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The Storm Kit

After a battle with cancer, John E. Keefe Jr. is using his experience to help protect other lawyers

Published in 2019 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine

The thing about being diagnosed with cancer is that the “Open” sign still turns on the next morning.

New Jersey State Bar President John E. Keefe Jr. knows that all too well.

Keefe, of Keefe Law Firm, says the news of his cancer diagnosis in 2017 rocked him. “I’m a competitive, type-A worker, partner, dad and husband, but I immediately had to change my focus to stay alive,” he says.

The diagnosis was one thing. Processing it was another. “All the things that go through your head—What’s going to happen to my livelihood? Who is going to step up so that I can survive, literally and financially?”

Luckily for Keefe, he had a safety net: His father, a former judge; his longtime staff; and his lawyers, a few of whom he’s been friends with since high school, all pitched in. Not to mention tons of family support from wife, Estee, and his three sons.

“I am fortunate for many reasons,” he says. “One, to be alive, but also, to have had a firm to come back to.”

Many people that Keefe met during his treatment weren’t as fortunate.

Keefe, whose cancer treatment plan rendered work impossible for close to six months, traveled four hours round trip five days a week for treatment at the University of Pennsylvania. He was struck by the people he met: There was the record-store worker, the plumber, the small deli owner, even another lawyer, all with the same story.

“All these folks from different walks of life, and what was going through their minds was the same: How are my bills going to get paid? Am I going to have a job?” Keefe says. “No one had the luxury of just worrying about getting better.”

One fellow patient in particular—a Pennsylvania lawyer—made an impression. “He says to me, ‘You know, when we die, the law has a mechanism when it comes to how to deal with our practice.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but what does our profession do for us when we’re temporarily knocked out?’” Keefe says. The two chewed on that, then Keefe said, “I’m going to be the president of the state bar next year, and I’m going to do something about it.”

In full remission, having returned “a new person, with clarity of purpose and with zero tolerance for things that aren’t good for me,” Keefe called state bar officials and said, “Everything we talked about for my year? We’re tweaking the plan.”

“Commitments I made to diversity didn’t change,” Keefe says. “But my major platform became Lawyers Helping Lawyers.”

Keefe notes that more than 80 percent of New Jersey attorneys are in small or solo firms.

“When a small or solo firm dies, there’s a court process,” Keefe says. “But we’re talking about what happens between a functional practice and death—life.”

That includes a lawyer or even a lawyer’s family member getting sick. “Someone could have a heart attack, but business happens the next day. What are we doing about that?” Keefe says. “We learned very quickly that we weren’t doing much.”

Keefe has formed a volunteer task force, written extensively on Lawyers Helping Lawyers, and started the first prong of the program, which brings together county bar associations and judges. “The program will make sure that if something does happen to you, one of your colleagues—or kid or wife—can call the bar, the court, and say, ‘What do I do next?”

After the problem is acknowledged, the group assesses what needs to happen in the short-term, and puts a lawyer in place who will work for free (or at a minimum rate), Keefe says.

“We’re reaching out to county bar presidents and saying, ‘Talk to everyone. Educate them now on the things they should be doing in the event something happens.’ Kind of like a storm kit.”

Keefe says the response has been good. “I think we will have more people willing to help than we will have people to help,” he says. 

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