“My job is to tell my clients’ stories,” Michaela Kelley Canterbury said over lunch, recalling a case in which a cancer survivor got a rare kind of food poisoning from a Valley-grown vegetable. In this worst case of scenarios, the poisoning caused erosion of the sheaths around the patient’s nerves, which in turn began to shut down her entire nervous system. It was just one example of the complex and devastating cases that bring personal injury plaintiffs to the law firm of Kelley & Canterbury for help.
On the client level, the cases require investigative work, a competent understanding of technical medical terms and some serious interpersonal skills. In the courtroom, they involve simplifying medical mystery cases and litigating them before judge and jury. The work can be as emotional as it is demanding, and it requires quite a skill set and a lot of teamwork.
The Kelley & Canterbury team is a family partnership at its core. Michaela works alongside her father, Leonard (Len) Kelley, and her husband, Chris Canterbury. Together the family members pool their diverse skills and resources and work through the most trying cases.
An outdoorsman who moved his family north to live the Alaska dream, Len had been a commercial fisherman, air traffic controller, butcher and old car refurbisher by the time he began his law practice in Anchorage in the ’70s.
“My father’s example was most definitely inspirational,” Michaela said of her career choice. That, and “What else do you do with a degree in political science and philosophy/theology?”
The operation was made even richer with the marriage of Michaela and Chris, who share a near-parallel upbringing. Both were born in Maryland; both attended Chugiak High School; each has one younger sister; and each of their parents moved to Alaska in the 70s. Michaela graduated from her grandmother’s alma mater, Duquesne University. Chris graduated from his grandfather’s alma mater, Hamilton College.
Similarities aside, Michaela said she knew Chris was the one when they were on a trip to Seattle. One afternoon while she was taking a nap, he went to Nordstrom and selected, coordinated and purchased a courtroom ensemble for her “from shoes to earrings,” she said, still impressed.
Today, the three of them make an incredible team: Len, the seasoned legal counsel and client conversationalist; Michaela, the partner, litigator and hockey mom who makes spaghetti and mooseballs for her son’s team before a big game; and Chris, the Columbia-trained corporate lawyer turned local attorney and little league coach.
They each contribute something professional and personal — the trademark of their family practice. As Michaela tells it, their clients will say that if you want to know the best thing about a case, ask Len; if you want to know what’s wrong with the case, ask Chris; if you want to get stuff done, ask Michaela.
Though a picture-perfect partnership, the transition wasn’t so seamless.
After a series of prestigious jobs and clerkships, Chris joined Len and Michaela, and the firm extended its practice to the Mat-Su by operating a satellite office in the Valley. But when Len had a heart attack at home shortly after returning from a moose hunt, the family had to rally and regroup.
“I don’t think we realized how serious it was at the time,” Michaela said, “because he was the biggest man in our lives.” Following a quintuple bypass surgery, it was all hands on deck. “I had to do triage on the cases dad had to try, my sister was getting married, and we had a dead moose to cut up,” Michaela said.
Though forced by circumstance, a logical transition took place in which the team decided to close the Valley office, consolidate their office space and caseloads and create the Anchorage-based firm Kelley & Canterbury LLC.
The work can be very sensitive, and in turn, very rewarding. Interacting with clients, patients and families on such a personal level, being a family practice and having a wide social network in their hometown means a lot to the Kelley & Canterbury team. It’s why Chris and Michaela came back to Alaska.
“The practice of law is changing … It’s more of a transactional situation in the Lower 48,” Michaela said. “But it’s important to our clients that we’re from here and that we know them. Alaska is still a gem that way, and I can still be that kind of attorney.”
In addition, knowing them gets a lot of people from their large community of family, friends and clients disqualified from jury duty, Michaela joked. But nobody seems to mind.
Click here to read the full article in ISSUU on page 9.
By Michaela Goertzen