Attorney David E. Keltner will be receiving the Tarrant County Bar Association’s most prestigious award, The Blackstone Award, on Tuesday, May 8.
He should be more than a little familiar with the award, as his father, the late Edgar H. Keltner Jr., also received it in 1986. They will be the first father-son recipients of the award, given on the basis of proven ability, integrity, and courage in the practice of law.
Keltner, formerly a Justice on the Texas Court of Appeals, is lead counsel in over 300 appellate decisions, and is currently a partner at Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP.
He has developed a stellar reputation in the field of appellate law. In 1996, Keltner was selected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers, one of only 320 national members. Later, the Texas Bar Foundation honored him with the inaugural Gregory S. Coleman Outstanding Appellate Lawyer award.
Best Lawyers named him the “Appellate Lawyer of the Year” for Dallas and Fort Worth in both 2016 and 2018. Texas Super Lawyers, a Thomson Reuters Service published in Texas Monthly, listed him as one of the 10 best lawyers in Texas for the last 11 years, and named him the “Top Point Getter” for three of those years.
Growing up with the law and surrounded by attorneys such as his father, Keltner remains enthusiastic about the practice of law.
“I would do it as a hobby if I didn't do it for a living,” he said. “I absolutely very much enjoy it. It's been a very fun thing for me, and you have to constantly reinvent yourself, because the law's constantly changing.”
Outside of work, Keltner remains surrounded by the law. His wife, Larisa, is an attorney and his youngest is in a pre-law program.
Now practicing for 42 years, Keltner’s work in a law office goes back well before he earned his law degree. In high school, he worked on weekends at his father’s firm, Hudson, Keltner, Smith & Cunningham, in the law library. The firm was having trouble updating the many law journals, so Keltner began doing that task. He did it through high school and even during holidays in college.
There was a side benefit.
“If I had some time off, I knew a number of the judges and I would go up to the courthouse and watch trials,” he said. “And which are just, by the way, darn entertaining.”
Heading off to college at Trinity University in San Antonio, Keltner majored in journalism and worked for a time at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Associated Press. But he eventually headed to Southern Methodist University Desman School of Law, graduating in 1975.
Out of law school, he joined Shannon, Gracey, Ratliff & Miller in Fort Worth.
It was a bit of a baptism by fire. He was assigned to Bill Bowers, where Keltner noted, Bowers tried five lawsuits in six weeks. He was then assigned to Kleber Miller, who Keltner now regards as a mentor. Miller will introduce Keltner at the 2018 Law Day Awards Dinner on May 8 at the Fort Worth Club.
“He was a demanding taskmaster,” said Keltner. “He wanted to get things right. Kleber worked very, very hard.”
Hard work was one of the lesson he learned from both Miller and another man Keltner regards as a mentor, the late Dee Kelly.
“Working hard levels the playing field,” said Keltner. “There are 24 hours in day and everybody faces the same 24 hours. I can work more of them than most people can, and it doesn't bother me to do it. The other kind of thing is it's – in one respect – better than raw intelligence. We're all intelligent, but I don't know if I'd make it in this field just on that. But the working hard made a difference.”
It was during his work with Miller that Keltner expressed interest in doing appellate work. Appellate attorneys handle the process of appealing a final judgment.
“Kleber looked at me and he said something – and I'll never forget this, -‘Look,’ he said, ‘You don't want to be an appellate lawyer. First off, appellate lawyers have no personality. And you have at least some personality.’ ”
Despite this counsel, Keltner began doing more appellate work.
“As time progressed, there was more and more of that work available, and I realized there weren't that many people doing it,” he said. “I basically advertised myself as David Keltner, Appellate Lawyer, and before anybody knew I wasn't, I was.”
In 1986, Justice Walter Jordan – his father’s former law partner – told Keltner that he planned to retire from the Fort Worth Court of Appeals. “This was shortly before the primaries,” Keltner said. Keltner was interested in taking the spot, but so were six other lawyers.
Five of them withdrew. The one who remained dropped out as well, but too late for his name to be taken off the ballot.
“So, I had won the race, but if I lost the vote, I was going to have to leave the state,” he said.
Keltner returned to private practice in 1990, joining Haynes and Boone and establishing a statewide appellate practice. In 1998, he joined Jose, Henry, Brantley & Keltner. For the past 11 years, he has been with Kelly Hart, where he worked closely with the legendary Dee Kelly.
“Dee was great,” said Keltner. “He was a joy to be around.”
Kelly, who died in 2015, thought outside the box, Keltner said.
“If someone was in litigation with Dee’s clients, he worked for them all the time. If there wasn’t a judicial remedy, he’d work on a legislative remedy. If that didn’t work, he would find some other solution. He just kept extending the battlefield,” said Keltner.
Asked about changes in the practice of law over his career, Keltner noted the increase in the number of women graduating from law school and taking lead roles in law firms.
“My law school class was a large class,” he said. “We had about 270. About 20 were women.”
Keltner is involved with both SMU and Texas A&M Law School and he says a little more than half who graduate are women. “In minority interests we've got a way to go, but that's coming along well too,” he said.
He also noted that the Chief Justice of the Fort Worth Court of Appeals and the Tarrant County District Attorney are both women, as well as the managing partner of Kelly Hart.
During his career, Keltner has followed in both his father’s and his mentor Kleber’s footsteps in being a member of the State Bar of Texas’ Board of Directors. He was elected chair of the board in 2000.
The Texas Supreme Court appointed Keltner to a number of its committees. He served on the Texas Supreme Court Advisory Committee from 1993-2000 and was appointed Chair of the Texas Supreme Court Discovery Task Force. He was also a member of the Texas Supreme Court Advisory Committee for Professionalism that drafted the Texas Lawyer’s Creed.
Locally, Keltner has served on the Board of Directors for the Tarrant County Bar Association, serving as president in 2015-2016.