“Don’t go to law school thinking you want to practice in one area; you have to like all of them because you may not end up where you thought you might.” The summer before he entered law school, Leland (Lee) I. Kellner received these words of advice from a friend’s father. At the time, he didn’t know what to make of it, but he remembered and now understands.
Lee always knew that he wanted a legal career but didn’t anticipate where the law would take him. A distance from where he thought he’d be, Lee is happy to have a position that affords him the opportunity to work with people whom he respects and likes in a collaborative environment, facing challenges that he can depend on to vary from day to day. He also is grateful to have planted roots in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two sons, with whom he enjoys spending time when he’s not at the office. In his role as a TIPS member, he is excited about his recent appointment to the editorial board of The Brief, having previously served as chair of TIPS’s Products Liability Committee.
Like many lawyers, Lee went to law school with a set of expectations and a career path in mind that didn’t match his actual professional trajectory. During his undergraduate years at Tufts University outside Boston, Massachusetts, where he majored in international relations, he was passionate about effecting change. His studies combined foreign language, economics, foreign culture, and political science; and he had an affinity for each. With a growing interest in current affairs and politics, he became active in local politics, volunteering for local “newbie” Joseph P. Kennedy III for Congress and not-so-newbie Michael Dukakis for gubernatorial reelection.
Lee’s interest in politics shifted to the international level when he was invited to be a part of an experimental program at Tufts that was geared toward out-of-the-box education. Within the program, students created a symposium, open to the public, that brought together worldwide experts on a current international topic. The year that Lee participated, his class was assigned the “international drug war,” covering areas of the world responsible for the incursion of narcotics into the United States. The program required the students to consider potential solutions and explore and assess global ripple effects created and sustained by a raging drug culture that had developed on an international level. Notable speakers included Senator John Kerry and the assistant U.S. attorney responsible for the Noriega indictments. Lee was particularly fascinated by the international, legal, political, and criminal elements of the indictment. As his interest in international terrorism and crime grew, current events, including the Iran-Contra Affair and the Lockerbie Pan Am terrorist bombing, captured his attention and shaped his pursuit of a career in international criminal law. Lee recounts this time in his life with both nostalgia and energy—the topics are still relevant and fascinating to him.
Beginning law school at the University of Pennsylvania, Lee continued to hope for an international career, but practical apprehension pivoted his career path for the first time. His original plan was to explore a career working at The Hague, but he began to believe that the United Nations was an arguably ineffective entity for political change and that the money and ability to create a family life wasn’t available there for the kind of position he envisioned. He began to consider more earnestly a career in criminal law and spent his first summer after law school interning at the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, followed by an internship at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in the summer following his second year. He found the work compelling and exciting, particularly at a time when Robert M. Morgenthau, the district attorney for Manhattan, gained national attention for his dogged pursuit of white-collar and organized crime. Lee spent time in the Rackets Bureau, investigating and working on what he described as “some really cool stuff.”
After his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Lee clerked for a year for Samuel Salus, a criminal court judge in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, after which he was hired by a small firm to do asbestos defense work. Although it wasn’t a field he’d considered or even knew about when entering law school, he was excited and motivated to have a job that offered trial experience from an early age. Thrown into the deep end, Lee took depositions and tried asbestos cases every month. He also had the opportunity to write a Supreme Court brief, argue in front of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and gain invaluable trial experience that he knew was rare for a new attorney. He found that he enjoyed the challenges of the courtroom and an area of civil litigation that still had the thrill of forcing a litigator to think on his feet and perform in sink-or-swim conditions.
With the trial experience that he gained at the small-firm level, Lee was sought after for a position with Lavin, O’Neil, Cedrone & DiSipio, a Philadelphia-based midsize firm. He was looking for a broader range of work that would include handling a case from its inception to resolution in a job that dealt with legal areas beyond asbestos. Lee found his home at the Lavin firm, where he has practiced for over 25 years.
At Lavin, Lee broadened his range as he had hoped, becoming proficient at product liability cases of all varieties, including crashworthiness automobile cases, an area of law for which the Lavin firm is recognized internationally. Lee found passion for his work in unexpected areas like science, engineering, medicine, physics, and biomechanics that are always present in this ever-evolving practice area. He also found ways to tie in aspects of his love for international affairs with cases that have taken him as far as Morocco, Germany, and England.
In coming to Lavin to “not practice asbestos,” Lee found his way back to asbestos, a legal area that continued to demand attention years after many in the profession predicted asbestos litigation would wane. He is happiest with a variety of cases in multiple legal areas (yes, including asbestos!) that keep him continually challenged. Although Lee “didn’t end up where he thought he might,” he muses that “he likes all of it” and has struck balance in his life, growing professionally and personally. His personal passions include a love of music (he is an avid guitar and piano player, having had stints in local bands) and spending weekend time throwing a ball around with his two sons. At the same time, he is engaged professionally, giving his clients the attention and precision that each case requires, confident that he is exactly where he was always meant to be.
Lee is a shareholder in the Industrial and Consumer Product Liability Practice Group of Lavin, O’Neil, Cedrone & DiSipio in the firm’s Philadelphia office, admitted and practicing in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. He can be reached at [email protected]. n