As her 21-year-old daughter studying abroad this semester in Paris and a former intern looked on from Skype video chat connections, Kathleen D. Wilkinson, the next chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, announced Tuesday that one of her initiatives will be launching a leadership program to assist young attorneys, women attorneys and attorneys of diverse backgrounds in the profession.
Also Tuesday, Albert S. Dandridge III, a partner with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, was elected vice chancellor and is in line to serve as chancellor in 2015.
In an interview before her speech, the sixth woman to serve as chancellor said that what young attorneys learn in law school does not teach them all that they need to know at the same time that law firms do not provide the same amount of training as they used to.
Further, attorneys need to learn the skills necessary to become leaders in their firms, to bring in business, to network and to find out what their niche areas of practice are, Wilkinson said in her interview.
“We as a bar association should not be satisfied with the percentage of minority attorneys who are law firm partners or associates,” Wilkinson said in her speech. “Nor should we be content with the number of women who become partners in law firms or who remain in the profession.”
Wilkinson said she not only understands what it’s like to balance a full-time practice while raising three children at the same time, she understands what it’s like to be graduating college now and entering the job market or going to graduate school in this current bad economy because her oldest children are in that age bracket.
One of Wilkinson’s favorite experiences with the bar association was joining the Women in the Profession Committee, Wilkinson said, “at a time when we didn’t have a lot of women role models in terms of leaders.”
Law is a family affair for Wilkinson. She remembers watching the film Adam’s Rib, in which Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are both husband and wife and attorneys on the opposite side of a case.
When asked why she became an attorney, Wilkinson cited seeing that black-and-white film as a young teenager, and “I said, ‘Wow isn’t that really neat, a woman attorney,’” Wilkinson said, “and my father always encouraged me to do my very best.”
While Wilkinson might not ever have starred in a legally-themed film or handled a case across from her husband, she did form her own legal romance. Wilkinson met her husband, Thomas G. Wilkinson Jr., the first day they were at Villanova University School of Law.
The real story of the beginning of their romance was that their seats were close together because her maiden name was Yesenko, and they ended up sitting two seats away from each other and their lockers were right next to each other, Wilkinson said.
The Wilkinsons will likely be joined in the practice of law by at least one of their children. Wilkinson’s oldest daughter, Lindsey, is in her first year of law school at Villanova. They also have a 14-year-old son, Michael, as well their 21-year-old daughter, Lauren, who is the one currently studying in France.
The Wilkinsons also have made involvement with legal professional organizations a family affair, as Thomas Wilkinson, of Cozen O’Connor, is president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, in the same year that Kathleen Wilkinson has become chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.
Wilkinson is a defense attorney for a range of industries, including products liability, aviation, insurance agents and brokers, professional liability and services, employment and labor, and others.
Wilkinson is a partner at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, which has nearly 800 attorneys at offices across the country.
Wilkinson’s first job was in defending manufacturers of helicopters and airplanes.
The bulk of her practice, she said, has been in products liability, varying from “punch presses to … furnaces [that melt molten steel] to little bitty medical devices.”
The kinds of cases she handles, Wilkinson said, are “tragic cases with huge potential exposure,” such as the case of a man who fell into a vat of oil used to fry potato chips.
“There’s always something tragic that has happened to someone” in these cases, Wilkinson said. Someone was “severely injured or maimed or a career disrupted. There are millions of dollars on the line and my job is to protect my client, to be professional and to be civil at all times … with my opposing counsel and … try to get the best results possible for my client.”
One of Wilkinson’s initiatives is reactivating the bar association committees for large law firms and midsize law firms.
Another initiative is expanding the association’s legal military assistance program to serve personnel stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay base in Philadelphia. There is no attorney on staff at the base, Wilkinson said.
Volunteer attorneys will provide wills and powers of attorney and other legal help to 600 full-time active sailors and 200 reservists, Wilkinson said.
“Philadelphia has a lot of maritime history,” she observed. “The Coast Guard has been around for 200 years just like the Philadelphia Bar Association has been around for over 210 years.”