REBEKAH HEARN | The Daily News
“Given the nature of our practice, that it’s a family practice,
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve got experience straight
out of the gate.”
– Ellen Donati
Firm: The Donati Law Firm LLP
Basics: Donati, who focuses her practice on veterans’ benefits and Social Security disability appeals, joins her parents, two brothers and a sister-in-law at the firm.
Ellen Donati is the newest attorney at The Donati Law Firm LLP. She joined her family’s practice last year after being admitted to the Tennessee Bar. Her parents, two brothers and a sister-in-law also are attorneys at the firm.
Donati graduated cum laude from Christian Brothers University with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and a minor in sociology. She received her juris doctorate from the Mississippi College School of Law in 2008.
Donati focuses her practice on veterans’ benefits and Social Security disability appeals. She is a member of the Memphis and Tennessee Bar Associations and the Young Lawyer’s Division of the MBA.
Q: Why did you choose to major in psychology and minor in sociology as an undergraduate?
A: Pretty much my whole life I thought I was on the route of being a psychologist, wanting to help people through their troubles, figure out solutions for their obstacles in life. Then about three months before graduation, I completely changed my mind and decided I wanted to go to law school. In psychology and sociology, I just love learning about people and their thinking and their different environments and how it affects everybody. But I was fortunate enough to take a class where I did shadowing of professionals in the community, and I realized I didn’t think I could advocate for people like I wanted to as a psychologist. I thought I could be more proactive as an attorney. So that’s why I decided to go the law school route at the last minute. I never wanted to be an attorney, never. But now I know that I truly wanted to do it. People ask me all the time, “Did your family pressure you to go into law? You must have known from the beginning you wanted to be a lawyer.” No way. There was not an ounce of pressure, I did not have an ounce of inclination that I wanted to be a lawyer until I had that class when I shadowed different professionals, because then I realized, yeah, you can help people in tremendous ways being a psychologist, but it wasn’t the avenue that I was wanting. I wanted to be a little more active as an advocate.
Q: When you joined the practice, what inspired you to focus on veterans’ benefits and Social Security disability appeals?
A: I think it really was my basis in psychology, and wanting to be a strong advocate for people who are in troubled waters. So I think that’s really it; Social Security and veterans’ benefits, you deal with people who are going through serious, serious troubles in their life, and they need somebody to give them some kind of guidance as to what to do and how to go about getting their issues taken care of. So it’s given me the leeway to be an advocate legally but also to help them personally, and that’s why I liked it. In particular, the veterans’ benefits – it’s an area where there’s not a lot of attorneys that are involved in it, and so my brother, Robert, and I are the ones who are starting that wing of the firm up, because they recently changed the law about two years ago saying that attorneys could get involved in and then paid for their work in helping veterans get their benefits. So a lot of our Social Security clients are also veterans, so it just kind of fed right into our natural basis of clients that we had.
Q: So previously, lawyers couldn’t take veterans’ benefits cases?
A: It’s tricky, but essentially, I think (lawyers) could get paid $25. So they were relying on these wonderful veterans’ organizations that were doing everything they could. But they couldn’t go into a law office and have an attorney take their case from start to finish, because people have to be paid to make a living. So they were at the mercy of these service organizations, and the law was changed, I think two or two and a half years ago, saying now that attorneys could be paid up to a certain point in the veteran’s claim. So it’s set up similar to Social Security; (attorneys) can earn a percentage of the case, if they win. So that’s how they changed the laws, so now attorneys are slowly picking up involvement in VA affairs.
It’s really, really rewarding. We’ve got clients who are Vietnam veterans who have been fighting for this for years. I had a client who was a Korean War veteran, and still hasn’t gotten his benefits. So it’s very, very rewarding that I get to help these men and women who have put themselves on the line for us and get them taken care of. A lot of our veterans, they are Vietnam veterans. And this is specifically for VA service connection benefits, meaning if you were injured in service or an injury worsened beyond its natural progress while you were in service.
Q: As a young lawyer, how are you best learning the ins and outs of the law?
A: Given the nature of our practice, that it’s a family practice, I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve got experience straight out of the gate. They have not really held back all that much from me, whereas if I was maybe in a larger practice, I would still be slowly working my way into everything. I’ve been very fortunate here with the experiences I’ve been able to have. I went down to court very quickly. I was doing hearings very quickly. I think all that was given the nature of our firm. But they’ve also been strong mentors. I personally shadowed my brother, Robert, a lot. I went down to see how each person in the firm handled hearings to figure out my own personal style. So I have had strong mentors, but I also was given some freedom to just kind of jump on in.
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