 law firms in the U.S., Law360 reports just seven women were in leadership positions — that would be chairman, managing partner or co-managing partner — at the 100 firms topping that list.

Cappellanti said she knows of one other female managing member overseeing a law firm in West Virginia.

“Susan Brewer at Steptoe & Johnson PLLC has been their managing member for two or three years,” she said. “They’re the largest firm in the state, we’re the second largest. I think it bodes well for women managers.”

Cappellanti said Jackson Kelly is a great place to work, regardless of gender.

“I was (part of) the first big class of women they hired. I think they hired 12 lawyers that year and eight of us were female. That kind of started a critical mass of having a lot of women here.”

She’d earned her undergraduate degree from West Virginia University in 1977 and her law degree three years later. While there she was a member of the WVU College of Law Moot Court Board and the National Moot Court team and served as lead articles editor of the “West Virginia Law Review.”

She also was selected as a member of Order of the Coif and Order of the Barristers.

“I’m an empty nester, so this is a good time in my life to be taking on these extra challenges,” she said. “I’m not in the child-rearing phase of my life.”

The mother of three, Cappellanti said she was blessed with a “fabulous husband” who’s always encouraged and assisted her.

“I think most of the challenges women (face in the workplace) are self-imposed,” she said. “I raised three children, but I had a husband who helped me, but I look at my young lawyers now with children and wonder how I did it. Women, even when their spouses help a lot, impose the brunt of household responsibilities on themselves.”

Past-Chair of the Standing Bankruptcy Committee of the State Bar, she’s been listed in Best Lawyers in America under the bankruptcy, corporate mergers and acquisitions and real estate designations. She’s also a member of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers and served as president of the governing council of the West Virginia Law Institute and is a Master (Emeritus) of the Judge John A. Field Jr. Inn of Court.

In 2007, she was appointed to the West Virginia University Board of Governors and represents the board on the West Virginia United Health System Board.

She also has been involved with a number of community service organizations, including the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences, Advantage Valley Inc., and Discover The Real West Virginia Foundation, and participated in trade missions to the Far East with U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and a 2007 trade mission to China with then-Gov. Joe Manchin. She also serves on the board of directors of the Branch Banking & Trust Co., Charleston.

She’s a past recipient of the YWCA of Charleston Women of Achievement Award, the WVU College of Law Women’s Law Caucus Distinguished Women in the Law Award and The State Journal’s 2014 class of Who’s Who in West Virginia Business.

Cappellanti said the managing member “deals with the day-to-day operations, focuses on the attorneys and their workload, personal development of the attorneys and business development, keeping clients satisfied.”

“I think the biggest challenge to the practice of law is that there’s a lot more competition than there was,” Cappellanti said. “The challenge is to figure out a way to deliver more to the client while charging them less — that involves things like good project management and being creative with alternative fee arrangements. I think the next years are going to be very challenging to any law firm in the country — people are out there, they’re competing hard and cutting prices, cutting fees, to get work. It’s going to be interesting.”

Before being named managing member, Cappellanti had served as practice group leader “off-and-on for the last 10 years,” and has had an opportunity to work with personnel in all 11 Jackson Kelly offices.