College of Law

Ellen Grachek '02

optimizing the versatility of a legal education

Feb. 14, 2022

Update: As of 2/20/23 Ellen is serving as the Director of Academic Labor Relations at the University of Michigan.

Ellen Grachek

Ellen Grachek ('02) currently serves as UToledo’s Senior Director for Faculty Labor Relations, where she is responsible for providing leadership and strategic management of the University’s faculty labor relations function and leads the daily management and cultivation of labor relations between the University and its faculty. 

Prior to working at the University of Toledo, Ellen spent five years at the University of Michigan where she served as a Senior Labor Relations Advisor for Michigan Medicine and as an Associate Director for Academic Human Resources. Ellen’s professional experience also includes being elected to Toledo City Council, practicing law in private firm practice, and working for the City of Toledo as in-house counsel and as Human Resources Director. 

Ellen was born and raised in Toledo. She remembers being in elementary school and having a heightened sense of what was fair or unfair, just or unjust. When she was in fifth grade, Ellen remembers her dad telling her that lawyers are people who advocate for others and who work to change what is not right or just. Her dad’s insight planted the seed for her career trajectory. 

Ellen saw law school as a way to equip herself with the necessary skills to fulfill the sense of purpose that she developed through high school and college- to make a positive difference. During college, she had the opportunity to work as a file clerk in her uncle's law firm. Having that experience gave Ellen perspective on what lawyering actually is, how it works, and what it takes to do it well. 

When it came time to apply to law school, Ellen said choosing Toledo Law was an easy choice. 

She knew she wanted to build her career in her hometown. Toledo Law made practical sense as a way for her to begin developing professional relationships even as a student. Ellen said, “Thanks to scholarships, I was able to pursue career choices in public service that law school graduates sometimes can’t –or are reluctant to- pursue.” 

Ellen began her professional legal career with a Toledo firm dedicated to union-side labor law practice. She obtained this position by responding to the job advertisement that was posted on what was the “job board” outside the Toledo Law Career Services Office.   

Several professors made an impact on Ellen during her time in law school, including Former Dean (then-professor) Daniel Steinbock, Professor Susan Martyn, and Professor Joseph Slater. “Professor Slater’s Labor Law class in my second year became the epilogue to my dad’s advice about becoming a lawyer,” says Ellen. “The way Professor Slater taught the course inspired me to hone my focus on labor and employment law. I took every class of his I could thereafter and pursued an internship that helped me prepare for my first post-law school job with a labor and employment law firm.” 

Ellen’s career path has varied in many ways but her focus has been helping others and public service. Through the years, it’s not wins and losses that seem to matter most,” Ellen reflects. “Rather, it’s the valuable relationships built along the way and the capacity to make a difference that make the work most meaningful. I like helping solve complex problems and guiding resolutions to difficult situations. I love putting the figurative puzzle pieces together and knowing the finished product makes a positive impact. What I find most satisfying is helping to drive outcomes and results that do the greatest good for the greatest number.” 

Ellen attended the University of Toledo receiving her bachelor's degree in Political Science in 1999, with University and Departmental Honors, and her J.D. from the College of Law in 2002. 

Q&A with Ellen Grachek

Do you have a favorite memory from attending Toledo Law? 
I remember quite a few intellectually rigorous times in the classrooms when professors, who were at the top of their teaching craft, grappled with especially complicated issues and concepts, and I walked away knowing I truly learned something important.  Graduation day is the memory that made the rest of the memories worthwhile. 

What did you find difficult about your time in law school?  
As Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge Ian English once said, “Law school changes your DNA.” Law school is supposed to be difficult. I found it difficult to endure several of the required courses that I knew I would never use in practice but are part of that DNA-changing experience.  

What was most helpful to you during your time at Toledo Law? 
Commiserating, collaborating, studying, and laughing with my circle of friends, helped ease the inherent strains of the three years.  When my grandmother made me dinners in between law school classes and study sessions, she encouraged my spirit and reminded me why my efforts would matter. Serving as SBA Vice President gave some balance to the academic focus. An externship with now-retired Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Wittenberg helped me see and appreciate the view from the judge’s side of the bench, in a way no case book or lecture could.  

How did Toledo Law prepare you for your career? 
Professor Steinbock’s evidence, criminal procedure, and administrative law classes instilled technical knowledge but, moreover, were master-class frameworks for long-term thinking about the checks-and-balances and “the why” behind procedures of the legal system. Professor Martyn’s Ethics & Professional Responsibility class was an essential foundation to understanding the depth and breadth of responsibility lawyers undertake every day.   

What have been legal career highlights? 
I’ve been involved in, or had a ring side seat to, some very impactful matters of public concern.  

What are some of the struggles you have encountered and how did you navigate? 
I realized billing hours was not a way I wanted to work in the long-term and that I wanted to work more proactively than reactively, so I transitioned to an in-house counsel role that enabled me to be part of a bigger organization. I recognized the limits of litigation practice, so I moved into non-practicing roles that provide ample space to exercise more skills, grow leadership capacity, and contribute to developing, implementing, and impacting organizational strategy and goals.

What were some career pivot-points/decisions that led you to where you are now?  
I’ve been elected to public office; I’ve transitioned from private firm practice to in-house counsel; I’ve served in non-lawyer leadership roles; and I’ve evolved into professional capacities that value sound judgment, legal education, and ranging experience. At each turning point, I’ve pursued opportunities that necessitated abandoning comfort zones and taking risks, but enabled me to grow skills, expand my mindsets, and be immersed in diverse ways of thinking and being. 

What has been the most challenging aspect of your current (or a recent) position? 
Serving as the chief negotiator in a high-profile strike that impacted thousands of people during the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic was one of my most challenging recent career experiences. Being part of the team that helped resolve it was one of the most rewarding. 

What do you wish you would have known in law school?  
I wish I’d known that the grades aren’t a genuine, long-range measure of what you are really learning and what law school is really teaching.  

Where do you see areas for growth on the part of the legal profession? 
I hope the legal profession will grow in systemic ways to more meaningfully effectuate access to justice –and access to lawyers— for people in need.  

Do you have any suggestions for law students/new lawyers interested in a similar path? 
Recognize the high degree of versatility in legal education and the skills that develop with it. Morph them to suit positions, interests, or jobs you want to pursue. Don’t be fixed in your status quo. Broaden your perspective about what you and your legal education can bring to any table and embrace learning other skills and knowledge bases beyond the law. 

What should new attorneys keep in mind and be thinking about? 
Seek mentors, formal or informal. Collect your experiences so you can rely on them down the road. Develop confidence, but not overly so. Learn to advocate without being disproportionately defensive or needlessly aggressive. Learn to truly listen, so that you listen to understand, not just to hear. 

How has your family supported you in your legal career? 
My immediate family, knowingly or not, operates as a sort of Board of Advisors for me. My husband’s support is unwavering, including when the hours are long, and the issues are toughest. 

What was the best advice you ever received? 
My mother-in-law advised me once that, “You are exactly where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there.” Multiple wise people have repeated the refrain to me: “Trust your instincts.”  

What do you enjoy doing outside of work? 
I enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from running, slow as I am. 

Who is someone you admire and why? 
I have always admired my mother, who is a (retired) nurse leader. I’m grateful to have had her consistent model and example through every stage of my life. 

Last Updated: 3/6/23