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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Pat Kelly harmonizes his musical past
with a career in the law

By Susan McRae
Special to the Bar Journal

Patrick M. Kelly won’t officially take over as 88th president of the State Bar of California until Oct. 13, but the veteran trial lawyer and western regional manager of 850-lawyer Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker is already preparing for the job ahead.

Patrick Kelly
Pat Kelly in his L.A. office.
                                                       Photo by Stephanie Diani

On a recent day, while seeming to segue effortlessly between a whirlwind of phone calls, conferences and an assortment of management tasks, he made time to join the presiding judge and others officiating at an enrobing ceremony at the downtown Los Angeles County courthouse.

A professional musician before turning to the law ― he has played guitar with the Beach Boys and other surfer music groups ― Kelly addressed the new judges using an analogy to his former career.

“When you write a song, you have to have a concept and then you have to figure out how the words and melody fit together and then you have to add orchestration, background, vocals and whatever lead position is going to be taken. It’s a very complex process.” he told the seven inductees, “and if you miss any step, the thing falls flat.

“Judges have to do the same thing with every decision they make. The only difference is a judge has to do it dozens of times a day.”

Then, he went on to say ― to vigorous applause ― that when he’s inducted as president later this month at the State Bar’s annual meeting in Monterey, he’ll do “everything the bar can do to aid in the cause” of restoring full funding to the state courts.

Over the past three years, the courts have seen $650 million in cuts with another projected $540 million to come, causing massive staff layoffs, courtroom closures and cuts in vital services. The crisis not only affects public access to justice, he says, but lawyers, especially plaintiffs’ lawyers, face years of delays in getting to trial. He called the situation the worst he’s seen in his four decades of practice, adding that the problem isn’t limited to California. It’s nationwide.

Patrick Kelly and Mike Love
Pat Kelly and Mike Love of the Beach Boys
jamming together in 2006.
Photo courtesy of Professional Liability Underwriting Society

Fit and energetic, Kelly, 69, seems to be everywhere at once without appearing rushed. Friends and colleagues say those traits and his longtime involvement in bar, professional and community activities make him the ideal person to head the state’s 238,000-lawyer organization at a time when the economic crisis threatens to dismantle the justice system.

The president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association in 1990-91, Kelly also served from 1995˗2002 on the Commission on Judicial Performance ― the disciplinary body for judges that closely parallels the State Bar’s disciplinary arm for lawyers ― and helped draft new rules that remain in place today. From 2002˗04, he was president of Los Angeles County Dispute Resolution Services. He’s a fellow of the International Academy of Trial lawyers, a pre-eminent, invitation-only group limited to 500 trial lawyers from the United States. He also served on Wilson Elser’s firmwide executive committee from 1981, a year after he started at the firm, until stepping down last year.

Terming Kelly a “natural leader,” Sheldon Sloan, a close friend and past Los Angeles County Bar president, said, “You know that saying, ‘If you want a job done, give it to a busy man?’ Pat Kelly is a busy man who gets the job done. He starts and finishes it. You don’t have to call back later. He gets it done.”

Kelly’s tenure as bar leader also comes as changes to the Board of Trustees are phased in. Restructured last year by the Legislature, the new board will consist of four fewer lawyer members by 2014, with the majority being appointed by the state Supreme Court and the Legislature, rather than elected by attorneys. Board members’ titles have also been changed from governors to trustees, to better reflect the bar’s renewed emphasis on protecting the trust the public invests in lawyers.

The change is more an attitude shift, Kelly says, ultimately accomplishing the goal of public protection by complementing the discipline system with assuring that lawyers become more professional through “education and thought leadership.” Although initially opposed to lawyer members being appointed rather than elected by peers, he says his attitude has changed, too, and he’s got a good group of board members who are in agreement on how to proceed.

Patrick Kelly and Laura Kelly
Pat Kelly with his daughter Laura Kelly
                                        Photo by Stephanie Diani

Dovetailing with board changes is talk of more stringent discipline guidelines, which Kelly supports. The state Supreme Court, which signs off on the State Bar Court’s attorney discipline recommendations, recently returned 42 cases for reconsideration and bar leaders support using it as an opportunity to refocus on the discipline standards. Other priorities on Kelly’s list for the year ahead include ensuring access to legal services, helping new and senior lawyers ― who can’t find work or are transitioning from large firms, respectively ― by putting them in touch with pro bono opportunities, and refocusing lawyers’ mission as problem solvers, he says, rather than “going straight to gladiator role.”

Born in Pasadena, Kelly and his two siblings grew up in nearby, rural Glendora in a time before freeways. They lived on a 15-acre property that also housed a rest home, part of a family business run by his mother. His father was an aerospace engineer and part-time golf teaching pro.  At age 12, Kelly started playing guitar, a hobby that would quickly consume his young life.

While attending what was then Pomona Catholic High School, he managed to juggle classes with being football team captain, student government officer and playing music with local groups. By the time he entered Pomona College in 1962, studies and school activities had taken a decidedly back seat. He began performing with well-known rock and surf groups. Eventually, under pressure from his family “to get a real job,” he agreed to give law school a try. A school adviser knew the dean of Loyola Law School, and Kelly enrolled. He says he believed that he’d flunk out in six months and return to music. But he didn’t flunk, and for the next 18 years he says he didn’t pick up a guitar except to play at a friend’s birthday or a singalong.

In 1966 as the Vietnam War escalated, he says he tried to enlist in the military but was disqualified because of a stomach ulcer, a souvenir he attributes to his rowdy days in rock and roll. He joined the Southern Pacific Railroad handling its litigation and went from there to several mid- to large-size firms, ending at Jones Day in 1980. That’s when Wilson Elser, a full-service firm that focuses on litigation with strong ties to the insurance industry, recruited him to manage its Los Angeles office. The job ultimately led to western region managing partner over offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Las Vegas.

During that time, he grew the Los Angeles office from four to more than 50 lawyers today, including daughter Laura Kelly, who joined out of law school in 2008 and, like her dad, is active in the Association of Ski Defense Attorneys. His namesake son, a pediatric psychiatrist, is director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Then there’s the music. A chance meeting in the early 1980s with singer/songwriter Bruce Johnston, who joined the Beach Boys several years after Kelly stopped performing, brought his life full circle. Johnston says he remembers being invited to Kelly’s house for the first time. He says Kelly took him aside, saying he wanted to show him his closet.

“Here’s this five-day-a-week guy in a coat and tie, a young gun coming up through the ranks,” Johnston says. “I thought, ‘Well, OK, maybe he wants to show off a new tuxedo,’ and here are all these guitars … worth enough to buy a condo.”

Patrick Kelly and Gail Gibson Kelly
Pat Kelly and his wife Gail Gibson Kelly at home.
                                                                   Photo by Stephanie Diani

Kelly’s moved houses since, and the instruments are now tucked into built-in shelves in a walk-in closet in the guest room of the home he shares with wife Gail Gibson Kelly, an executive guidance counselor for a management consulting firm. His vintage collection has been his life’s one constant, he says. It includes several Fender Stratocasters, a Les Paul Goldtop, a Chet Atkins County Gentleman 6120 and a Martin D 35. Plugging in a Paul Reed Smith, custom made with inlaid turquoise and silver, he strums a few chords.

Since the serendipitous meeting with Johnston, who’s become a close friend, Kelly has performed with the Beach Boys on occasion and, friends say, doesn’t miss a chance to demonstrate his musical talents. Case in point was the 1991 wedding of Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon to Richard Burdge, this year’s Los Angeles County Bar Association president. During the reception, Kelly borrowed a band member’s guitar and played “Wipe Out,” the 1963 Surfaris’ classic. Edmon says she keeps a photo of the occasion in her wedding album.

In Kelly’s roomy, corner law office, a stand holds a replica Stratocaster signed by the Beach Boys, and a framed letter on the wall expresses the group’s regrets at being unable to attend his 1990 induction as Los Angeles County Bar Association president because they were on tour in Montreal.

For nearly two decades since, Kelly says he’s tried to persuade his firm’s management to let him run for State Bar Board of Trustees. But he says founding partner Thomas Wilson asked him to defer, knowing it would be a time-consuming commitment, especially if he ran for president. New firm chairman Daniel J. McMahon, who took over after Wilson’s retirement, finally gave Kelly the green light. In retrospect, Kelly says the wait was worth it because the experience he’s gained will make him a better leader.

McMahon, who says he’s become well acquainted with Kelly’s musical side during frequent performances at firm retreats, believes that aspect of his personality exemplifies his success and ability to connect with people, including juries, judges, clients and opposing counsel. “We couldn’t think of a better example [to lead the State Bar] than Pat Kelly,” McMahon says. “He’s a great role model for both the firm and the profession. He’s the type of person you want in that role.”

As for Kelly, he says he believes what constitutes success is to “do what you’re good at … and do the other as a hobby.” Though he loves music, he says his highest ambition was to become a lawyer. But, he adds, “If you’re lucky enough to include both, go with that. Many people don’t get that opportunity. I was lucky.”

Susan McRae is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who has covered the California legal community for 20 years.