Kelsey Stapler Morris (JD ‘11) has enjoyed success in a variety of roles since her law school graduation six years ago: she is an involved alumna, wife, mother, and attorney at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Kelsey also holds the distinction of being Judge André Birotte’s (JD ‘91) very first clerk from Pepperdine Law, part of his second class of clerks since he took the bench in 2014. Kelsey recently spoke with us about the educational experience and practical training she received at Pepperdine Law that prepared her for practice in complex commercial litigation. Kelsey also gave us an insider’s view on a federal judicial clerkship, a position more and more Pepperdine Law alumni have secured over the past several years (see our most recent class of clerks in the Surf Report).
Pepperdine Law was at the top of the docket when Kelsey chose a law school, and it was the mission-centered mindset, what Kelsey calls “the call to service,” that drove her final decision. While a law student, Kelsey served as an Associate Editor for the Law Review and was a member of the trial and appellate advocacy teams. Kelsey valued the law school’s commitment to prepare students to operate within complicated litigation systems. She also valued Pepperdine Law’s commitment to educate and produce problem solvers rather than adversaries. “Gridlock for the sake of gridlock [between litigants],” Kelsey explains, “was never productive or useful to the court.”
Kelsey recognized the extensive practice experience that the Pepperdine faculty brought to the classroom. For example, she described how Professor Goodno, having clerked herself, brought an insider understanding of how procedure plays out in real life. It was that training that led Kelsey to a clerkship.
Kelsey began her career at Akin Gump after receiving an interview during the On Campus Interviewing (OCI) season. Kelsey worked for Akin Gump during her 2L summer and received an offer after a summer of hard work. After sitting for the California Bar, she began work in their Century City office.
After several years of practicing, Kelsey learned about an open clerkship position with Judge Birotte though the Pepperdine Law alumni network. Though most graduates secure federal clerkships during law school, Kelsey applied and was granted an interview. At this point in her career, she came to the interviewing process with several years of complex civil litigation experience. Kelsey knew and understood the practice of law, writing motions, and her research and writing skills had been honed at one of the top firms in the country. After several in-depth interviews (all federal clerkship interviews involve the judges and their current law clerks), Kelsey received and accepted an offer to clerk for Judge Birotte in the fall of 2015. Judge Birotte was confirmed in 2014 to serve as a district judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California after a rare unanimous confirmation. Over 750 people attended the swearing-in ceremony to support Judge Birotte in his new endeavour. Judge Birotte had previously served as the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California.
Kelsey says clerking after a few years of practice was an invaluable experience in her development as a legal professional. She gained insight into the court’s application of civil procedure and treatment of substantive law in a wide variety of industries and was able to connect this insight to her own practice experience. “Maybe even more importantly,” she says, “I got the opportunity to learn from Judge Birotte himself and see how he approached the cases before him with an attitude of service.”
Judge Birotte became a mentor to Kelsey during her time at the court, and the two still remain in touch. The mentorship that clerkships (state or federal) enable is invaluable to young attorneys as they advance in their career. Kelsey also had the chance to get some judicial parenting advice-she and her husband, fellow alumnus George Morris (JD ‘11), welcomed their first child at the very end of Kelsey’s clerkship in 2016.
Kelsey also collaborated with other Pepperdine Law clerks and externs during her time at the court. “I think Pepperdine’s culture sticks with you, and maintaining that collaborative positive outlook on practicing law is very important,” she said. After her clerkship ended, Kelsey taught Legal Research and Writing at USC Gould School of Law. She taught and also practiced law while juggling a newborn baby and commuting from Orange County to Los Angeles. In 2017, she returned to practice at Akin Gump in their Irvine office in a new Practice Attorney position.
Today, Kelsey shares her commitment to Pepperdine’s mission by actively participating in the alumni network. In addition serving as a preceptor through the Parris Institute, Kelsey is a member of Pepperdine’s Alumni Leadership Council. In this role with the university-wide think tank, Kelsey joins a panel of alumni that helps generate long-term avenues for alumni engagement and career services. The Council from all five schools meets several times a year to develop a cohesive perspective, to compare ideas, and to “take the pulse” of the wider network of alumni. Dedicated and grounded in her practice, we are proud to witness Kelsey’s commitment to maintaining the highest principles of professional, ethical, and moral responsibility in accordance with the mission – in her career and her family.