And Then There Was One

A talent for argument—along with Agatha Christie—brought Kelly J.C. Gallinger to the law

Published in 2011 Mountain States Rising Stars — July 2011

While Kelly J.C. Gallinger’s life has been defined by her impulse for what she calls “crazy whims”—including joining the Army at 17 and moving to a slum in South Korea after college—becoming a lawyer was not one of them. Growing up in the mountains near Helena, she met in the pages of her favorite crime novels characters who inspired her to pursue law.

“I loved Agatha Christie; she’s still one of my favorite authors, and she’d always have solicitors and barristers in her novels,” says Gallinger. “So originally I thought criminal law was pretty darn interesting.”

Her talents led her that way as well. “I like to say I was only good at arguing,” she says. “So there were not many options open to me, career choicewise.”

Her knack for arguing came in handy when, at 17, she decided she was ready to go out on her own. “I promptly joined the Army—to prove that I was not too young to leave and that I could do it in a really tough environment,” she says. While on active duty, she earned a political science degree at Montana State University, and then studied for the LSAT, which the Army would pay for—eventually.

“I was all ready to take it on a Saturday, and Friday night the education officer called me and said, ‘I forgot to mail the paperwork back to Washington and you’re not authorized to take this test,’” says Gallinger. By the time she was approved to take the LSATs, law school application deadlines had passed. Suddenly, Gallinger had a year on her hands. “I looked around for jobs that I could get with a political science degree and there wasn’t much. So I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll go see Asia.’”

Gallinger answered a newspaper ad placed by a private language school, known in Korea as a “hagwon,” seeking English teachers, and flew to Pusan, South Korea, to teach English as a second language to Korean adults. She arrived in the city of more than 3.5 million amid the chaos of 1998, “when the Asian markets crashed horribly and IMF [International Monetary Fund] came to bail everybody out,” she says. She lived in a slum where rats ran through the ceilings. In the streets, her blond hair, an unusual sight, was often tugged at by locals. “I always thought, ‘You know, I’ve got a return ticket, I can catch a cab to the airport and leave at any time and go back to my normal life, but my neighbors couldn’t,’” Gallinger says. So she hung in there, enjoying other aspects. “A lot of my students became [my] really great friends,” she says.

Gallinger returned home a year later and graduated from the University of Montana School of Law. In 2002, she joined Brown Law Firm in Billings, where she’s now a partner.

Gallinger’s practice has evolved to focus on insurance coverage issues and bad faith defense, with a dabbling of defense litigation. She didn’t anticipate the insurance side, but enjoys its academic appeal. “You’re hired by the insurance company to figure out whether there’s coverage under a particular policy for a claim,” she says. “It’s like a puzzle. You’re given a set of facts and you have to look through the policy for any weaknesses or ambiguities.”

Her work handling some obscure cases means that she also gets to become an expert on everything from selective water withdrawal systems relating to hydroelectric dams, to explosive hair dryers to bacterial meningitis.

“We had the most interesting expert on that case,” she says of the latter. It was an insurance defense case and her client, a teacher, was sued by a student who contracted the disease on their class trip to Spain. “We [found] this guy who developed the bacterial meningitis vaccine back in the ‘60s,” she says. Gallinger had him explain that the teacher shouldn’t have been responsible for the girl’s injuries because of the incredible speed at which the disease comes on. The case settled quietly to the appreciation of the small-town teacher, she says.

“Between the Army, law school and my legal career, I’ve become very organized and goal-oriented,” says Gallinger. “Before, I was all over the map; I’d just have a whim and go do it.”

But her arguing skills remain intact. Her husband’s also an attorney. “That makes for an interesting marriage,” she says, then smiles. “We argue all the time … in good nature.”

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