Sean P Kelly has become one of Northern Virginia's leading young divorce attorneys, bringing a New Yorker's competitiveness to his newly founded family-law firm based in Fairfax. Kelly and his partners - John E Byrnes and Maureen E Danker - have enjoyed working together for over a decade; today, thanks to reputations built over the last 18 years, Kelly, Byrnes & Danker is already a high-profile firm in the region. And Kelly, has established himself as an effective - but not flamboyant - force in the region's courtrooms. Peers say he's known for dry humor and "feathers that never get ruffled," projecting a low-key steadiness that contrasts often with the high-strung style of other lawyers. Thus Kelly represents a younger generation of solid family-law litigators in the region. A native of Staten Island, New York, Kelly is the product of that classic New York Irish upbringing: a street-wise youth of cheerfully brawling with his three brothers. His parents - his father was an early computer engineer with NCR and later with Wang Computers, his mother an elementary school teacher - sent them all to The University of Scranton, the fine Jesuit-run school not far from metro New York. When Kelly's older brother went on to law school, Kelly, ever competitive, chose that route as well. At Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, Kelly showed his early aptitude for the courtroom, excelling in trial advocacy in its clinical law program. (He assisted landlord-tenant disputes in DC Superior Court even before graduating.)
A Treasury Department internship immersed him in the world of counterfeiting, money laundering, and drug trafficking - street and vice crime, he says, he was "completely comfortable getting to the bottom of." Preferring civil litigation, Kelly embarked on his family law career in 1994, and immediately went into court arguing motions against some of the best known and irascible attorneys in Virginia. In a jurisdiction that was known at the time for "trial by ambush," peers say Kelly proved early on that he didn't break and couldn't be surprised. What's more, Kelly says he realized Virginia was dominated by attorneys great on their feet and often theatrical, but who were not always as prepared.
Kelly says he always sought to even the playing field by out-preparing his competitors. And according to peers Kelly's thoroughness extends to crucial areas, such as the selection and preparation of expert witnesses - work that can determine the outcome of a trial. He won the respect of peers: He was selected to the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Committee from 2000 through 2006, which reviews cases of misconduct among lawyers. In addition, Kelly has served on the Virginia State Bar Judicial Nominations Committee, which plays a role in choosing both state and federal judges. "Sean is the type of lawyer whose skills you might not appreciate at first glance," says one long-time courtroom rival. "But it doesn't take long to realize that he is a very tough adversary. And while he seems very serious, he's also personable as clients get to know him." Today, less than a year after founding Kelly Byrnes & Danker, Kelly appears poised, like his partners, to lead the profession in Northern Virginia for years to some; the firm's new offices, near the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, is complemented by a Leesburg office. Away from the office Kelly is an avid golfer, and he coaches his two young sons' baseball and basketball teams. He lives in Fairfax County with his wife Amy and their sons.