January 2019 Cover Story – Deirdre M. Kelly Takes the Reins as OCBA President

by Howard M. Privette

Bíonn grásta Dé idir an diallait agus an talamh.

Or, in English, “The grace of God is found between the saddle and the ground.” An old Gaelic saying, it is a reflection on the courage and character it takes to climb up on a horse, grab the reins, and urge it forward. As such, it is particularly appropriate to help introduce our new OCBA president, Deirdre Kelly.

Anyone close to Deirdre knows about her life-long love of horses. Deirdre loves all animals, but a horse is special to her—and is far more than a pet. For Deirdre, “riding” doesn’t mean a leisurely amble along a tree-lined path. Deirdre’s idea of fun is putting on boots and a helmet and steering her favorite Dutch Warmblood through twisting courses and over an array of menacing obstacles in the show jumping ring. This is an Olympic sport, and it is not for the faint of heart. Even for an amateur, success is dependent on hard work, and building a close rapport with your teammate (the one with the mane and swishy tail).

Well—get ready, folks—because now Deirdre is taking the reins of our bar association, and she is bringing that same mix of passion, courage, leadership, and fun to the OCBA. So as we enter the ring for a ride through 2019, what else do we need to know about our new president?

Some say you can know a person by the books she reads. Inside Deirdre’s home in Anaheim Hills are stacks of books. A sampling of the titles on her family room end table finds: The Immortal Irishman; The Age of the Horse; The Perfect Horse; Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland; The Tipping Point; Notorious RBG; The Girls of Atomic City; Lean In; You Can’t Teach Hungry; and the Boy Scouts’ Guide to Advancement. Notice any themes?

To really understand Deirdre, you have to start on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, Ireland. Deirdre’s parents grew up there, among its rocky hillsides and its sweeping vistas of the Atlantic Ocean, a place where their families had lived for generations. When they married, though, they decided to pursue their dreams across the ocean, literally taking the boat over to the United States. They settled in the Los Angeles area, but always remained close to their Irish heritage, naming their three children Kieran, Niall, and Deirdre.

When she was young, Deirdre’s father worked long hours repairing industrial machinery in order to support the family, and her mother worked just as hard teaching in local schools and tending for the children. In a loving and supportive family atmosphere, Deirdre and her brothers learned the virtues of thrift and hard work, and the value of an education. They also developed a love of the outdoors, going on family camping trips throughout California and—establishing an early connection with Orange County—annual summer vacations in Laguna Beach. Outdoors is also where horses can be found, and Deirdre grew up trading her work grooming the horses and cleaning stalls for precious opportunities to ride her trainer’s school ponies at local shows.

Speaking of school, Deirdre participated in a wide range of extracurricular activities, from running track to student government (natch!), but she truly excelled in the classroom. She was co-valedictorian of Simi Valley High School, and went on to graduate from USC in only three years with a degree in International Relations. In addition to working to pay her own way, Deirdre graduated near the top of her class at Loyola Law School. It was at Loyola where she decided that she wanted to be a litigator. She reveled in trial practice programs, worked part-time with a personal injury law firm and a business litigation firm, and participated in the District Attorney’s externship program where she actually got to try cases as a certified law student.

After graduation, Deirdre started her career with Jones Day in Los Angeles. In the early 1990s, though, Deirdre was recruited to join an all-star team of legal talent at American Savings Bank, which was struggling to extricate itself from the financial devastation of the savings and loan crisis. As a third-year lawyer, she found herself responsible for hundreds of legal matters, many of them involving real estate workouts or litigation. Deirdre says that she “loved working with an incredibly smart and fun group of people” there, noting that “we all keep in touch and are still good friends to this day.” She also says that she developed a real appreciation for the workload and issues faced by in-house counsel, “and learned how important it is for lawyers to work closely with the client and to use our legal knowledge to support the client’s needs and goals.”

Moving in-house also had the salutary effect of bringing Deirdre back to Orange County. The bank was based in Irvine, and Deirdre took up residence near her old summer vacation spot in Laguna Beach. She has lived and worked in Orange County ever since.

After wrapping things up with the bank, Deirdre joined Kindel & Anderson as an associate in Irvine. She remembers her time there fondly, appreciating the old-school professionalism of the firm’s leadership and the opportunity to hone her skills as a trial lawyer in a boutique setting. It didn’t take long, though, for one of her former in-house colleagues, John Gibson, to recruit her to join him in building a real estate litigation practice at the Paul Hastings law firm, where she was soon promoted to Of Counsel. John, now a business litigation partner with Crowell & Moring in Irvine, calls Deirdre “one of the smartest, most honest, and best examples of what an attorney—and a human being—should be.”

Following the birth of her son, Liam, Deirdre made a career transition that, in retrospect, seems almost inevitable. As she explains:

My mother was a high school teacher, many of the women going back for generations on both sides of my family were teachers, and a grandfather and great-grandfather even taught at so-called “hedge schools” that arose when the British outlawed many of Ireland’s religious and cultural traditions. Now with a child of my own, I became very interested in helping young people prepare for a professional life.

Deirdre now has years of experience teaching and coaching law students in Orange County. After first starting as a professor, she is now at the forefront of her law school’s career advancement efforts, devoting herself to imparting the real-world skills that her students need to be ready to hit the ground running as new lawyers in Orange County.

It is no secret that the past decade or two has been a challenging time for the legal profession. Like many, Deirdre is concerned with the pressures facing individual lawyers, and the profession as a whole, in the context of seismic changes occurring in our society. In devoting a considerable amount of time and energy to her service with the OCBA and its affiliates, Deirdre views the bar as a vehicle for collectively addressing and overcoming these challenges.

For example, demand for legal services throughout society is surging, but due to high costs, that demand is largely unmet. The heroic efforts of our public interest law firms and organizations are helping fill in the gaps, but they are overwhelmed. Deirdre has been active for years with a number of our Orange County public interest organizations, such as the Public Law Center, the Orange County Bar Foundation, and the Veterans Legal Institute, to name just a few. The OCBA provides critical funding and assistance for many of them, and Deirdre believes that the OCBA and its Charitable Fund can continue to serve as a resource for allowing members to connect with such amazing organizations and help them better serve our greater Orange County community.

As an educator, Deirdre is also very familiar with the burdens placed on the newest members of our profession. The incredibly high cost of a legal education mandates that students find high-paying jobs to pay back loans, but those jobs are in short supply. Deirdre has been instrumental in the OCBA’s efforts to help ease the transition of students as they become practicing lawyers, serving on its Law School Task Force and pushing for our local law schools to help finance all students’ membership in the OCBA.

She is strongly supportive of mentorship programs and opportunities for practicing members of the bar to visit the schools and inspire students to learn about different practice areas and job and service opportunities. Deirdre intends to build on these efforts during the coming year, and to support the bar’s Young Lawyers Division, so that students and new lawyers can rely on the OCBA’s resources for support and camaraderie as they move forward with their careers.

Deirdre is also determined that the membership and leadership of our profession should be more reflective of our community as a whole. Deirdre is a strong proponent of diversity initiatives, and is a member of the OCBA’s Diversity Committee and of the Orange County Coalition for Diversity in the Law. Likewise, before joining the OCBA board and being elected to its executive committee, Deirdre focused considerable efforts on advancing the role of women in the profession. She served as a founding member of the OCBA’s Mommy, Esq. committee and as a board member and president of one of the OCBA’s thriving affiliates, the Orange County Women Lawyers’ Association (OCWLA). Past OCWLA board member and former partner at Newmeyer & Dillion, Carol Zaist, notes that “Deirdre gives selflessly and tirelessly to the groups she supports, going even further to assist the people who share the group’s goal, with special attention to diversity and inclusiveness.”

Ashleigh Aitken, 2015 OCBA President, has also served with Deirdre on the OCWLA executive team and in other community activities, and reflects that “her energy, positivity, and laughter make her fun to work with, but she is also a leader who gets things done, making each group stronger than when she joined.” Now, as OCBA president, Deirdre is committed to working closely with all of the OCBA’s sections, committees and affiliates to ensure that they can advance their missions in a collaborative and supportive environment.

Overall, Deirdre is looking forward to building on the successes of her predecessor and good friend, Nikki Miliband, so that our bar association continues to provide support and a welcoming place for every lawyer who practices in our community. And that literally includes a place where we can all come together and enjoy each other’s company. During the coming year, get out of the office once in a while, attend OCBA events, and spend some time with your fellow lawyers. And if you see our new president, go up and say hello—there is nothing she likes better than having some craic with her friends, old and new, even when it doesn’t involve jumping fences in a ring.


Howard M. Privette is a partner in the Irvine office of Pepper Hamilton LLP, where he practices business litigation with a focus on securities defense. He can be reached at privetteh@pepperlaw.com.