When reality tv stars, basketball players, or Grammy winning artists find themselves in a family law crisis there is a name likely to follow: Randall Kessler. Kessler has represented Nene Leakes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Braylon Edwards of the New York Jets, and Christina Milian. He’s opposed Evander Holyfield, Michael Jordan, T.I., Ludacris, Dr. Dream, and Usher, just to name a few. When he’s not in the office interviewing one of his clients, he is likely being interviewed himself. Kessler is a frequent guest on CNN, NBC, and the Today Show. During Kessler’s latest visit to Chicago, he met with ISBA Young Lawyers Division member Marie Sarantakis for the following one-on-one interview.
Marie: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you decide that you wanted to become a lawyer?
Randall: It was sort of happenstance. My mother has often said a lawyer is “a Jewish boy who is afraid of blood.” I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, so I went to law school and started liking it.
At the time I thought I wanted to be an international lawyer. I was head of the International Law Society but soon realized there are only so many jobs at the U.N. and you don’t really get to travel as an international lawyer. Chances are you end up working in a corporate office.
So I began taking clients, some of which had family law cases. I enjoyed those cases the most. A few years later I started my own firm. I did not have kids or a family so I could suffer and eat peanut butter and jelly. I took anything that came in the door and eventually the divorce cases came in because I was a good lawyer and the other cases came in because I was young and hungry and willing to take anything. I soon realized I liked the ones that come in because they thought I was good and not because they thought I was desperate.
And that was it. I feel like life took me by the hand. I got lucky with my office space and I was a solo so I became very involved with the bar. I found a great deal of camaraderie there. Bar association membership has been very meaningful to me.
Marie: Speaking of Bar Associations, you and I live half way across the country. We have come to know one another through our work for the American Bar Association. You previously served as Chair of the ABA Family Law Committee and remain active in several local bar associations today. How have bar associations enhanced your professional life?
Randall: They have been great! You can’t become active for the fame, fortune, or the marketing, because its more work than it’s worth financially, but looking back, your work with these groups is what you feel good about. It’s the events you go to and the people you meet.
It’s a privilege to be a lawyer and when you’re around people who want to be active in the Bar, they are all doers. They are not people who say no. If you want something done, ask a busy person, right?
Marie: What would you tell a young lawyer about becoming more active with their local bar?
Randall: Do it! By all means, test the water. Get involved. If you’re stuck in your office, especially if you’re a corporate lawyer, as opposed to one who goes to Court, you’re never going to know what the world is like out there. You advance yourself when you meet people. Keep your eyes open for other opportunities.
I got lucky, because one of the first people I worked for, wasn’t the best employer; but I learned a lot. It made me talk to people about other jobs and I started realizing, I can do this. I can do this on my own. But I do think it’s great to work with somebody first. You learn valuable lessons along the way.
One of the most important things you can do is surround yourself with good people and bar associations are a great way to do that.
Marie: You’ve represented a plethora of celebrity clients. Tell us about that.
Randall: The hip hop industry was big when I was first starting my practice. If you’re name starts with a “T” or a “Young” we may well have represented you or sued you.
I think athletes and celebrities come to Atlanta for many reasons. Atlanta seems to be a place that a lot of people who seek fame move to. It’s not quite New York, but if you want to create a name for yourself quickly in a small, big city, Atlanta is that city. So I took on a couple of hard cases with women who had children with athletes. I didn’t like the idea that these guys made hundreds of thousands of dollars and didn’t pay, so I would take on some of these cases, hoping that I would get paid somewhere down the road. They weren’t necessarily the best cases, but the idea was, that if you represented this person, you must be a good lawyer.
Then a funny thing started to happen. Parties started coming to see me first so that we wouldn’t represent the other side. We gained a reputation for handling high profile cases and it’s become a great marketing tool.
Marie: Who are some of the celebrities that you’ve represented?
Randall: That I can talk about?
I remember we had a case against Evander Holyfield and it went on for a couple of days. My partner, Marvin, is a big boxing fan. During a break, it was just me, Marvin, and Evander. Evander is a nice guy. I like him and we see each other a lot. He is very friendly. During one of our breaks, my partner was asking him about his fight against Lennox Lewis and Evander started demonstrating how he was punching him. Evander can come within a hair of hitting you, without hitting you, because he’s that good. So he’s swinging around, and I looked at him and asked, “You’re not going to hit my partner are you?” and he responded by saying, “Mr. Kessler, I don’t hit anybody for free.” Sometimes you get those once in a lifetime comments, and it makes it all so memorable.
There are also a lot of hip-hop folks who I can’t talk about. They are falsely accused in paternity cases and the easiest thing is to just have them go take the test and confirm they are not the father instead of making a big stink. Once it’s out in the press, it doesn’t matter whether they are the father or not, as far as damage to reputation.
Marie: What was it like representing Nene Leakes?
Randall: It was a blast! She and my daughter are friendly. She calls my daughter Randall-ina because she’s a mini-me. We end up at the same place a lot. My family and I will go to Miami beach over the holidays and she’ll be there.
Nene is great. She’s the best of the best in my opinion. A lot of people think she’s abrupt, but every time that I was supposed to appear on Real Housewives of Atlanta, she would call me the day before tell me that I was going to be on the show. It’s a small thing, but it was nice of her to go out of her way so that my family and I could watch. She does nice little extra things like that.
It just impressed the hell out of me that she has made such a name for herself and such a good income off of her personality and her natural skill set. It’s nothing that she was trained for or that she went to school for. She just has the “it” factor.
In fact, it’s funny you asked this question right now, because I just got a text from her husband, Greg. Not anything bad. When Greg texts me, it’s usually about something like he wants to buy my tickets to the Hawks game or something like that. Nothing major. Look, I may be 53 years old, but I still get a thrill when someone from television texts me.
Marie: Speaking of television, I frequently see you on the news commenting on cases and updates on legal matters. How have you been invited as a guest onto so many prominent programs?
Randall: I’m on CNN a lot and the real reason is because my office is across the street from CNN and I’m always wearing a suit. Once you’re on, the people who book you are not Tom Browkaw or Matt Lauer, rather it’s the person working for them. That person has to make sure that they find a guest who is prompt, not a prima donna, and that will show up and not freeze on camera. So I satisfy the basics. I’m available. I’m responsive. I’ve got a name. And I can talk confidently about family law issues.
Marie: There have been so many exciting aspects to your career. What do you consider to be the highlight?
Randall: That’s a tough one. One of the things I feel best about is chairing the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association. But probably even more than that are the cases when I knew I made a difference.
One day I went to see Roy Barnes speak. He was the former Governor of Georgia and he unexpectedly lost in a landslide when he supported getting rid of the Confederate flag. He essentially got run out of office. A few months later he gave a speech on how he had to reinvent himself. He started working at Atlanta Legal Aid representing the impoverished and encouraged others to do the same.
When I got back to my office that day, there was a guy waiting to meet with me. He was a night pastor at one of the local hospitals. This pastor was making $19,000 per year. He’s the guy who would go console the family when a loved one died. Sadly, it’s a thankless job.
This pastor’s wife had falsely accused him of harming their daughter. He was desperate and he had no money. It was meant to be that I just came from the speech by this former Governor.
It was a good feeling to help him out during that time. The pastor and I have stayed friendly since then. He was there 12 years later when my daughter was born. It was in a different hospital, but he made it a point to come by. It made me feel like a million bucks that I was able to help him. So you have cases like that which stay with you.
We don’t do enough pro bono, but those are the things you feel good about and remember. It’s what people appreciate and didn’t expect, as opposed to the ones that give you $100,000 and demand getting what they want. I’d rather represent the Pastor any day.
Marie: You teach. You litigate. You write books. You are on tv. How do you do it all?
Randall: It’s my A.D.D. I would be bored to death if I did the same thing every day.
Seriously though, I have great, great, great staff so I am very lucky that I hired good people. I can’t say that I’ve figured out how to hire great people, rather I have been very fortunate. They are people who can finish my sentences.
Marie: What has been your approach to marketing yourself?
Randall: The nice thing about my marketing, which I think is true of most good marketers, is that you’re not really marketing. You’re out there being yourself, helping people, and speaking at seminars. Things that feel good and in turn help you create good business.
Marie: What has driven you?
Randall: I think a lot of it is insecurity. I want to be liked. I want people to like me and I want to make sure that I’m not offensive. I want the other side to like me in a case, which is probably hard in a divorce case, no matter what you say. They think you’re the guy who’s put the other spouse up to divorcing them or whatever it is.
Marie: What advice would you give a new attorney just getting started?
Randall: Find something you are passionate about. If you’re not passionate about what you do, but you need to do it to make a paycheck, do it, but keep your eyes open and figure out how to do what you are passionate about. If you love doing something, then it’s not work. If you are lucky enough to find something that you love doing. It will change your life. At the end of your career, you don’t want to be in a position where you say, I wish I had done something meaningful.
Marie: Thank you, Randall. It has been a pleasure speaking with you today. I am sure we will be seeing and hearing more of you in the near future.
Marie Sarantakis is the Principal Attorney of Sarantakis Law Group, Ltd. Ms. Sarantakis concentrates her practice in family law. In addition to her work in the courtroom, she is versed in alternative methods of dispute resolution as a mediator and Fellow of the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois. She was recently recognized by Super Lawyers as a Rising Star, named as one of the Top 10 Family Law Attorneys Under 40 in Illinois by the National Academy of Family Law Attorneys, and featured as a Fellow of the National Association of Distinguished Counsel.
Ms. Sarantakis is active in the legal community and serves as Chair of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Children & the Law Committee, an elected Assembly member and Young Lawyers Division Member of the Illinois State Bar Association, and on the Board of Governors of the West Suburban Bar Association. She also serves as a Young Professionals Board Member of Illinois Legal Aid Online and as an Associate Board Member of the Lawyers Assistance Program of Illinois.
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