Why did you decide to pursue a career in politics?
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. Through our involvement, we recognized a need for stronger, more effective leadership from our state representative. While I was in my first year at Georgia State Law — a stressful one, at that — we felt God was calling us to become more engaged in the community. Ultimately, a run for state representative was the right place to make a difference. We made our announcement the Saturday before I started the second semester of my first year.
Tell us what it was like running for office while in law school. Was it challenging to juggle a campaign and schoolwork?
It was definitely a challenging experience. We found the phrase, “the law is a jealous mistress,” to be true; however, I can tell you politics is even more of a “jealous mistress.” Balancing my time between family, classes and my campaign was a struggle at times, but it was ultimately worth it.
What class or experience at Georgia State Law helped the most in preparing for what you do now? What skills do you use most in your day-to-day work?
There are so many. One thing I loved about Georgia State Law was the diversity of our student body, not just demographically, but philosophically as well. I remember fondly many intense but respectful conversations surrounding current events and public policy taking place in between classes. I feel our country could benefit from more conversations such as those that took place while we were putting off case briefs in the lobby of the law school.
To survive in law school, every student should learn to both think on their feet — as I had to when Professor Neil Kinkopf called on me to explain Pennoyer v. Neff in our first Civil Procedure class — and to read critically (a skill I wish I had developed better before Professor Kinkopf called on me). Both quick thinking and critical reading are skills essential to serving the 16th District in the Georgia House.
You are from and practice law in a small community. How has that shaped your view of the law and how is it different from practicing in a larger area?
I love practicing in my hometown. A small-town practice gives you the opportunity to really feel the pulse of those living around you. Because I have the opportunity to see my clients at a Main Street sandwich shop, the grocery store or the Little League field, I have the opportunity to better understand the struggles they face as a result of entering the legal system.
What do you enjoy most about what your work?
I have a passion for helping people improve their quality of life. Whether I’m fighting for my constituents at the state Capitol or in the courtroom, I try to keep a perspective on the effects my actions have or could have on their lives. A speaker in my Health Law Policy class once said being a lawyer offers you the opportunity to solve one person’s problem, while being active in politics offers you the opportunity to solve the problems of hundreds, thousands or even millions of individuals.
I feel blessed to have the opportunity to do both.
Tell us about your work with higher education and its importance for the state.
Education is the silver bullet. It allows individuals to improve not only their position in life but those of future generations. My dad and his siblings were the first in their family to go to college. They are all now public school teachers who have worked to make sure their children receive a college education, not only at the undergraduate level but at the graduate level as well.
I thank God every day for the opportunity to live the “American Dream.” As I walked across the stage on graduation day and as I was sworn into the Georgia House of Representatives, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfathers: my Paw-paw Brown, a salesman for Sears Roebuck, and my Paw-paw Kelley, an owner of a gas station who worked third shift at a local textile manufacturing facility. They were both military veterans who made tangible sacrifices to help improve our family’s position in life.
We must make sure college education is affordable for all Georgia citizens. As a state legislator, I feel we need to think out of the box to integrate technology into the higher education sphere and make sure future generations have the same opportunities that were afforded to me.
How do you stay connected to Georgia State Law?
I have the opportunity to visit the new Georgia State Law campus frequently. For years, our law school has transformed the legal community in our state, and now it is truly shaping the skyline of one of America’s greatest cities. Both former and current students should be proud of the progress our law school has made and the future it is sure to enjoy.
What advice do you have for students that might want to pursue a career in politics while in, or after, law school?
One, make sure you are engaged for the right reason; two, have a cause you’re passionate about; three, be confident in yourself and your talents; and four, don’t go into it alone. The support of your family can’t be overstated.
If you are engaged in a practice, get ready to win, and by that I mean have a plan in place to take care of your clients while you are serving your community and our state during the legislative session. I’m blessed to have some great lawyers mentoring me during my young career. I couldn’t do what I do without Bill Lundy, Rick Lundy and Charles Morris (J.D. ’98). I’ll be forever grateful for them picking up my “slack” while I’m engaged in my political efforts.
Rep. Trey Kelley (J.D. ’14) was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2012. He practices law with Parker & Lundy in Cedartown.