Michael Kelly, McCarter & English chairman

Michael Kelly knows it’s time for a change, and maybe a little rest and relaxation. The fourth-generation Wilmingtonian and co-owner of Kelly’s Logan House in Trolley Square is stepping down as the chairman of McCarter & English after 10 years in the role.

Why now? Kelly said the reasons span the personal and the professional.

Michael Kelly outside of Kelly’s Logan House. | Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli

To start, it’s a tough job. The law firm employs more than 400 attorneys and has a footprint stretching from southeastern Pennsylvania to central New Jersey. During Kelly’s tenure, the firm has more than doubled its net income.

“I’m a strong believer in recirculating roles. It’s not good to have a chairman stay too long,” he said. “We have a lot of young people.”

Kelly, who turns 63 in November, would also like to be around during the transition, for his own sake and for the benefit of the company.

“It’s good to do the transition now, while I’m still here, instead of just working until I drop like some people have,” he said, referring to the tendency of some attorneys to work well past the retirement age.

In addition, the leadership of the firm has become more personally taxing for Kelly as he’s gotten older.

“I’m a little frustrated. Things aren’t happening as quickly as they should, and some people are complaining because they don’t want to make the tough calls. And frustration is not good for my health.”

Kelly wouldn’t elaborate on the exact conflicts that he dealt with as chair, but he’s ready to pass the torch regardless. As a survivor of stage-three gallbladder cancer, he wants to avoid frustrations in his working life.

Whatever the cause of the decision, Kelly sees the transition as an opportunity to spend more time in the courtroom. He has appeared as counsel in most of the 50 states and tried 25 cases before the Delaware Supreme Court. His work has spanned commercial and civil law, shareholder suits, toxic torts, product liability, intellectual property and antitrust.

“I want to devote my remaining years to doing what I love, which is trying cases,” he said.


At what point in your life did you realize you had the power to do something meaningful?
I received football scholarships to attend the best high school in Delaware (Tower Hill) and an Ivy League school. I was the poor Irish kid who suddenly had two impressive diplomas.

How do you want to be remembered?
A good father and husband, who tried his best to abide by his principles and help those in need.

What are your strengths as a leader?
I am not saying I am a good leader. But I always tried to listen and gave my colleagues every benefit of the doubt. Good leaders have to inspire. But they also have to set the tone for excellence, integrity, and honesty.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
One of my bosses once said, “first-class people hire first-class people. Second-class people hire third-class people.” Great advice. I always tried to surround  myself with the best and the brightest.
 
What lessons did you learn from your biggest success and your biggest failure?
My biggest failure as chair occurred when I listened to others who recommended a “business as usual” approach to management. When that lead to disastrous results, I quickly learned that good management requires being one step ahead of your competition and the ability to make tough, even though unpopular, calls.

When you hear the word “successful,” who (or what) do you think of?
I think the most important yardstick is how we perform with respect to our family, friends, and helping those in need. I would much rather be remembered as being a great father, husband and friend than being a great trial lawyer.

What’s your favorite quote?
In the context of management, I love the Abe Lincoln quote, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
Take more chances. Don’t fear failure.

What was the “pebble in your shoe” (the everyday distraction that took you off course)?
Frustration with performance. I demand a lot.

What’s the question you wish more people would ask themselves?
“What can I do today to help those in need?”

How can I make our community a better place for everyone?
Do a lot more for the poor and sick.

What is the key to your success?
I do not admit to being successful. But my Marine Corps dad instilled in his three children that dying was preferable to quitting. I owe my moral code to my dad and to my mother, who attended church not just every Sunday, but every day.

When you feel overwhelmed, get distracted, or lose your focus, what do you do?
Look at pics of my family. Pray.

What’s inspiring you right now?
God gave me a second chance. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with incurable stage-three gallbladder cancer. I want to use everyday I have left to help those in need.

What’s the biggest challenge facing Delaware businesses?
Bringing manufacturing industry here. We are too dependent on service industries. I would like to see Delaware become a mini Silicon Valley. It can be. We also need to fix our school system ASAP.

What’s next for you?
Two trials coming up. I will now have more time to devote to community activities.

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