Kay Finds Law Challenging

January 7, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Richard Kay set out to be an engineer but switched gears and jumped on a legal track instead.

Over more than three decades as a trial attorney with Varnum Riddering Schmidt & Howlett, he’s never once regretted his career choice.

“I love it,” he said. “I got so lucky to find this profession.”

Kay earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) where he gained two years of experience in a GM manufacturing facility as part of the school’s co-op education program.

“I thought I should reach out and find something that I could enjoy and feel passionate about,” he said. “Working in manufacturing wasn’t doing it for me.”

Kay’s familiarity with and respect for a local lawyer sparked his interest in law. So he decided to “give it a whirl,” attending law school evenings at Wayne State University while working as a trainee in the patent section of GM’s legal division. He recalls discovering that the disciplined thought processes required in the field of engineering — the problem solving and analytic skills — translated “very well” to the study of law.

Kay graduated from Wayne State in 1973 with an offer in hand to join what was then Schmidt Howlett in Grand Rapids. He started his career “carrying bags” and working under the wing of one of the firm’s labor lawyers.

About 18 months later Kay also started working with the Schmidt Howlett attorney that handled the firm’s trial work. The attorney later died in an auto accident and Kay was asked to fill the void, effectively becoming the firm’s trial lawyer.

“So I ended up in trial practice and because of my background in manufacturing, a lot of the cases that came my way were technical or engineering related, like design flaws or equipment failures,” he said.

During the 1970s, the firm began developing a civil trial practice division. There were four trial attorneys in the firm in 1983 when Schmidt Howlett merged with Varnum Riddering and adopted its current moniker.

“In the 20 years since then I think we’ve really done a great job in building the litigation department into a very successful department, both professionally and in terms of its importance to the firm,” Kay said, adding that he was proud to have been a part of that effort. “We’ve built a very good management structure, as well. I think I’ve had some hand in that, too, and I feel real good about that.”

Varnum currently has five offices and more than 150 attorneys who work across a broad spectrum of practice areas, including more than 30 trial lawyers. Kay specializes in commercial/business disputes, construction litigation, employment matters and product liability.

The law is a “very, very challenging” profession, regardless of the area of practice, he said. As a trial attorney, Kay enjoys the “thrill of the battle.” Good trial attorneys, he said, embrace the challenges that go with the work and have the ability to handle the frustrations and disappointments that often are part of it.

“When you know you’ve really done the best you can, there’s something rewarding in just that — regardless of how it turns out. When it comes back a victory and the client is happy, there’s a kind of vicarious delight in that and in what you’ve accomplished. Conversely, even when you’ve done your best but the outcome is disappointing, those are the tough times you have to deal with.”

Kay believes that both politics and the press have unjustly demonized all “trial lawyers” as people who file frivolous lawsuits against health providers and businesses just to line their own pockets.

Though there is an element of the “bad apple” out there that taints the whole profession, he said there are vastly more trial lawyers that don’t sue doctors and businesses.

“There’s just a terrible misunderstanding out there and it’s something that should be corrected. There are great plaintiff personal injury lawyers that defend doctors and hospitals and businesses. That’s been most of my business.”

He said he’d like to see the courts become more aggressive in getting rid of frivolous lawsuits and in dealing with lawyers that display a lack of professionalism, civility and ethics.

Kay was recently named Michigan State Chair of the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL), a professional organization founded in 1950 that works to maintain and improve the standards of trial practice and the ethics of the profession. About 5,000 trial attorneys in the United States and Canada serve in the college, including 18 from West Michigan and 90 statewide. From a historical standpoint, however, West Michigan attorneys have rarely been appointed state chair.

Only experienced trial lawyers who have demonstrated “exceptional skills” and whose careers have been marked “by the highest standards of ethical conduct, professionalism and civility” are admitted to the organization, according to ACTL, and only those invited can apply for admission.

Kay, who was inducted into the college in 2000, said he was pleasantly surprised to be selected state chair, which is a maximum two-year appointment.

“I’d like to have the state portion of the college become more involved in programming that will help law students and young lawyers and become more involved in working directly with the courts,” he said of his goals as chair. “I don’t think that in Michigan we’ve been able to do all that we’re capable of doing in that regard.”

He’d like the state’s ACTL members to get more involved in law school training and teaching, perhaps by addressing students on the topics of civility, professionalism, conduct and ethics. He said he’d also like to see what ACTL fellows can do to help the courts in Michigan.

“Anything we can do that helps the justice system work better than it does, we ought to aspire to do, because the system has its problems. We want to promote the highest levels of trial advocacy.”    

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