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Always Up for a Challenge; Carolyn Kelly Embraces the Intellectual Rigors of Practicing Law

Carolyn (Phillips) Kelly has always loved an intellectual challenge. This challenge, she says, is what drew her to the law, what has made her area of practice so interesting, and what has kept her practicing fulltime while many of her friends are winding down their careers.


“It’s what I like best about the work that I do,” she says. “The appeals work I have done has probably been the most challenging. I’ve had several successes at the Second Circuit that really changed the law in my area of practice, which has been very rewarding.”

The Connecticut resident has been practicing in the area of workers’ compensation, particularly under the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, for more than twenty years. In fact, she has made significant contributions to the development of Longshore case law in the Second Circuit, having represented claimants in some of the most frequently cited cases.

She also handles cases under the Defense Base Act, particularly relevant today because it covers injuries sustained by civilians employed at overseas military bases, on overseas construction projects for the United States government or its allies and other employees fulfilling service contracts tied to such construction projects or a national defense activity.

Workers’ compensation law wasn’t always Kelly’s preferred area of practice, however. When she first started practicing, divorce work became her specialty.

“I was only the third woman in the county with a law degree and only two of us were practicing,” Kelly recalls. “Because of that, I was attracting a lot of female clients in my divorce practice.”

At the same time, Kelly’s firm also was developing a business in asbestos litigation, which developed into workers’ compensation law and the Longshore Act. Because they needed more bodies in this practice, Kelly switched over from divorce law and never looked back.

So how did this New York native find her way to Oregon for law school?

After graduating from Syracuse University in 1959 with a degree in International Affairs, Kelly moved to New York City with aspirations of working at an embassy, but didn’t have much luck. So, she went to work for International Business Machines (IBM) as a programmer and systems analyst.

Kelly married and shortly after her husband received his master’s degree from New York University, the couple ventured west to Eugene, so that he could pursue his doctorate in humanities at the University of Oregon. Kelly worked for one year at the IBM office in Eugene before deciding to attend law school.

This decision, she says, completely changed her life. Kelly felt that by the time she graduated from Oregon Law, she had done a complete turnaround in her personal philosophy.

“When I started [law school], I was very conservative. Later, I was marching in protest against the building of a nuclear power plant,” she admits. “Law school made me more inquisitive and better at analyzing and examining the world around me.”

Kelly was among just four women in her law school class. Her admissions interview with former law school dean Orlando Hollis could explain why.

“He asked me what I would do if I were to become pregnant and therefore taking the spot of a male who could have been in the class,” she remembers. “I told him, ‘In this day and age we have ways to prevent these things.'”

While this could have been interpreted as discouragement, Kelly and the three other women didn’t seem to care.

“What did we know? We were naive,” she says noting that all four women excelled during their time at Oregon Law.

“The upcoming reunion is a great excuse to get together again,” she adds.

Kelly served as comments editor for the Oregon Law Review and graduated third in her class, while classmates Jane Shible Edwards and Donna Willard-Jones graduated first and fourth, respectively . She says the four women developed a bond during their time in law school that endures through today.

Although Kelly was a few years older than many of her classmates, she maintains having already worked for several years was a huge advantage.

“I had life experiences that students coming right out of college didn’t have. I’d filled out tax forms before — I just had a much better understanding of the way the world worked.”

The world now has changed a lot from when Kelly was a new lawyer. Over time, she says, as each area of law became more and more complicated, lawyers were forced to specialize rather than practicing in varied areas. Economic pressures also resulted in a loss of client loyalty.

“It used to be that you were a family lawyer, but competition meant people were looking for someone who could do the same thing cheaper,” she explains. “Nowadays, there are changes in the law all the time and the economy seems to drive a lot of the law.”

Kelly’s also learned the value of saying “no” to clients who are too demanding and that is a piece of advice she lends to new lawyers in private practice. “Sometimes you just can’t help with every request a client makes.”

Another piece of advice she lends is to “read the law.” A process and skill, she says, that doesn’t end once you’re out of law school.

“When practicing, you really have to read and study the law yourself. We’ve had associates come and go who would come to me with questions before they even looked at the law and I would say, ‘go read the law first.'”

Kelly has been reading and studying the law now for forty years with no plans to stop anytime soon. She is director at Suisman Shapiro Attorneys in New London, a position she took on after the firm she was employed with for thirty-five years dissolved in 2008. She continues to be very active with the American Bar Association, where she is a past member of the Board of Governors (classmate Donna Willard was secretary). Kelly also is a trustee emeritus for the Sea Research Foundation, which operates Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration.

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