Kelly Strange Crawford is sporting a broken nose.
“I find it interesting and challenging to spar with others,” says the seasoned Riker Danzig attorney. She’s talking about tae kwon do, which she picked up two years ago after her daughter signed up for classes at the local dojo (her rearranged schnoz came courtesy of yesterday’s sparring partner). But she could just as easily be referring to her career as a litigator. Ask anyone who has gotten in her way and you’ll find out: Kelly Strange Crawford isn’t afraid to mix it up.
Crawford, a partner in Riker Danzig’s products liability department, grew up in nearby Bergen County with a father who had law in his blood. “My father was a very good litigator, and he was also a problem-solver who thought outside the box,” she says. “He had an uncanny ability to come up with creative solutions that no one else thought of.”
In high school, when she wasn’t playing volleyball, basketball or softball, she spent a lot of time in her dad’s office. “He had a trial involving a woman my age who’d been injured, and I got very involved in that case,” she says. “In law school, I’d sit at his secretary’s desk and type things for him.”
Though she’d originally planned to become a doctor, Crawford majored in linguistic ethnography at Duke University. By the time she graduated, she had decided to follow in her father’s footsteps. He didn’t think that was such a hot idea.
“My father thought it would be a very difficult career for women,” she says. “He was just looking out for my well-being. He’d seen that, for women to succeed in the law, they had to work in a man’s world. They had to put family second, if they even had a family. And they had to play with the big boys and shut up about everything.”
Crawford’s reaction? “I promptly called him a male chauvinist pig and decided to do it in spite of his advice,” she says with a laugh.
Crawford, who does have a family — a husband and a 6-year-old daughter — had heard that law school was difficult, and she was prepared to be miserable for three years. To her surprise, she loved it. It was at Fordham Law School that she discovered that litigation was in her blood as well.
Excited to put into practice what she was learning, she went looking for a summer associate program. She found one to her liking.
“I’d received a mailing from Riker Danzig that impressed me,” she says. “When I asked around, the one thing I heard from everyone I talked to was that Riker was known for top-notch lawyers, an excellent work product, and, more importantly, nice people who get along with each other and enjoy what they’re doing.”
There was just one problem: Riker declined to interview Crawford. She showed up anyway.
“I waited outside the door,” she says. “At the end of the day, I accosted the two interviewers. I handed them my résumé and said, ‘I’ve already sent five copies to people at your firm, but I wanted you to be able to put a face with my name. Your firm is where I want to work.’”
She got the summer position.
When Riker offered her an associate position, she accepted but deferred for a year so that she could clerk for Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano, who is now the senior judicial analyst on the Fox News Channel. Crawford was one of Judge Napolitano’s last clerks before he left the bench.
“It was a deep and profoundly gratifying experience to work with her,” Napolitano says by phone from his office at Fox News. “She was hardworking, gifted, and not afraid to express the moral analysis or view of what we were doing. She’s a great writer and an exceptional thinker.
“I wrote an opinion that year that created a new cause of action for battered women,” he continues. “Prior to that, a woman who was being battered had to persuade the government to prosecute her husband. Kelly drafted the initial round. We [wrote it] such that the opinion could be applied to married or unmarried couples, straight or homosexual partnerships — any intimate relationships where the physically superior partner assaults the physically inferior partner. Now these ideas are commonplace in the legal community, but in 1993 or 1994, they were considered radical. The opinion was very well received in the press at the time, and it was Kelly’s thoughtfulness that pushed me to go as far as I did.”
Since entering private practice, Crawford handles mostly defense work in mass tort and product liability cases, often involving pharmaceuticals. As the field has changed to include more class actions and mass torts, Crawford has developed the specialized skills necessary to try large-scale cases. “It’s much more common today to see plaintiff lawyers bringing in conglomerate or class action cases,” she says. “The law is expanding to deal with those.”
Bigger cases mean logistical challenges. “There are different legal theories,” she says. “There’s always a heavy motion practice about whether the case can be maintained as a class action — whether it meets the requirements, if it should be located in the federal or state courts. And you have to figure out how to deal with documents, how to deal with witnesses, how to manage the mass size of the litigation so it can be presented to the judge in a way that he or she isn’t overwhelmed.”
Crawford is also a member of Riker Danzig’s pro bono committee. She spent close to 10 years shepherding her own pro bono case through the Alabama courts before her client died this past November. The man was one of two defendants convicted and sentenced to death for killing a drug dealer. A group called the Equal Justice Initiative had gone looking for representation on their behalf, contending that they hadn’t received a fair trial.
Twice, Crawford visited him in a maximum-security prison in Alabama. He sent her homemade Christmas cards and called regularly. As the case dragged on, he became desperate. “He would say, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. Can’t we just set an execution date? If we can’t fix this, let it be over,’” Crawford remembers.
When the man died (of a medical condition unrelated to his case), he was still waiting for the judge to make a decision on post-conviction release papers that had been filed in 1996. “In defense of the judge, he probably thought he was doing these clients a favor,” Crawford says. “He knew that the longer he held onto these papers, the longer they’d be alive.”
Not reaching a legal resolution was frustrating. “It’s very hard to work on a case and have your hands tied with what you can accomplish for your client,” she says. “It makes you realize that although our legal system is the best system we could have in place, it’s not infallible — it is flawed, and sometimes it doesn’t reach the right decisions.”
At least the inmate knew that he had a lawyer who never stopped fighting for him. It’s what all of Crawford’s clients have come to expect.