Editor: Could you please describe your professional background?
Kessler: I am someone who is called a Jones Day lifer, having started as a summer associate when I was in law school at Ohio State and then having joined the firm when I graduated in 1993. I started in trial practice, and then pretty quickly moved into product liability defense work which today I do exclusively.
Editor: You took over as Partner-In-Charge of the Columbus office this year. Can you give us a bit of the office's history, and your challenges and objectives going forward?
Kessler: While the firm's founding occurred in Cleveland in 1893, the Columbus office only opened in 1980, making it a relatively young office by comparison, although Columbus was the fourth office in the firm that now counts 32 locations worldwide. Columbus is in a critical location, being geographically well located in terms of our proximity to Cleveland and Cincinnati and at the hub of the Midwest. A recent statistic showed that 46 percent of the U.S. population lives within 500 miles of Columbus. Besides geography, Columbus has been extremely well positioned for the present economy in terms of the diversity of its industrial base. While we have been affected as everyone has, we haven't been hit as hard as some of the other areas of the country. We have the benefit of having Ohio State University, as well as the state capital, both of which serve as anchors for the community.
Columbus is home to many well-known public companies, many of which grew from entrepreneurial roots here. Cardinal Health is a prime example. In addition, Columbus has Nationwide Insurance, Limited Brands, Abercrombie, Federated Department Stores and other companies that were founded in Columbus. We have an interesting corporate culture unique to Columbus. The Columbus office is well situated in terms of helping these major public companies, which have not only national operations but international operations.
The competitive edge that Jones Day can provide to any client company is our extensive network since Jones Day operates as one fully integrated firm worldwide. We don't have satellite or branch offices; the office in which a Jones Day attorney is located does not matter. By dialing five digits I can call someone in Dubai or the office up the hall. All of our computer networks are completely interlinked so I can be working on a document at the same time that someone in Mexico City is working on a document. Because most of the Columbus companies have international operations, we are well situated to help them. Clients can call me and I can connect them with someone in Milan or Shanghai. Being able to accommodate clients' needs so readily is quite an asset.
The firm has some unusual core principles that have a very big impact on clients. For one, we are not rewarded based on "client origination credit." If I introduce a client to our Milan office, which then takes over the case and does a good job, the whole firm is the beneficiary along with the client. Other firms set up their compensation systems in such a way that each attorney "eats what he kills." They follow an absolute formula, i.e., if Smith Company is my client and if Smith Company is billed these hours, I am paid x percent. Obviously, there is no motivation for me to have Smith Company deal with my brilliant partner in Milan since then I lose compensation. By treating each client as a firm client, it means that we can provide the best client service. This is one of our core fundamental values at Jones Day. We are all about client service.
Editor: Jones Day's website mentions the fact that it comprises more than 2,400 attorneys in 32 locations throughout the world. Does the Columbus office (and all the offices) offer a complete range of legal services? How does the Columbus office interact with other offices' competencies?
Kessler: We are a full service office as is each of our offices. We staff all matters according to client need. Our teams are almost always from multi-offices. Wearing my litigation hat when we do large national product liability trials, I have never done one that involved only one office. Not only availability but skill-set need is the basis for building the team. I can call in whomever I need from wherever in the firm to cover an area if the expertise is not in our office. The concept of one firm worldwide offering a networking benefit assures the client of the best team and the best representation. As partners, one of our jobs is to know our talent pool throughout the firm.
Editor: With Jones Day's Ohio origin, would you describe how the firm's Midwest roots impact firm culture globally?
Kessler: I am biased as an Ohio native, so I think the Midwestern roots and values are a key part, and a good part, of Jones Day. Everyone is part of the team and treated with respect. One person is not more important because she is a partner. Each brings important value to our work for the clients. One overarching value typical of the Midwest is to be more self- deprecating and to place more emphasis on the team.
Editor: How has the global economic situation in the industrial Midwest affected the nature of Jones Day's practice in Ohio?
Kessler: Obviously, Ohio is not immune to what is going on in the worldwide economy and the struggles that everyone is facing. In Columbus we have done a little better than in some of the industrial areas which have been harder hit. Jones Day has great depth and diversity. The beauty of our team work culture is that if one area slows because of economic factors, there are other areas of the firm that pick up the slack and become busier. A classic case is that when private equity slowed, restructuring and reorganization work became busier - a balance that keeps us healthy.
Editor: What trends are you seeing with regard to the types of matters that you are being asked to handle in this environment?
Kessler: In terms of my own practice, I don't see a difference in our products litigation work. While we may not see as much real estate development, our real estate attorneys are busy with refinancings. Most areas of the firm are still busy but might be engaged in debt restructurings versus new credit deals. Litigation has not been affected to any great degree. At some point we are going to be seeing again a spike in securities litigation because any time a company's stock is affected, someone is going to file a securities class action.
Editor: Could you please describe the relationship that Jones Day has with the Columbus community in terms of your local pro bono activities?
Kessler: We have great bragging rights because a Columbus office team won a major pro bono case in federal court last year, spearheaded by one of our senior associates. A group of African-American residents in a small town called Coal Run, about an hour and a half from Columbus, had been denied water access by the city. The firm brought suit on their behalf for violation of their constitutional rights on the grounds that they were being denied water owing to their race. The jury unanimously agreed. It was so very rewarding to receive that verdict and to rectify that injustice, one that is hard to conceive of today. On the firm level, our managing partner, Steve Brogan, appointed a firmwide partner in charge of pro bono who is fully dedicated to pro bono work. Additionally, at the local level, each office has a partner who is the pro bono coordinator for a significant number of partners and associates in each office handling local pro bono cases.
Editor: Your own practice focuses on product liability. What trends do you see in this area that our readers should be aware of? Has the tort reform movement made a difference?
Kessler: Tort reform makes a substantial difference in terms of the business environment for companies. You can track it very closely. If there is effective tort reform in a state, then businesses are better able to operate in those states. Ohio has made significant strides in tort reform, which makes a huge difference in terms of companies being able to have some control and certainty over their litigation risks. On the other hand, we may see more litigation and enforcement action coming from Washington. The Obama administration has indicated it plans on changing the approach to federal antitrust law enforcement. I would anticipate that there are going to be changes in other parts of the regulatory framework. With any significant change in regulation, there is going to be litigation testing what that change means.
Editor: You've written about the role of state supreme courts in tort reform, particularly in Ohio. Can you update us on that?
Kessler: The rulings that emerge from state supreme courts really affect local business in terms of the economic certainties and uncertainties that they face. For instance, tort reform often emanates from state supreme courts - that has certainly been the case in Ohio. We have had a relatively business-friendly Supreme Court in Ohio that has made our state a place where businesses feel comfortable being based.
Published June 1, 2009.