By Ken Kyre
As I approach my 70th year on this earth, I count myself the recipient of good fortune to have been a defense attorney for over four decades. I did not begin my journey on the law path with the expectation of being on the right side of the v. Way back in the 1970s, my friends would have sworn I would end up laboring in the fields of plaintiff’s litigation. (After all, I voted for McGovern for President; me and 127 other people.) However, life has a way of altering paths, and I ended up working for a full-service law firm which had an insurance-defense practice (where my billable rate was the princely amount of $25 an hour – but there was no third-party auditing). Because I wanted to be a trial lawyer, I was able to become steeped in insurance defense. Some older attorneys reminisce that the 1970s was a golden age of an insurance-defense practice. I don’t know how much gold there was (I didn’t see any), but it was a grand time. The business side of a law firm was scarcely a concern, and I and my fellow litigators focused on the pure practice of law, trying more cases in six months than young attorneys nowadays do in five years.
Back in my early days as an attorney, I did not view myself as one who was protecting “the Man,” callously preventing injured plaintiffs from receiving just compensation. Rather, I felt that I was helping and protecting insureds who were real-life people who were confused and concerned about being sued, and defending companies who usually had never been sued before and likely would not be sued again, which were filled with good and earnest employees trying to do their jobs. I have found this to be true throughout my career.
I see being a defense attorney as adding balance to what can be an unbalanced arena, since often we enter it having to confront a sympathetic plaintiff. We have the responsibility, and the privilege, to tell the whole story (especially in today’s world of so-called “reptile” strategies). I have found I have not needed to leave my humanity to defend defendants, and that humanity helps me understand the plaintiff’s perspective and to appreciate what my defense clients are experiencing.
Although throughout my career I have often been involved in “big cases,” I have also defended cases which had only a small amount at risk, and the feeling of satisfaction in helping clients in both kinds of cases, and all in between, reminds me that I play a worthy and necessary part in the litigation world.
Being a defense attorney has also provided me the opportunity for my mind to usually be challenged and stimulated. And in representing defendants and litigating lawsuits, I have found myself being a detective, a private investigator, a psychologist, a sociologist, a therapist, an explorer, an academic, an actor (with the courtroom the stage), and much more. This has not been a boring career.
A happy benefit of being a defense attorney in North Carolina has been working with such a huge group of outstanding defense attorneys, who not only are great at their work as trial lawyers, but who are exceptional human beings.
The way defense attorneys practice their craft has changed over the years; no longer do I wander through libraries with actual bound volumes, flipping through pages of a case reporter, feeling the paper between my fingers. (My fingers now spend their day walking over a keyboard.) And I don’t miss looking for a phone booth driving down the road to a deposition or courtroom (thank you, cell phone). The technological advances have been staggering, and it has allowed defense counsel to be more informed, undertake better legal research, to be more accessible to fellow attorneys and to clients, and to be more productive. But some basic aspects of being a defense attorney have not changed: Dedication to the client, seeking to help that client, a desire to be more than just competent, being civil to and respectful of all attorneys, litigants, and others, being vigilant, being creative, and being ethical and honest.
I have been so fortunate to have been a defense attorney for so long, and I’m glad that it hasn’t gotten old, or boring, or tiresome. I believe I, and all defense counsel, serve an important role in our society and the legal system, and we aid in the never-ending search for justice. That is something we all can be proud of.
I end with this wish: May you never lose passion for the law, or for life.
Ken Kyre, Jr. is a past president and 2018 Recipient of the J. Robert Elster Award for Professional Excellence.