Astoria native Elias Fillas of Sacco and Fillas provides full legal services seven days a week
by Cindy Klimek
Elias Fillas got his first taste of what it means to be a lawyer when his brother was hurt in an accident.
“My brother got into a pretty severe accident when he was 11 years old,” Fillas explains. “And we dealt with an attorney who really didn’t know what he was doing. He failed to have my brother’s medical bills paid and failed to obtain a fair result for my brother who was severely injured. From that time on, I just always said to myself that we really need a lawyer in the family!”
Fillas, the first lawyer in his family, attended Hofstra University for his undergraduate degree and then Hofstra Law School. But he admits that going to college to become a lawyer wasn’t as easy as wanting to become a lawyer.
“I really didn’t apply myself in my first two years of college,” he says with a laugh. “I wasn’t doing very well at all because I was very active socially. And then I visited a counselor and I told him that I wanted to become a lawyer and he looked at me like I was crazy. He told me to have more realistic expectations because it didn’t appear that I would be able to go to law school at that time. So I decided that I had had enough of the fun and games and I took my studies very seriously in my third and fourth year. I stopped attending social functions, took summer classes, winter classes, and really immersed myself in my academic career. I was able to increase my GPA and ultimately I took the LSATs and Hofstra accepted me and I started going to law school.”
Once he made the decision to get serious about his career, he never looked back. He graduated law school in 2001 and became partner of a law firm just three short years later.
“After law school, I started working for Tonino Sacco, who is now my partner. I graduated from law school and initially I told him that it was going to be a short-term employment because I had planned on opening up my own office, so I was very forthright with him. I started working and then we became really good friends and colleagues. And the more I worked for him and learned from him the more I realized I had yet to learn. Additionally, the size of the practice began to grow and after three years of working together I think we both realized that we complemented each other very well and we made the decision to become partners.”
However, despite his quick rise to partner, Fillas says he “doesn’t put too much emphasis” on having his name on the door.
“It was a proud moment because I had my own law firm and I was young at the time, but the fact that you open up a law firm isn’t much of an accomplishment,” he says. “Anyone with a law degree can open up a law practice. Once you go to law school it’s just a matter of getting some money together and renting a space and putting up your shingle. I place more emphasis on the hard work and countless hours that my partner and I have invested into our practice and the dedication and loyalty of our staff that enabled us to manage the growth we’ve experienced over the past 10 years. We went from two lawyers and a part-time paralegal to a practice that employs approximately 30 attorneys in multiple subject areas and a staff o about 70 people. To experience that kind of growth while maintaining a high level of service in a matter of 10 years, that’s where the accomplishment lies.”
Their approach to the developing of the firm was to model it as a corporate firm for the average working person. A corporate, white shoe firm has multiple departments so that all the needs of Fortune 500 companies can be serviced.
“The success of our firm was to create the same environment where we can attend to all the needs of the average working person,” he says. “Over the years we’ve developed departments within our office that provide services in the areas of real estate, commercial, criminal, personal injury, employment, matrimonial and estates law, that your average person, their friends, relatives or neighbors, will encounter every day.”
He provides the example of a client who, he says, “we were able to obtain a very large settlement. Subsequently, we represented the client in a purchase of a house, the drafting of his will and the opening of his first business. We reviewed his lease, assisted him in obtaining financing, drafted contracts for his business and when he decided to get married, we drafted a prenuptial agreement. It gave me great pride to watch this unfold and represent this client every step of the way.”
He says, “This is just one example of what occurs every day in my practice and it has been a very fulfilling experience to do this day in and day out. I’m proud to have played a role in the creation of a law firm that can diligently handle matters in multiple areas of the law. It is something we developed that you rarely find with most firms, the ability to cater to the average man with sophistication and tenacity which made us one the largest firms in Queens County.”
Being client and community-minded, Fillas says his first “I made it!” moment came long before he had his name on the door. It happened when he won his first case for the firm, which was also his first jury trial.
“I had my first trial against one of the largest insurance carriers in the state and the amount of the insurance policy that was applicable was $25, 000,” he says. “They were putting us in a position where they weren’t making any reasonable offers to the client, so we had to spend $17,000 to try the case. We ended up getting a verdict of $180,000, and Allstate ultimately paid a sum that far exceeded their policy limits. That was actually my first trial.”
Fillas attributes his success and his firm’s growth to hard work and offering something his competitors don’t: office hours on the weekends and incomparable availability.
“I started holding office hours on Saturdays and Sundays because I realized that a lot of my clientele, the Greek families in the community, worked 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, so it was very difficult for a lot of people who had cases to go and see an attorney on a weekday, I gave them that alternative. Also, back then, it was not the norm to give out your cell phone number to clients, but I gave out my cell phone number to all of my clients. I just made myself very accessible to them. I would work sometimes until 9 or 10 at night. I guess it was a novel idea at the time, now it has become the norm in our office.”
Despite the payoff from his long and weekend hours, he says he wouldn’t have been able to reach this level of success without the support of his family and his business partner.
“When you’re spending large amounts of time away from your family in order to further your career, there has to be an understanding from your family that that’s what is required in order to be successful. My wife, Katerina and I have four beautiful kids that require a lot of time and attention, and without my wife’s dedication to our family, I would have never been able to accomplish whatever I’ve accomplished in my career. As for my business partner, Tonino, he has been my mentor throughout my career. We have a great relationship, he is godfather to my son, Niko, and has become a member of our family.”
So, deep down, how does this hotshot Astoria lawyer feel about the career he chose for himself as a kid?
“That’s a loaded question,” he says. “I think the thing that I like the most is the satisfaction you get when you get a great result for a client. You have somebody that comes to you and depends on you to get them results or to help make their life a little bit easier as a result of them being in an accident or having some protracted litigation go on and getting them the finality of that situation and having it work out for them where they’re very pleased with the result. That’s probably the most satisfying feeling you can get from being a lawyer. However, it’s a lot of responsibility. You take on all your clients’ problems and sometimes it can really weigh on you.”
Regarding the quality of justice, Fillas says he has seen and read about cases where the jury verdicts rendered results to people that didn’t seem very fair.
“However, overall it’s a very good justice system. It works better than what exists in other countries of the world. (Think of Greece for example.) Right now, the courts are overloaded with cases and as a result, cases take longer to resolve. This is a common complaint that I hear from clients but that’s the system that we have. It has to be improved, but it works.. It just could work a lot better.”
Fillas hopes to expand his law firm and possibly even run for political office someday.
“My partner’s Italian, I’m Greek, but both of us have our base here in Astoria. We initially started out in Whitestone, which also has a heavily Greek and Italian community, and as the firm grew and we needed more space we decided to come to Astoria. The office that we occupy is half a block away from where my partner grew up and it’s a couple of blocks away from where I was born. Astoria holds a lot of sentimental value to us. My partner and I are focusing all our efforts on continuing to grow. We hope to be fortunate enough to continue to experience the growth that we’ve experienced these last 12 years together. We have plans to open other offices in New York City and other boroughs. We’re just looking to keep doing what we’re doing to achieve stellar results for our clients.”
As for political office, “you can’t rule it out. Right now it’s not in the cards but you can’t exclude anything. There’s still a lot more that I want to accomplish in my field before I run for any kind of political office, but never say never.”