An interview with DRI's new president, John Kuppens, a litigation partner in Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP's Columbia, South Carolina office. His remarks have been edited for length and style.
CCBJ: John, congratulations on being named DRI’s president. When, how and why did you become involved with the organization?
John Kuppens: Thank you, it is an honor to serve. I became a DRI member when I was admitted to the bar in 1989 because I joined a firm that encouraged involvement in professional organizations as a way to develop your practice, develop your leadership skills, and increase your personal network. But I really got hooked after I attended a DRI Young Lawyers Seminar about 25 years ago. I ended up being the chair of the DRI Young Lawyers Committee. It’s been a wonderful ride.
How can in-house counsel benefit from membership and from the leadership opportunities that DRI provides?
Kuppens: First, let me say that DRI recognizes that in-house counsel, to some extent, have different needs and priorities from lawyers in private practice. We try to provide our in-house members with opportunities to discuss their needs and the issues they’re confronting, and we provide them with an exclusive forum to network with other in-house counsel and discuss their shared concerns.
We have a Corporate Counsel Committee, which is run by, comprised of, and designed to benefit in-house counsel. They have the ability to set their own agenda with no interference from private counsel or private practitioners.
We also have a Corporate Counsel Roundtable, which is planned specifically for in-house counsel. The topics and agenda are selected by in-house counsel, and it’s another way to get together and discuss things with their peers.
I would say that a major benefit that we offer is leadership training. An organization like DRI is uniquely positioned to help members hone their corporate leadership skills through their involvement in the Corporate Counsel Committee, the Corporate Counsel Roundtable, or any of our other 28 substantive law committees or the more than 30 seminars that we put on throughout the year.
Finally, we offer in-house counsel greatly discounted dues on annual membership, with which comes the ability to attend any of DRI’s seminars at no charge.
Collaboration is a word that is often used when discussing the relationship between in-house and outside counsel. How does DRI foster further collaboration between the two groups?
Kuppens: DRI provides an opportunity for the preeminent lawyers in the country, in any given practice area, to come together to talk about cutting-edge legal issues. When you are able to bring a broad group of people together, you can see the trends in a way that you won’t notice if you’re just dealing with matters individually and on a piecemeal basis.
DRI also delivers the forum to identify areas in which our members seek to change the law or judicial rules, and fosters collaboration in a way that brings our collective strength to bear so that our voice is heard. DRI has effectively articulated the view of, and advocated for, the defense bar’s position on a number of important issues, including proposed changes to ALI Restatements and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Our various committees and programs also facilitate discussions about topics such as litigation strategies and management skills.
Can you share some of DRI’s priorities and hot topics for the organization going into 2018?
Kuppens: From a bigpicture perspective, DRI is focused on education, advocacy, engagement and the provision of legal resources for the practitioner. In the education area we offer a Mini-MBA, which is a series of programs exclusively for in-house counsel trying to develop a well-rounded set of business and leadership skills that extend beyond litigation management. Also we understand that these days a lot of people would prefer to have the option to get their CLE on their tablets or on their desktops instead of inperson, so we are expanding our online programming offerings.
In the area of engagement, similarly we understand that a lot of networking today is done online. We have just launched our new networking app, DRI Circles, that will allow our members to have exclusive online networking and referral groups with each other.
In the advocacy area, we are going to continue to be the voice of the defense bar and speak out on issues that affect our members, and that includes having a voice in issues ranging from litigation funding to artificial intelligence. DRI’s Amicus Committee continues its robust program of writing and filing amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Finally, our members get free online access to every compendium, magazine article or seminar paper that DRI has ever published. DRI also has a trove of information relating to experts who testify in litigation, including deposition transcripts, trial testimony, motions to exclude, orders affecting the experts and other information to help you prepare your case.
Can you tell us more about the Young Lawyers Committee and its role within DRI?
Kuppens: Many of my peers who got involved in DRI as young lawyers have stayed with DRI and have become leaders in the organization. I think it’s fair to say that they wouldn’t have gotten involved or stayed involved but for our Young Lawyers Committee. Today, the practice of law has changed, and the needs of young lawyers have evolved. They don’t pledge their loyalty to just anybody, but they are critical to the future of the profession, and DRI is still the best organization to meet their needs.
That is definitely going to be a big focus for us this year. We’ve created a Young Lawyers Task Force to help the organization make sure that we are doing what we need to do to meet the evolving needs of younger lawyers. One step in that direction is the DRI Circles networking app I mentioned, which acknowledges that a lot of young lawyers use social networking as a complement to, or sometimes instead of, in-person networking.
Also, recognizing that young lawyers don’t always have the funding to attend in-person seminars, but they’d still like to get high-quality CLE, we’re expanding our online programming so that we can provide that for folks who prefer to learn in place.
DRI is known for its educational offerings and networking opportunities in particular. Less well known is the organization’s advocacy work. Can you tell us more about that?
Kuppens: DRI’s tagline is “The voice of the defense bar.” Because we have almost 22,000 members, we take seriously our responsibility to speak for our members on issues of importance to them. One of the major ways in which we do that is through the efforts of the DRI Center for Law and Public Policy, which is essentially DRI’s think tank.
As an organization, we have become in the last decade a very important and sought-after voice on issues of importance to the defense bar. As an example, one of the things that we’re very proud of is our white paper, “The Economics of Justice,” which exposes the long-term deleterious effects of inadequate funding of our courts on local communities and the ability to get cases heard in an economical and expeditious manner.
John Kuppens is president of DRI, the leading organization of civil defense attorneys and in-house counsel. He is a partner in Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP’s Columbia, South Carolina, office. Kuppens defends product liability litigation, including serving as national counsel for a global manufacturer of outdoor power equipment.
Published January 11, 2018.