Lawyer Limelight: Don Keenan

What you need to understand about Don Keenan is that he isn’t the kind of guy who backs down from a fight.

The Atlanta-based lawyer is more apt to go looking for one, a trait he connects to his full-blooded Irish heritage.

“You’ve probably heard about the Irish fellow walking down the street when he came upon a brawl, a street fight, to which he proclaimed, ‘Is this a private fight or can anybody join?’” Keenan said when he accepted the Tradition of Excellence Award from the Georgia State Bar in June 2008. Youngest member of the Inner Circle of Advocates and youngest President.

“I have sought out a lot of fights in my career, but now I don’t have to go looking,” he continued. “They come to me.”

That may be even more true 12 years later. Not only is the Keenan Law Firm, which he founded in 1975 after graduating law school, still tackling  cases from medical malpractice and product liability to children’s issues, it also provides consultation services that enable Keenan to share his years of expertise with thousands of other lawyers.

That expertise is what the firm calls its “secret sauce.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as advising the attorney of record to keep pushing for more, not to give up the fight.

Think of it as grizzled veteran Mickey Goldmill training a young Rocky Balboa in the 1976 film, or Balboa himself training young Donnie Creed in a sequel nearly 40 years later.

Consulting cases now account for a third of his firm’s business, Keenan explains, and if the attorneys of record who retained its services “hadn’t had the help, I don’t know if they could have done it or not that effectively.”

One passionate young lawyer, he recalls, had a case in mediation of a type he hadn’t handled before and everyone was advising him to accept a settlement when the amount reached $1 million.

Keenan told him to keep pushing for more, given an insurance policy in the case that covered $2 million to $3 million.

“I’ve literally had to do the Marine Corps ‘I’ll kick your butt, we’re not settling for anything less than the policy limits’ routine,” he says. “The guy calls me up right after the mediation and he says, ‘I’ve just got to tell you I’ve got my brand-new baby in one arm, a scotch in my other and I feel like I’ve never felt in my life.’ The kid got so much confidence out of that, and he brought it back.”

Keenan’s firm began offering consultation services when he decided to pull back on the number of original cases and co-counsel matters he took from referrers.

“I had learned the pains of having a firm that I couldn’t manage and at the same time practice law,” he says. “I had maxed out and gotten to the point where the lawyers that had hired us before would call and say, ‘I have another case for you,’ and I would say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re full. I don’t know how to clone myself, and you don’t want me doing half-ass work on a case.’”

To which one referrer said, “Why don’t you develop a consult?”

Keenan inquired further and learned that a consulting service would enable him to provide most of the services he offered to referrers as co-counsel, except that he wouldn’t be an attorney of record, wouldn’t have to take depositions, attend mediation or appear at trial.

Which meant he could tackle more cases without compromising quality.

“The ratio is that I can do 10 consults in the time that it takes me to do a co-counsel because I’m not in there doing depositions, I’m not doing whatever. It started off slow, and I didn’t know how many of these things I could take on,” Keenan says. “But there were a couple of times last year where on just the consulting, two of the cases were in trial, and I literally was having conversations morning, noon and night on both of them.”

Along with one-on-one consultations, Keenan invites the lawyers involved in similar types of cases – medical malpractice, for instance, or tractor-trailer litigation – to a beach house three times a year for two and a half days of intense collaboration, preparation and education.

Typically, there’s a planning dinner on the first night and the group works late on the two remaining days.

“They’re getting up and giving their opening statements or planning cross-examinations,” he says. “With that many people, you can do everything, and then they go home, and every one of those cases is markedly closer to trial.”

The veteran attorney also offers courses through the Keenan Trial Institute that qualify for continuing legal education, or CLE, credits and shares topical advice through the Keenan Trial Blog.

It’s easy to see why other lawyers are keen to pay for Keenan’s insights. His storied career includes early work as a criminal defense lawyer, providing counsel on civil disobedience to African American women protesting the Atlanta child murders from 1979 to 1981 and landmark Supreme Court litigation in 1990 that established due-process rights for foster children.

Keenan has obtained more than 361 verdicts and settlements of $1 million or higher, including 14 valued at more than $10 million and one worth more than $100 million. He has represented clients in 47 of the 50 states as well as on three continents.

Typically, his first involvement with a referral client is as co-counsel.

Then, “the next case they bring around, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute. You can do this thing. You don’t need me in the courtroom. As much as I love myself, you’re ready to do it. We’ll do a consult so that you’ve got a safety net, you’ve got training wheels here, and you can do it,’” Keenan says.

“I thought that they would leave the fold, that they would go out, but because they’re getting so much new stuff all the time, they don’t want to leave,” he adds. “And so they bring in another case, and it’s wonderful when I’ve been working with somebody for eight, nine, 10 years within the firm.” Keenan also does centralized focus groups on all case and even has an inhouse medical and graphics department for reduced costs.

Keenan views the consulting work as an opportunity to train the trial lawyers of the future, giving an edge to attorneys with smaller firms that lack the resources of Big Law.

“A lot of people look at this and think, ‘What the hell are you telling other people for?” he concedes. “I don’t fear that. There’s plenty of work to go around. And it’s just exciting. Let me tell you now, I’m not starving. I turn 66 this year, and I’m as excited as a puppy lawyer, wagging my tail, having a good time.”