Ask an Alum: Elva E. Tillman '87
|Principal Counsel (for Condemnation)
City Solicitor’s Office
(Baltimore City, Department of Law)
1. Describe how you arrived at your chosen career path:
I graduated from Morgan State University in 1971, with a B.A. in Spanish, at a time of economic down turn. Having difficulty finding a job, I decided to attend graduate school at Virginia Tech. I was always interested in helping people and came to the conclusion that I should help people in my own neighborhood; I pursued and obtained a Masters of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) in 1973. My long range goal was to become a practicing planner for ten years and then pursue a doctorate of planning and teach at a community college or small university.
After having worked in planning and housing administration for more than a decade, I realized that so much of what urban planners and housing administrators do is “grounded in the law.” I pursued law school through the day-time-part-time program, while I coordinated and taught courses in the graduate level City and Regional Planning Program (CRP) at Morgan State University. I am proud to reflect upon the fact that during that period I was able to obtain the first academic accreditation for the CRP. Upon graduation, I had several terrific opportunities with large law firms. I had difficulty passing the bar exam and took advantage of an offer from a national non-profit organization that afforded me the opportunity to travel. Recognizing that I enjoyed the stability of Baltimore, once again, I obtained an exciting opportunity at Morgan State University, in the Institute for Urban Research and created a Community Development Resource Center which provided resources (i.e., interns, seminars/workshops and technical assistance) to community based organizations. I am proud of the fact that I was able to facilitate grant applications which resulted in significant public and private grant funding to the Institute for Urban Research, at Morgan State University. While working at Morgan, I passed the bar exam and, I became excited by the opportunity to work on the federal District Court case, Thompson v. HUD (i.e., the de-concentration of public housing in Baltimore City). As a consultant and staff attorney (helping to represent Baltimore City), I actually provided background research to support the efforts of the lead attorneys.
I subsequently became aware of an opportunity, in the Land Use Division, of the Law Department, to assist with the acquisition of property for redevelopment of neighborhoods in Baltimore City. In December 2001, I took a position as a Special Assistant City Solicitor. In that position I was responsible for preparing condemnation cases and assisting the Principal Counsel with litigation. I also sat second chair during the condemnation trials. When the Principal Counsel left in 2006, I became Principal Counsel. I have had the opportunity to assist the City with the acquisition of a significant number of properties through condemnation for redevelopment. I have been fortunate enough to have the experience of representing the City before the District and Circuit Courts of Baltimore City, the Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals. I have also had the opportunity to negotiate signicant settlements and participate in mediations that have resulted in wonderful developments and redevelopments for the City of Baltimore.
2. What is important for students to get out of law school to prepare for a career after graduation?
As a person who believes that learning is a “life long” experience, I believe that it is important to have an open mind and be exposed to as much of the substantive and procedural law as you can. The very structure of law school is stimulating—be in the moment. Absorb all that you can. However, I am clear that courses that afford the opportunity to enhance readily transferrable skills (i.e., critical analysis, writing and oral presentation technique) are the courses that should be emphasized. In life, things do not always go the way you plan them and these readily transferrable skills will serve students well, no matter where they happen to be or what they decide to do. Clinical courses have also proven valuable, not only for experience but future networking.
3. Describe a day on the job:
I appreciate the wide variety of exposure that this position affords me. As the Principal Counsel, I am responsible for facilitating the work related to condemnation cases. The Chief Solicitor for the Land Use Division is responsible for the staff (i.e., is the official supervisor); however, I coordinate the efforts of the support staff and the other two attorneys who handle condemnation cases. On a given day, I handle administrative and legal matters. Thus, I might:
4. What has been a rewarding experience for you as a professional?
- Meet with the City Solicitor, the Chief of the Land Use Division, other attorneys and clients (i.e., representatives of City agencies) to discuss issues related to the City’s acquisition needs and whether the City’s condemnation powers should be used to make such acquisitions.
- Interact with support staff (paralegals, secretaries, et al.) to review and manage new and/or existing condemnation files, information about condemnation cases, payment of bills, etc.
- Contact the Civil Clerk and/or other persons in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to resolve issues regarding condemnation cases (i.e., resolution of motions, scheduling, etc.).
- Conduct legal research, research to track defendants in condemnation cases, research to examine corporate entities.
- Draft, finalize and file court pleadings (i.e., condemnation cases, motions, responses, etc.).
- Conduct settlement discussions with opposing counsel; conclude the settlement; draft/finalize and file settlement agreements.
- Coordinate mediation sessions; draft and finalize mediation statements; attend and participate in mediation sessions; draft and finalize a settlement agreement.
- Prepare for pre-trials and trials through discussions with clients (i.e., City agency representatives), expert witnesses (i.e., appraisers, land planners, et al.) and other City employees. Interaction with the judges and clerks in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City has been extensive. If a case is not settled, participation in a trial (i.e., judge or jury) may result.
- Prepare memoranda/background information for the Board of Estimates (composed of the Mayor, President of the City Council, Comptroller, City Solicitor and Director of Public Works) to have funds approved to pay court decisions or settlements. May have to appear before the Board at either the working session or the public meeting. The Board makes decisions about financial expenditures.
- Speak with pro se litigants who are determined to handle their own cases. I try to afford them the same courtesy that I afford opposing counsel.
- Handle pro bono cases (i.e., simple divorces, name changes) for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers.
My entire professional career has been rewarding—I am an Urban Planning Lawyer. I can honestly say that I have benefited from every experience I have ever had. I have deeply felt the ultimate reward of helping people. As an urban planner, I have assisted students and community people to grow and attain their goals. As a lawyer, the work that I have done has helped the City of Baltimore to move forward with development and redevelopment efforts. The pro bono work I have done has helped ordinary citizens to resolve issues that are important to them.
5. What would you have done differently during law school or early in your career?
Nothing. It would have been nice, if I could have attended Law School without “having” to work. However, I would not have missed the enhanced perspective I was afforded functioning as a student and a professor at the same time. I wish that I had passed the bar on the first try; but, repeated effort taught me some valuable lessons, particularly about myself. I never skipped a beat; I kept going. I have tried to make the “best” of every situation. I know that everything happens for a purpose. I have enjoyed every moment. I know now that even the difficulties have served a purpose. I have come to realize that “it is in striving that we become.” I am still striving.
6. What are the challenges you think attorneys face professionally in the coming years and how can they prepare now?
Attorneys like all others are competing in a global economy. Exposure to “world” issues, laws and regulations are essential. Fluency in at least one other language may become a requirement. Nevertheless, I believe that dedication to ethical behavior provides enhanced opportunities. The challenges that face attorneys are no different than the challenges that face the masses. Nevertheless, I would admonish budding attorneys to focus more on negotiation and mediation skills. It is a sad world when we cannot try to work together to resolve issues for everyone involved. The person who can rise above the turmoil can facilitate progress.