7 minute read

Meet the Austin Bar’s New President: Justice Chari Kelly

AL: What is your background? (Where you grew up, went to school, law school, etc.)

KELLY: I grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., just a stone’s throw from Walt Disney World. I attended the University of Florida for undergrad, where I was in the Army ROTC program. Upon graduation, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant and received an educational delay of service to attend The University of Texas School of Law. I thought I would be in Austin only for school, but I am proud to have called Austin my home now for nearly 20 years.

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AL: What do you want to share about your family?

KELLY: I met my husband, Norton Rose Fulbright partner Adam Schramek, at UT Law when we were paired as advocates on the same interscholastic mock trial team. I like to think that he saw my trial skills and decided that he could have no other! After nearly 20 years of marriage, we just welcomed our baby daughter, Chari Adora, this spring.

AL: What was your first job out of law school?

KELLY: I was a defense attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG). I represented soldiers accused of crimes at courts-martial— think A Few Good Men meets Fort Cavazos, Tex. (formerly Fort Hood). Our motto was, “Defending those who defend America.” After an acquittal, we would hang a pirate flag on our office door for at least a week. My Army experience is second only to being a judge on the Third Court of Appeals.

AL: What has been your career path from then until now?

KELLY: After active duty, I was a staff attorney for the Court of Criminal Appeals before transitioning to civil litigation and spending several years suing pharmaceutical companies for Medicaid fraud on behalf of the State of Texas. Growing up watching Law & Order, I always wanted to be a prosecutor. After a humbling job search, I became a felony prosecutor first in Comal County and then in Travis County. During my career, I have tried to a jury everything from murder to theft of copper. I love trial work and have taught in the Trial Advocacy Department at UT for over 15 years.

AL: What made you decide to run for the Third Court of Appeals?

KELLY: When I was growing up, I would tell people I wanted to be president of the United States. After the 2016 election, I decided it was time for me to pursue elected office. You cannot make a difference by sitting on the sidelines. At the time, not a single Democrat was on the court or had been elected to it for years. I had lawyers laugh at me and say I was wasting my time. But I have never been someone who looks for the easy path or the sure thing. The Army taught me to fight for the things I believe in. I will never forget the 2018 election night, when Congressman Doggett walked up to me at the Driskill Hotel and said, “Congratulations, Justice.”

AL: Was election night your proudest moment?

KELLY: Actually, no. My proudest moment was graduating from Army Airborne School (a.k.a. earning my jump wings). I had to compete to attend airborne school and, as you can imagine, there are very few slots for Army lawyers. But I knew, as a soldier defending male soldiers, some many years my senior, I needed to be able to quickly establish credibility. My jump wings did just that. Most of my clients didn’t know a female paratrooper—much less one who was also a lawyer. It’s that instant credibility as a soldier that helped me be my best as a lawyer in and out of the courtroom.

AL: How long have you been involved with the Austin Bar?

KELLY: Since I left active duty in 2007. Adam was already very connected with the bar and on the path to leadership. When I started practicing as a civilian in Austin, I thought it was important to connect with other local attorneys. I was in the inaugural class of the Austin Bar/AYLA Leadership Academy. That inspired me to run for the AYLA board and then executive positions. After that, I started down the path of Austin Bar leadership. I consider the Austin Bar (including Debbie Kelly and DeLaine Ward) like family since it has been such an important part of my development as an attorney. I am proud to say that Adam and I are the first husband-wife couple to both serve as presidents of AYLA and the Austin Bar. Of course, we’re very competitive, so now I just need to throw a better gala than he did!

AL: Why would you encourage someone to get involved?

KELLY: You may be able to practice law these days sitting in front of a computer in your home, but Zoom cannot make you part of the legal community. Whether it is volunteering at a pro bono veteran’s legal advice clinic, attending the annual Bench Bar, or joining section lunches and CLEs, the Austin Bar provides lawyers with the chance to make connections and grow as professionals unlike any other organization. It is particularly important for young attorneys, who need mentoring and guidance as they build their careers, to be part of a legal community like the Austin Bar.

AL: What has been the biggest benefit you’ve received from being involved?

KELLY: I am lucky enough to have found several lifelong friendships through the Austin Bar. From the Leadership Academy to Bar and Grill and the Austin Bar board, I have connected with so many people whom I never would have known if I had stayed in my own little bubble at the office.

AL: Do you have a particular focus or theme for your term?

KELLY: Reconnection and mentorship. I am so honored to be recognized at the State Bar annual convention this year as the 2023 Texas Mentor of the Year. Through the Austin Bar, I hope to expand on the work I have done to help guide and train the next generation of lawyers to success in our profession. In times that have been especially divisive and isolating, I hope to bring people together, both personally and professionally, to make connections and create relationships that would never otherwise exist. I recently received an email from a mentee who said how, but for my guidance, she might never have chosen the career path she did. That path not only led to a fulfilling career, but to her new family. You cannot share advice or help your colleagues unless you meet and interact with them. That’s what I want to work to increase this year—opportunities to meet and mentor newer members of our profession. Be on the lookout for joint events with AYLA that will give you opportunities to connect with lawyers young and old to both teach and learn.

AL: What is a little-known fact about yourself that you’d like to share?

KELLY: I was once mistaken for Taylor Swift by a couple at Wurstfest in New Braunfels (the 10-day salute to sausage). Yes, they were drunk, and the lights were dim. And, yes, I posed for the picture—who am I to ruin their dream? I also won a contest at Alamo Drafthouse by eating a one-pound giant gummy bear the fastest at a Willy Wonka quote-along. I wouldn’t recommend it. Remember, in an eating contest, even if you win, you lose.

AL: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our members?

KELLY: Between my work on the Third Court, caring for an infant, my term as Austin Bar president, and running for re-election, it is going to be a busy year. For those attorneys who want to participate in Austin Bar activities but are concerned they do not have the time, I say, “Yes, you do!” Let’s make up for the time we lost during COVID. Step up and step out! AL

Austin Bar President Justice Chari Kelly and her husband, former Austin Bar President Adam Schramek, with their newborn daughter, Chari Adora.

Austin Bar President Justice Chari Kelly and her husband, former Austin Bar President Adam Schramek, with their newborn daughter, Chari Adora.