From GTLA LEAD to Georgia State Legislator: An Interview with State Senator Blake Tillery and State Representative Trey Kelley

By Drew Ashby and Sharon Zinns

State Senator Blake Tillery
State Senator Blake Tillery was elected to Georgia’s 19th district in 2016. Representative Trey Kelley was elected to represent Georgia’s 16 House District in 2012. Sen. Tillery and Rep. Kelley are both Republicans and trial lawyers. They are also both proud graduates of the GTLA LEAD (“Leadership Education & Advanced Direction”) Program. The LEAD Program was founded in 2013 for the purpose of educating GTLA’s younger members on both the benefits and the expectations of membership, building strong relationships between young promising trial lawyers from all four corners of our state as well as diverse trial practice areas, and ultimately better preparing tomorrow’s leaders today. Sen. Tillery’s and Rep. Kelley’s rise in the state’s political ranks can be traced in part to their participation in the LEAD Program and the impact it had on them.

Prior to his service in the Georgia Senate, Sen. Tillery was Chairman of the Toombs County Commission. In addition to his participation in the LEAD program, Sen. Tillery is a graduate of the Leadership Georgia class of 2015, member of the Conservative Policy Leadership Institute and a graduate of Republican Leadership for Georgia. Sen. Tillery graduated from the University of Georgia in 2006 with a degree in International Affairs and from the University of Georgia School of Law in 2010 with a Juris Doctorate. He is currently the managing partner at Smith and Tillery, P.C. in Vidalia, Georgia. Sen. Tillery serves on the Judiciary, Higher Education and Economic Development committees. He also serves as vice chairman of the State Institutions and Properties Committee.

Representative Trey Kelley
Representative Trey Kelley grew up in Cedartown and has held multiple leadership roles such as President of the Cedartown Exchange Club, Vice-Chairman of the Board for the Murphy-Harpst Children’s Centers, Polk County Chairman of Governor Deal’s 2010 & 2014 gubernatorial campaigns and Chairman of the Polk County Republican Party. Rep. Kelley graduated from Georgia State University College of Law in May 2014. He is employed by Parker & Lundy. In the Georgia House, Rep. Kelly is a member of the Code Revision, Energy, telecommunications, and utilities, Health and Human Services, and Ex-Officio member of Appropriations, while also serving as Vice-Chair of Ways and Means, a Sub-Committee Chair of Judiciary, and in a leadership position on the Higher Education Committee.

GTLA member Drew Ashby interviewed Sen. Tillery and Rep. Kelley to find out what influenced their runs for office, what impact LEAD had on them and their hopes for their time in the office.
“I’m from Vidalia in Southeast Georgia – most of my high school class left and never came back. I want to be a part of creating a community they want to come home to.”

Q #1: What inspired you to run for office?

Sen. Tillery: It sounds cliché, but I want to help people. I care about my community and I wanted to get involved. I wasn’t particularly excited about my county’s leadership at the time, so I threw my name in the ring for County Commission Chairman. That led to my current office in the State Senate. I’m from Vidalia in Southeast Georgia – most of my high school class left and never came back. I want to be a part of creating a community they want to come home to.

Rep. Kelley: From an early age, my parents, both public school teachers, instilled in me the value of community service. After graduating from Shorter University, my wife Amy and I moved back to my hometown of Cedartown where we quickly became re-engaged in our community through the First Baptist Church of Cedartown, the Cedartown Exchange Club, the Polk County Republican Party, and Murphy-Harpst Children’s Center. Amy and I knew we wanted to be a positive influence and help build up the community we would start our lives and family in. Ultimately, a run for State Representative was the right place, we felt, to make a difference.

Q #2: You were selected for GTLA’s LEAD program. What effect did it have on you?

Sen. Tillery: Completing the GTLA LEAD program was one of the most impactful things I have done. I built incredible and lasting relationships with other attorneys who were a lot smarter than me! I still call on my classmates all the time. Sometimes it is to refer a case; others it’s to bounce ideas or talk through legal theories just to make sure I’m not going crazy down here all by myself. LEAD also helped me realize the big names in our business are incredibly personable, real-life people too. They are extremely generous with their time and talents and always willing to answer a question or give advice to what Judge Ellington calls us “baby lawyers.” I also realized even those big names would have never won a case had they been too frightened to enter a courtroom.

Rep. Kelley: I feel extremely fortunate to have been a part of the GTLA LEAD program. In both my roles as a lawyer and a legislator I feel it is important to constantly be learning from others’ experiences. Through the LEAD program I had the opportunity to build relationships with GTLA members from all parts of Georgia. I learned a lot just by hearing the challenges and successes they are seeing in both their law practices and communities.

Q #3: How has serving as a State Legislator
 affected your 
law practice?

Sen. Tillery: Our firm focuses on personal injury, workers compensation and Social Security disability claims. Elected office changed that some. We have picked up a few more probate cases and real estate closings as folks in my district do not differentiate between specialties – if you’re their lawyer, you’re getting everything. With that blessing comes a curse as well. Small-town clients, like most clients I’m sure, want to SEE their lawyer. That’s hard to do during the legislative session from 180 miles away. We have tried to adapt, adding video conferencing, meeting clients at their homes after hours while traveling between Vidalia and Atlanta and busting our tails even harder the nine months the legislature is not in session. I haven’t missed any meals and all the light bulbs here are working, so we’re doing OK. But admittedly, it’s difficult.

Rep. Kelley: At Parker and Lundy, I get to help clients injured in automobile and tractor-trailer wrecks, through nursing home abuse and on the job. Serving in the House I have had the opportunity to work with GTLA members all across the state on issues which impact all of our clients. Getting to hear their perspective and build relationships with them both inside and outside of the Gold Dome has been a big part of me growing as a young lawyer.
“Many of the skills we use every day advocating for our clients line up with the skills used under the Gold Dome; this overlap helps make lawyers effective legislators.”

Q #4: What other challenges do you face working as both a practicing lawyer and a 
state Legislator?

Sen. Tillery: Time management. I know other attorneys face this too. I represent 11 counties and roughly 30 cities. Each has its own events that require your attendance and each has its own issues that need resolution. You also get the unique challenge of constituents bringing issues to their Senator they really need to take to their lawyer. Former State House Majority Leader Larry Walker warned me of this and advised me to always err on the side of being the Senator. I’ve taken his advice to heart. On those occasions where the constituent’s issue can only be resolved by a lawyer, we refer it out to others in the community to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Rep. Kelley: The biggest challenge is managing the demands of both a law practice and public service. GTLA members know the time and dedication running a successful trial practice takes. Legislative service when done the right way takes the same kind of focus and attention. I’m fortunate the partners at Parker and Lundy help me manage my caseload during the legislative session and throughout the year.

Q #5: How important is it that we have lawyers in the legislature?
Sen. Tillery: Extremely. One would think knowledge of the law may be important when you’re tasked with making laws. All kidding aside, most people do not realize that we have only 10 lawyers in the Senate. I frequently remind my colleagues that my assistance in drafting their amendment does not ensure my vote in favor of it.

Rep. Kelley: I can’t stress enough how important it is that we have lawyers serving in the General Assembly, not just for our clients and profession, but to ensure good public policy gets made in our state. Many of the skills we use every day advocating for our clients line up with the skills used under the Gold Dome; this overlap helps make lawyers effective legislators.

Q #6: Why do you think more lawyers don’t run for these offices, and how can we get more to step up?

Sen. Tillery: There are several reasons. The first I believe is the time commitment. I’ve been married less than two years and my wife is in OBGYN residency. We don’t have any children and she’s so busy that the effect of my absence is diminished. If those factors changed, I could not continue to run my firm the way I do now and serve in the legislature. Other practitioners who have these responsibilities must carefully weigh that out. The second reason is probably the nastiness of politics. Quotes and phrases out of context become direct mail pieces, any previous business relationship becomes unethical, and before long you begin to wonder if your own mother is going to vote for you. The third reason is likely financial. Being away from one’s practice for 25 percent of the year is rough. If anyone is interested in running, I would be more than willing to walk them through the questions they need to consider when making their decision.

Rep. Kelley: Unfortunately, I think the importance placed by our society on civic engagement and public service has gone down in recent years. We see it in the numbers of individuals who are active in civic clubs and organizations and we see it in the willingness of individuals to step up and seek office. Ultimately, I think the time demands of the practice of law and how public service could impact that scare many lawyers away from having their name on the ballot. To help combat this we need the trial bar to step up and support those of our own who do make the decision to throw their hat in the ring.

Q #7:  When is your next election? How can your fellow lawyers support you?

Sen. Tillery: I’m on the ballot again in May 2018. If you live in my district, I’d appreciate your vote. If you don’t live in my district but know anyone who does, please reach out to them for me. I’d love to have their vote. I also need your help during this session. You work with the law daily. You see how it can be amended to improve the lives of Georgians. I want to know what you see. Email me at 
btillery@smithandtillery.com or call my cell phone at 912-245-9915. I may represent 177,000 people in Southeast Georgia, but I am there to serve our entire state.

Rep. Kelley: I’ll be on both the primary and general election ballot in 2018. Most importantly I would ask my fellow lawyers to keep me and my family in your prayers during the election season. Additionally, campaigns are always in need of people who will dedicate their time to help knock on doors, make phone calls, or just offer an inspirational pick me up.

Q #8: Our GTLA members will read this interview. What else would you like them to know about who you are, what you do, and what you want to do in the future?

Sen. Tillery: My daily prayer is that the legislature does not change me. I want to walk out of that building someday the exact same person I was when I walked in. I can tell after only one year that is going to be hard. As it does in our practices, hearing the same issues and complaints can make us jaded. I don’t want to be jaded. I want to be optimistic for our state and our citizens. So when you find yourself at the Gold Dome this session, please stop by. And if you pass me in those marble hallways, ask me what I’ve done to make Georgia better today.

Rep. Kelley: We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on my public service and my law practice and those are huge parts of my life, but they aren’t the most important. That part of my life belongs to my wife of almost 10 years, Amy, and the rest of my family. I’m a big sports fan-I played baseball growing up and into college so I love watching the Braves, the Dawgs, and the Falcons. Right now I’m focused on serving the 16th and my ambitions are on Amy and me growing our family.

About the Authors
Drew Ashby is an Associate with the Cooper Firm in Marietta, GA. He specializes in catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death, and product liability cases. Drew has a special expertise in product liability cases involving automobiles, ATVs, boats, industrial equipment, and a variety of consumer/household products. Drew is a GTLA Champion Member as well as a member of the Verdict Editorial Board. He can be reached at drew@thecooperfirm.com.

Sharon Zinns is Of Counsel in the Atlanta office of Levy Konigsberg, LLP where her practice focuses primarily on asbestos litigation. Sharon was named 2016 SuperLawyers Rising Star and was a member of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association’s LEAD (“Leadership Education & Advanced Direction”) program in 2015-2016.

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