Chi-Dooh "Skip" Li

Founder & Partner at Ellis, Li & McKinstry

“So much of human of human relationship depends on trust. Trust results from truth.”


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Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li is the Founder and Partner at the Seattle law firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry, PLLC, and Founder of Agros International, an organization that has received recognition from the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank for combating the root causes of poverty. Through his story, Skip illuminates how truth is the universal currency of relationships.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering entering the legal profession?

The legal profession is not something anyone should dabble in. It requires your full commitment, starting with three years of law school – three very challenging years. Be prepared for that if you want to become a lawyer. Don’t go to law school to see if you want to become a lawyer because the commitment is much too great to just be testing the waters by going to law school. I have always encouraged young people, as long as they’re properly motivated, to go to law school and enter the legal profession. I just think this is a wonderful profession, and I am still enjoying my work. My work as a lawyer allows me to serve people and to help them build their dreams and avoid legal trouble. My work allows me to build relationships not just with my clients, but with other lawyers, even lawyers who are adversaries. And of course, I get to develop relationships with colleagues in my law firm. Some of our partners have been together close to 30 years. it’s a very satisfying and fulfilling profession.

Law school and legal training gives you analytical tools that are really helpful in problem-solving. You’re taught how to ask questions and what are the most important questions to ask. I’ve found my legal training to be tremendously helpful in many other areas of my life. What advice would you give to someone who is still struggling to find direction in their own story?

How do you balance “truth telling” with the legal need to act as an advocate for your client in all situations?

There is no inconsistency with truth-telling and being an advocate for the client. Good advocacy starts with being truthful with the client, and getting the client to be truthful with me so I know all the strengths and weaknesses of my client’s situation. If I see that the client’s circumstances involve inherent weaknesses, the client needs to know that. The most difficult client is the one who doesn’t tell you everything, and only tries to show their good side and the strengths of their case. I cannot be a good advocate for that client because the client hasn’t trusted me with the whole picture.

Likewise I know that the client on the other side being represented by opposing counsel also has weaknesses in their case. In all my years of being a lawyer, I have never seen a “slam-dunk” case where one side is completely right, and the other side completely wrong. Most often disputes arise because well-meaning people disagree and can only see their own side of an argument. A good lawyer and advocate not only argues the strength of a case, but also recognizes and advises the client of the pitfalls in a case. There are always strengths and weaknesses in each side to a dispute, so good advocacy means recognizing the weaknesses in your own case and probing for the weaknesses in the other person’s case.

What ethical challenges have you faced as a lawyer over the years and how did you approach them?

First, let me make the record clear: the legal profession is full of honorable and honest people who operate with the highest levels of integrity. The television and movie industries love to show lawyers as liars and cheats. That may make for good entertainment in some peoples’ eyes but it has no bearing on reality. Obviously there are lawyers who choose to go over the ethical line and to do things that are not right or to engage in dishonest practices, but that is a very, very small minority of the profession.

Having said that, all professionals, whether doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, face ethical challenges. These come in different forms and and shapes.

When I’m negotiating something on behalf of a client with another lawyer I may be tempted to overstate my client’s strengths or understate my client’s exposure to potential liabilities. While I don’t have to tell the opposing lawyer everything about my client’s situation, I do have to be responsible for speaking the truth and not overstating or understating the case.

In the courtroom I’ve come up against lawyers who will misstate something, and you wonder are they confused or did they deliberately misstate the facts? In that situation it is sometimes hard to tell which one it is. But I constantly have to make sure that I am speaking truthfully about the facts of the situation and the applicable law when I’m arguing before a judge or jury or arbitrator, or just negotiating with opposing counsel.

Another set of ethical challenges comes in the form of wanting to get new business or land a new client. Sometimes you’ll be asked whether you do a certain line of work, and certainly the temptation is to say yes when you know that you haven’t done this line of work a lot or at all. The best thing to do is just to be truthful. I might tell them what I do know and what I don’t know about the law covering their particular situation, and also how I would handle their case based on many years of experience of working in similar situations. There may also be other lawyers in my firm who are experienced in that area who could help.

Over the years in training our young lawyers, I always tell them that if there’s a line that divides truth from falsehood, they should not only not step over that line, but they should stay as far away from that line as they can. Because once you get close to the line, the next step to cross the line is a very short and easy one. And once you’ve actually stepped over the line, each succeeding step on the side of falsehood becomes easier and easier, and you’re constantly operating in that territory trying to cover up previous falsehoods with new ones. Think of the frog in the pot of water that gets hotter and hotter. Pretty soon the clueless frog is cooked and done for.

How have you seen God work in your failures and shortcomings?

I think God has been able to do far more with me in my life from my failures and how I respond to my failures than in my successes. It’s in the failures where I am tested on how much I trust God. It’s through failure that I learn to develop humility. Failure teaches me that I’m far from perfect. For those of us who suffer from pride and for whom pride is a stumbling block in our relationship with God, failure is a great antidote to pride.

How do you approach discipleship in your life?

I don’t use the term discipleship very much, if at all. I don’t consider myself a disciple of any human being. I’m a disciple of Jesus only. I don’t talk about having disciples and I don’t use the word disciple as a as part of my vocabulary. What I do, in terms of answering this question, is to follow the example of people I greatly admire. There are a handful of people in my life who have had a huge part in teaching me how to live, how to think, how to relate to others. I haveI also benefited from reading biographies and autobiographies of great men and women of God. I look for how was it that they managed to do the things that they did within the time frame that God gave to them, and I try to pick up on things that I can emulate from them.

When it comes to helping a younger generation or helping others through the difficulties of their lives, what I try to do is to live my life openly and honestly, and with integrity in everything I do. I’m always open to talking to others if they have questions about how I might have approached an issue or problem in my life. My wife and I live in University District a block and a half from the UW campus in Seattle. Our lives are filled with college students, and we interact with them constantly, if not every day than at least three or four times a week. We have individual students and groups of students who come to spend time with us or share a meal with us. What we’ve found is that in our engagement with students, the most important thing is to live our lives with transparency so they can see how we handle situations in life, the hard and the easy, the failures and successes.

I not only meet with students at home but I also look for opportunities to invite them to come see me downtown at my law firm. I want them to see me in my working context, not just in my home context. I want them to see that I’m part of the downtown business and professional scene and that I have a role here in the city. I want them to know that I strive not only to be a professional serving clients, but someone who cares about and serves my community and my city as well.

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