Shea Sisk Wellford ’87: How a Move to Memphis Opened Up a New World

When she was 15 years old, Shea Sisk and her family picked up and moved from Marianna, Arkansas, to Memphis. “It was a significant life change, to say the least … academically, socially, leaving behind all of my friends and coming to a new city,” Shea Sisk Wellford ’87 said. She said her parents empowered her to choose the school she would go to, and she picked Hutchison, but admits it was daunting. “My school in Arkansas was completely fine, but it was not a challenge.”
One of Shea’s first Hutchison memories, in 10th grade, was in an English class taught by Billie Anne Williams, who asked the class to write a five-paragraph essay. “I thought, ‘I don’t know what she’s talking about,’ ” Wellford remembered. “I went up to her after class, and said, ‘Mrs. Williams, I don’t know what a five-paragraph essay is.’ She held my hand throughout the 10th grade year and helped get me comfortable with the structure of writing.

“I had to work hard to learn how to study and learn how to succeed academically. By my senior year, I was in AP classes, and doing well.” 

Whatever Williams taught her must have made an impression, because Shea decided to major in English at Vanderbilt. She admits, though, that she did not have a solid plan as she approached her senior year of college. “I kept all of my options open,” Wellford said. “I think I took every standardized test for graduate school that I was qualified to take. I applied to law school and also applied to graduate school for English. I considered going to journalism school at Georgetown. In the end, I decided to go to law school.”

No one in her family had ever attended law school, but Wellford recalled that her father and grandfather would recount how they sometimes went to the courthouse in Marianna to watch trials, a sort of small-town entertainment. “I remember hearing those stories as a kid and thinking that would have been so interesting to have experienced.”

It was a kind of foreshadowing of her career. Nowadays, not only is Wellford an accomplished attorney and shareholder at the Memphis firm of Martin, Tate, Morrow & Marston, P.C., but she was named the firm’s president in 2022 and serves on the three-member executive committee. In a profession where men generally hold the majority of leadership positions, these are both significant accomplishments. Before her tenure on the executive committee, there had never been a woman appointed.

Hearing a woman’s voice is different and catches others’ attention—people listen. It’s a change of tone and your perspective can be unique.

In 2017, Wellford was inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers, which describes itself as the “preeminent organization of trial lawyers in North America.” To be nominated as a fellow to the organization requires a track record of proven work as well as recommendations from colleagues, judges, and even opposing counsel. It’s something Wellford is most proud of.

She has also served in numerous positions within professional organizations, both locally and nationally, including with the Memphis Bar Association, where she has served in all the leadership roles, including president. Last year, she was named to the Memphis Business Journal’s 2023 Best of the Bar awards for her work in civil and commercial litigation.

Left: Wellford with husband Alex at her induction as president of the Memphis Bar Association. | Right: Wellford and her husband Alex attended a dinner at the U.S. Supreme Court when she was president of the Leo Bearman, Sr. Inn of Court to receive an award recognizing the Inn’s achievements.

Getting Her Feet Wet

Mrs. Williams’ high school assignment wasn’t the only thing that was daunting to Wellford early on. She remembers that after graduating law school and passing the bar, she showed up at Martin Tate to a three-foot stack of paper files on her desk and a note that simply read, “Welcome Aboard!” Among those papers were a couple of General Sessions cases due to start in only a month or two. Fortunately, during her last year of law school, Wellford interned with Memphis Area Legal Services, assisting their attorneys with a couple of cases, so she had been in court before. Still, for these beginning cases at Martin Tate, she remembers waking up about 20 times the night before her first trial.

“It was just a matter of, ‘I’m going to do this,’ ” Wellford said. “Then for the next one, I think I was still nervous, but I did it. The more cases I tried, the easier it became. It wasn’t like flipping a light switch, but it was just the mindset of, ‘okay, I can do that.’ I just kept pushing forward as the cases got larger and more important from a monetary and business issue standpoint. It definitely was a learning process.”

Wellford practices civil and commercial litigation and enjoys learning about all of the different aspects of her clients’ businesses.
Photo by Brandon Dill

When she was a young associate at Martin Tate, she explored many different areas of law, from business transactions, real estate, trusts, and estates, to litigation. “I decided I liked litigation and started to focus on business litigation and individuals with business-related problems, and I also started to specialize in construction law. 

“With civil and commercial litigation and arbitration, it is necessary to be an effective writer and to communicate well with the court. The foundation that I received at Hutchison, starting with that five-paragraph essay, made a huge difference, and I built on that by learning persuasive writing. I don’t know if I went into this kind of law because I had those skills or if I developed those skills more because this is the area of law I practice, but my Hutchison background certainly made me confident that I could be effective and successful.

“There are many lawyers who don’t like to write but are very good on their feet. I just happen to enjoy both aspects, and with the type of law I practice, you must be able to do both.”

Wellford said that even though women have tipped the scales in becoming the majority of law school graduates nationwide, the data shows that women are still in the minority as far as equity partnerships and leadership roles at law firms.

“I think it’s a testament to my law firm that I’m in the position of president and shareholder,” Wellford said. “I have partners who encouraged me as a lawyer regardless of the fact that I am a woman. When I started practicing 29 years ago, I encountered, outside of my firm, a lot of biases about female lawyers being perceived as good at only certain things. The perceptions have changed dramatically in the years since then—I am seeing much less of that today.”

Even though she’s still often the only woman in the room, she believes it can be a real plus. “Hearing a woman’s voice is different and catches others’ attention—people listen. It’s a change of tone and your perspective can be unique. In my early years, with clients, I went from being a curiosity to someone they trusted and whose advice they would follow.”

There are many lawyers who don’t like to write but are very good on their feet. I just happen to enjoy both aspects, and with the type of law I practice, you must be able to do both.

Bringing Others Up

Like many other professions, Wellford said, mentoring is vital to being a successful attorney. “You learn the law in law school and then you learn how to practice law through practicing, and you need a mentor to be able to do that eff­ectively, no matter what kind of law you are practicing.” She credits the experienced attorneys at Martin Tate with being supportive and encouraging her.

She said she feels a responsibility to mentor others as they come along, but that she also benefits from the relationship: “I don’t ever want to be in the position in which I think I have all the answers,” she said. “I always tell the associates or younger partners who I’m working with, ‘just because I say this is our argument, or this is what I think, or this is what the law is, I want you to argue with me about it if you think there’s a better way, or if you think I’m wrong.’ I welcome that. I learn so much from that dialogue, and from working with others.

“It’s great to see other attorneys who have a different style than I have. I watch them in court, and I learn things from them. They may be approaching issues with a completely different style of arguing that is equally as effective. Much can be learned from that as well.”

As an attorney, Wellford is well versed in making a case for her clients but realizes the importance of civil discourse—a skill that Hutchison teaches through the Institute for Responsible Citizenship.
“It’s so important to be able to have civil discourse, to be able to truly listen to someone without formulating a response in the moment or interrupting. And then to be able to communicate back to them in a way that they can listen to you so that you can have a discussion that may or may not get you to an agreement, but that may get you closer toward an understanding of the other person’s perspective.”

She also likes to quote the politician Howard Baker, whose father told him: “You should always go through life working on the assumption that the other guy might be right.”

Friendships for Years to Come

The transition to Memphis and a new school when she was 15 years old wasn’t easy, but out of that grew lifelong friendships. “I didn’t know anyone here. I had a big sister, Kathie Johnson Alexander ’87, who was assigned to me at Hutchison. She is one of my closest friends to this day. I still see her regularly.”

Wellford with her friend and Hutchison “big sister” Kathie Johnson Alexander ’87, who helped Shea adjust to a new school when she moved to Memphis at age 15.

Because she hadn’t had foreign language classes previously and was slightly behind in math when she started at Hutchison, Wellford studied French and math with the class of 1988. “I keep up with people from both of my classes and others on a regular basis. Some of my closest friends are people whom I’ve been friends with since I started at Hutchison. I treasure those relationships.”

She has made Hutchison a philanthropic priority because the school helped her family when they needed it. “When we first moved here, my family had some economic difficulties and Hutchison provided financial aid,” Wellford explained. “My initial giving was motivated to pay back what had been given to me so that those funds would be available for another student to receive a Hutchison education. I continue to give because of my experience at Hutchison and the foundation it gave me for success later in life. I also want to support programs such as the Institute for Responsible Citizenship, as well as other initiatives and enrichment activities that Hutchison offers to empower girls for the future.

“I think the transition from a small town to Memphis was a life challenge that taught me many things. I brought those skills to my legal career. In my first 10 years or so while I was in the process of maturing in my profession, I probably didn’t recognize some of the challenges or biases that were out there—I just determined that this is what I was going to do. And I was going to become competent at doing it and this was how I was going to practice law, period. I know that attitude came from both of my parents, who told me from a young age, and encouraged me strongly throughout my life, that ‘you can do whatever you want to do.’ ”

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