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Legal community remembers Kelly as friend, mentor

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WILMINGTON – Although most in the city’s vast legal community knew that former McCarter & English Chair Michael “Mike” P. Kelly had been fighting advanced gallbladder cancer for more than four years, the shock of his passing Monday was still difficult for many to bear.

Michael P. Kelly | PHOTO COURTESY OF MCCARTER & ENGLISH

He was remembered by many this week as a brilliant litigator, a boisterous friend, a generous mentor, and a champion of those in need.

David White, the former managing partner of McCarter’s Wilmington office who now heads the state Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel and knew Kelly for decades, said that “there are probably thousands of people in Delaware who would consider Mike Kelly to be their best friend. He just had that kind of impact.”

White added that the loss reverberating through the legal community felt akin to the death of Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden in 2015 or former Richards, Layton & Finger President Edmund “Ned” Carpenter II in 2008.

“Mike just had that ability that very few people have in not only having the intellectual rigor of being a fantastic lawyer but combining that with this amazing ability to connect to people whether they were judges, lawyers, jurors, or even the custodians or bailiffs who worked in the courtroom,” White said.

That generosity of spirit extended to younger lawyers who were still coming up the ranks as well.

Dan Silver, the current managing partner at McCarter’s Wilmington office, said that Kelly was the reason he came to the firm.

“He offered me the job back in 2007 and he promised me in an email that I wouldn’t regret it. He was right,” Silver recalled. “Working with him has just been a tremendous experience. He was an excellent mentor to me and a number of other lawyers as well.”

Despite being one of the busiest lawyers that he knew, Silver said that Kelly was always generous with his time and compassionate with those with whom he interacted.

Many also remembered Kelly for his devotion to his Wilmington home – he grew up and lived his whole life in the city, where his family has owned the Logan House bar and restaurant for more than 100 years.

Michael Hanrahan, a longtime Wilmington lawyer at Prickett, Jones & Elliott, has known the Kelly family for more than 40 years. He was in Columbia Law School when Mike and his twin brother, John, came to the New York City university for undergraduate studies. They were well-known back home for their athletic feats and arrived at Columbia to play football and compete in track & field.

“I remember watching a film of the Blue-Gold All-Star game where John and Mike were playing and their dad, John D., was brutally critical of their performances,” Hanrahan recalled with a laugh. “He loved his boys and was giving them a hard time.”

After earning his law degree, Kelly came to work at Prickett Jones with Hanrahan in the 1980s, though they only collaborated on a single case: one to regain control of the historic Logan House for the family members.

“Mike was just a very special guy who was part of a very special family,” his friend recalled. “I don’t know of anybody who didn’t like Mike Kelly.”

Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings, who grew up just a few blocks from Kelly in Wilmington’s Forty Acres neighborhood and was a lifelong friend, said she considered him like a brother. Despite each rising to the tops of the legal profession in the private and public spheres, they remained close, she said.

“There was never a time in my life when I felt like I was distant from Mike. Once he was your friend, he was your friend for life,” she said.

Despite the immense loss that Jennings said she felt this week in Kelly’s passing, she was reminded of the Maya Angelou quote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

“Whenever you spent time with Mike, you walked away feeling better,” she added.

When Jennings, a career prosecutor who had been serving as chief administrative officer for New Castle County, decided to run for attorney general in 2018, she said that Kelly was one of her first supporters.

“Mike was the first person to call me and say, ‘Kathy, go for it. Fortune favors the bold.’ And I never forgot that,” she said.

 Despite battling an aggressive cancer for several years, Kelly remained joyful in a spirit and never lost his well-known sense of humor. He stepped away from his vaunted legal career at its pinnacle in order to spend as much time with his family and friends as possible. It was a lesson that White said should be taken to heart.

“The way he lived is the way I think all of us should try to live,” he said.

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