DRI President Toyja Kelley's path to leadership started with an issue he was passionate about and continues to champion: diversity.
CCBJ: How did you become involved with DRI?
Toyja Kelley: My first law firm required all of its associates to become members of DRI’s state affiliated organization, which came with a DRI membership. A couple of years later, DRI was seeking volunteers to help plan its first diversity program. I participated in the planning calls, and when the committee was looking for an associate to speak about business development, I was asked to speak on the panel. That fundamentally altered my trajectory in the organization. The first seminar was wildly successful, more than anybody anticipated. Based on that program, DRI created a full-blown diversity committee. I was the very first vice chair of the committee and went on to run for DRI’s board. Along the way, I’ve been involved with many different parts of DRI, but I owe everything to the organization’s commitment to diversity.
How can in-house counsel benefit from membership in DRI?
At its core, DRI is a professional development organization for attorneys and in-house counsel who exclusively represent individuals and companies in civil litigation. It provides its members with access to a network of 20,000 like-minded people, 29 subset law committees and more than 50 years of CLE and other legal research.
Over the past few years, DRI has devoted considerably more resources towards providing corporate counsel members with the tools necessary to help them advance their unique professional development. Much of this is done through DRI’s corporate counsel committee. We refer to it as C3. C3 is only open to in-house counsel. It provides an opportunity for open and candid discussion, the exchange of ideas and best practices, and networking events exclusively for in-house counsel.
We’re particularly proud of the MBA programs that we offer to in-house counsel through collaboration with Belmont University in Nashville. The program consists of three seminar segments, which in-house counsel can take in any order. If they complete all three, they receive a DRI Belmont University mini MBA certificate.
We also have the Corporate Counsel Roundtable, CCRT as we refer to it. This program was put together by in-house counsel to create a forum to share ideas and concerns that uniquely affect in-house counsel. CCRT allows DRI to have a better understanding of the needs and desires of in-house counsel. From that forum, DRI can better ensure it is delivering exactly what in-house counsel want and need.
We have a similar event called the Insurance Roundtable. It too is limited to senior in-house counsel from insurance companies.
What leadership opportunities does DRI provide?
DRI involvement offers the best professional development and leadership training that money can buy for anyone, including in-house counsel. For a long time, in-house counsel have been active on all of our committees, not just C3. They’ve served on our board, and one has even been DRI president.
How does DRI foster collaboration between in-house and outside counsel?
DRI’s Diversity Seminar and Corporate Expo has become the shining example of collaboration between DRI and in-house counsel. The seminar deals with a host of issues, and over the years, we have gotten the reputation of pushing the envelope. Having a dialogue that many other diversity programs have been unable or unwilling to take on has positioned the seminar and DRI’s Diversity Committee as a leader on diversity issues in the profession, and from its inception, in-house counsel have helped shape the program. Many of the aspects of the seminar are based on recommendations and insight from in-house counsel. For example, a number of years ago we created a breakout session for in-house counsel to share ideas and concerns about their company’s efforts to become more diverse. We created a similar breakout for managing partners. Ultimately, those two groups come together for a joint discussion of issues relating to diversity. I’ve been fortunate to be in that room, and some great ideas have been spurred through that.
What other offerings does the Diversity for Success Seminar and Corporate Expo hold?
From the very beginning, we wanted the seminar to create opportunities for minority and women lawyers in law firms, to present them with an opportunity to network, engage and, hopefully, get business from corporate in-house counsel clients. We understood that the process is more of a marathon than a sprint, but we felt it was important to give minority lawyers the opportunities to meet in-house counsel at an early stage in their career, something they may not be getting from their law firms. That goal from the outset still forms the basis of the program’s structure.
On the seminar’s first day, there are a number of presentations on issues relating to diversity in the profession. Topics range from the technical – this is how you network and market yourself to in-house counsel – to the more cerebral, the policy issues around why diversity is important and how to become more diverse.
On the second day, women and minority lawyers actually interview with, network with and generate business from the corporate participants in the expo. Over the years, many of our members have created long-term clients from participation in the expo, and in-house counsel who are looking to diversify their own law departments have hired people they interviewed as part of the expo. I’m more proud of my involvement with the diversity seminar than anything else I have done in DRI.
Tell us about the organization’s advocacy work.
Not enough in-house counsel are aware of the important work DRI’s Center for Law and Public Policy is doing on their behalf. The center is a think tank run by leading experts on the issues it takes up. One aspect of the center that is particularly worth noting is the amicus brief program. In a short period of time, DRI has become a leading and sought-after voice by litigants before the U.S. Supreme Court and others. A few years ago, we were in the top handful of filers of amicus briefs before the court, and that was only a few years into our efforts to beef up our amicus program.
For a long time we have frequently collaborated with other organizations involved in advocacy work, like voters of The American Board of Trial Advocates Roundtable and Lawyers for Civil Justice, on issues of importance to the profession and the civil justice system.
What hot topics will DRI be prioritizing in 2019?
DRI is always monitoring any proposed changes to the federal rules. DRI members are active in efforts to promote several rule changes and to comment on proposed rule changes that we think will negatively impact our members and our clients. I was recently part of a group that testified before the Federal Rules Committee considering rule changes involving multidistrict litigation. DRI will also soon be rolling out a white paper on third-party litigation funding.
But fundamentally, DRI is a membership organization. We’re here to support and promote our members. The profession continues to face existential challenges that have changed the way legal services are provided. Many lawyers left the profession or students chose not to enter the profession following the recession in 2008. We have yet to fully feel the consequences of that. On the flip side, with everything going on in our country today, the importance of lawyers in our society has never been greater. Law school enrollments are up after being way down for many years. We will spend considerable time next year positioning DRI to deal with that.
Toyja Kelley is president of DRI, the leading organization of civil defense attorneys and in-house counsel. He is a partner at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, where he focuses his practice on general commercial litigation, construction litigation, professional and product liability, business torts and insurance coverage. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published October 8, 2018.