While James “Jay” Kelley III was the first attorney in his family, his sister has joined in him the practice and in the firm. “I come from a family of pipefitters,” he says. “I’ve lived virtually my whole life right here in Cleveland, as a diehard Cleveland sports fan. I am a reflection of my family’s work ethic and loyalty. My parents were wonderful role models who created the opportunity for my sisters and me.”
Law wasn’t necessarily a goal for the young Kelley, the spark first ignited when he was taking acting classes in his sophomore year of college. “I really enjoyed the public speaking aspects of the class,” he says. “It felt very natural and I could picture myself presenting in a courtroom.”
Evidently it was precisely what he was destined for. Now in practice for almost 25 years, Kelley, who has been with the firm of Elk & Elk since 2001, is a managing partner focusing on medical negligence and wrongful death in health care.
“I can’t pinpoint what drew me to this particular area of law,” he says, “but within the area of medical negligence cases, to me, the most compelling involve children. Naturally, kids are easy to root for. And these children have significant needs, so it is important we protect them. It’s always rewarding.
“I ended up throwing myself deeply into medicine,” Kelley continues, “and from there I started handling a significant amount of maternal death cases as well.”
So much so, Kelley has authored chapters in medical textbooks and been a reviewer on fetal monitoring texts as well. He speaks internationally to medical and legal groups on the issues of birth injury and medical liability.
“It’s become an area where the more cases I handle, the more interested and committed I become in trying to improve the delivery of health care,” Kelley says. “I do believe litigation is one way of improving patient safety through accountability.”
Kelley’s work and expertise in these areas is so widely respected he’s regularly a guest speaker for the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses as well as keynote speaker for the March of Dimes.
“It’s one of those things which needs to keep growing,” he says. “I enjoy helping to get the word out, and we donate to fund these good causes. Participating in this way helps me to keep medically current, and hopefully does some good.”
While Kelley says he cannot identify any one particular case or client that stands out, he admits all are emotionally challenging and clients become part of his life forever.
“You realize you can’t really ‘fix’ things in our business,” he says. “The child isn’t suddenly healthy, but we try to achieve a resolution that at least allows them to financially pursue needed and new treatments, therapies or equipment to make their daily lives easier.
“I stay in close contact with most of my clients,” he continues. “Not a week goes by where I don’t receive photos or reports of progress. It might be the child (or adult) can now use a communication board; or someone who wasn’t able to stand, is now standing. In every case where we’ve achieved a resolution, we’ve seen their resolution work for the benefit of the child or family. That’s the best part of my job.”
He recalls one family who, thanks to his successful litigation, was able to travel to Germany to try a new stem cell therapy.
“They had a layover in Paris,” he says, “and sent me a photo of my client in front of the Eiffel Tower. I just remember thinking, ‘What a cool thing. This boy, aft er so many hurdles and obstacles, has the resources to try every treatment available, which is what every parent would want.’”
Medicine was not always Kelley’s focus, however. In fact, within the legal world, he’s uniquely experienced in virtually every courtroom role an attorney might play. Presenting more than 70 cases to jury, including felony prosecution, criminal defense, civil defense and civil plaintiff cases. Kelley has even served as lead counsel on cases in more than 30 Ohio counties, appellate courts and the Supreme Court of Ohio.
“I don’t think it’s very common that someone can say they’ve been on both sides of significant civil and criminal cases,” he says. “I think the balance and perspective definitely contributes to how I look at a case initially, how I develop it and how I present to a jury.”
Serving as a staff attorney or intern with the Summit County Court of Common Pleas while still in law school, gave Kelley not only valuable experience behind the scenes in preparing cases, but also real-world courtroom exposure. His work there led to his first job upon passing the bar in the prosecutor’s office.
“I was so fortunate to have one of the counties here in northern Ohio allow me to start in the felony division in the prosecutor’s office,” he says. “I graduated law school in 1993, and in November of that year I started trying cases as a prosecutor. It definitely afforded me tremendous experience and some wonderful memories. I was on my feet trying cases within the first 30 days of practice, and haven’t stopped. There’s no substitute in this business for being on your feet, and supported by the tremendous people in the Summit County Prosecutor’s office who became mentors and friends.”
Within his first two years, Kelley tried more than 15 cases as well as handling other suppression hearings. Transitioning from life as a prosecutor, he joined a firm where he handled civil cases. Due to his extensive background, he was able to try another 10 cases within his first two years there. Consequently, by his five-year mark, Kelley had “on his feet” experience that rivals most attorneys in practice for at least twice as long.
“It was certainly a great foundation for my career and truly fun,” he says. “Actually, it was scary, exciting and, yes, fun. You never forget the first time you stand up hoping all the words come out. The longer you’re in this business, you realize the hardest thing though is to listen. It’s hard to listen when you’re nervous and inexperienced, but eventually you calm down and things move more slowly in the trial.”
Listening doesn’t just apply to the courtroom. Kelley is fully dedicated to his clients, and promises to be available to them at all times. Not only does he give out his cellphone number, it appears next to his name on the Elk & Elk website.
“I don’t want to take on too many cases because I give myself away fully,” he says. “When a client calls me, it’s my promise that I will be fully conversant on their case. Knowing each client and their situation intimately is actually one of the most rewarding parts of my job.”
It was this dedication and personal interest in each client that led him to join Elk & Elk.
“I had friends here and they spoke highly of the office,” says Kelley. “I’d been on the defense side and had a craving to try cases from a different perspective, and this was the last area I hadn’t done. They provided me an opportunity to see a variety of clients and there was a medical support team here with a statewide platform. Our resources are amazing. We have two obstetric nurses, a partner here is also a neonatal nurse, and a depth of talent. These co-workers have proven invaluable to me in our client’s cases.
“It was an honor to join such a prestigious group,” he continues. “Elk is very selective and most of the lawyers here are laterals, specifically picked from other firms, and Art and Dave are very trusting. They delivered on each and every promise; they support our growth as individual attorneys, constantly providing the opportunity to grow. It’s been a great fit.”
Despite his years of study, interning, and the more than two decades of practice, Kelley acknowledges luck and opportunity are just as important to a career.
“I realized you can work hard, do your best, and have skill, but at some point, you need opportunity,” he says. “Opportunity sometimes comes early, late or not at all. I was lucky I got wonderful opportunities early in my career. Once you’ve had a lot of time on your feet, it becomes easier to create the next opportunity.
“I’ve been so fortunate that every place that I’ve worked, I’ve been surrounded by great people,” he adds. “Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been able to learn from others and that’s helped me become a better lawyer. Northeast Ohio is full of incredible attorneys, and I am so fortunate so many have helped me develop over time”
Regardless of how these opportunities have come about, Kelley has made the most of every situation, building steadily on his career, knowledge and expertise, one brick at a time. What he’s described as a “running start” has led not only to countless verdicts and settlements favoring his clients, but the respect and admiration of his peers.
Included in the 22nd and 23rd Edition of The Best Lawyers in America for medical malpractice law and personal injury litigation, Kelley has also been recognized as an Ohio Super Lawyer for six consecutive years, and has been named to the Top 10 in Ohio multiple years, Top Five in Cleveland by Super Lawyers, along with dozens of other honors.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE
Married with four children, ranging in age from 14 to 20, Kelley admits to having the typical problem of trying to juggle work with home. Fortunately, his wife is also an attorney; although, she officially stopped practicing aft er the third child. In fact, the two met in law school.
“She’s wonderful,” he says. “In this job, the hours are erratic, but she understands the nature of the work and has made tremendous sacrifices for me and the kids.
“Right now, we’re crazy between activities, sports and college decisions,” he says. “We have swimmers and basketball players in our family. Much of our time is spent at their events. When we’re not doing that, anything water-based is great fun. Also, my wife and I enjoy traveling, or just going out for a quiet dinner.”
As the father of four, having so many cases involving sick or disabled children is particularly hard at times for Kelley.
“I tend to be exceptionally appreciative of my children’s health,” he says. “There are so many things most of us take for granted; I’ve become acutely aware of how blessed our family is. I have to say, though, the families I’ve met through my practice are truly exceptional. It seems because of their hardships they experience joy and love, and appreciate things we can’t even imagine. What they and their children overcome is remarkable.
Kelley’s advice for young lawyers is simple and to the point. “Listen more than you speak, and know every time you interact with anyone, that person is a potential future employer or client. Most job opportunities are the result of how you carry yourself and treat others in the field.”