Kathleen Wilkinson has made a career litigating disputes over matters as varied as employment law and construction accidents.
Now she is about to take over as chancellor of the 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association, a task that arguably is as demanding as representing a corporate client in a high-stakes lawsuit.
But, given the complexity of Philadelphia's legal community, it is also a role that requires a measure of political skill.
Wilkinson, who will give her inaugural address Tuesday at the bar association's annual meeting and luncheon, says fast-paced changes in the legal profession have imposed a changed agenda on the group. Under pressure from clients, many law firms are devoting fewer resources to training young lawyers, hampering their career progress.
Wilkinson, a partner at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker L.L.P., a national firm with a 30-lawyer office in the Curtis Center in Center City, says that poses an ideal opportunity for the bar association to expand its training and educational programs.
She plans to institute a new speakers' series next year that will focus on bolstering young lawyers' skills in networking, business development, and other areas on the theory that many are not getting that guidance from their firms.
"There is a disconnect between legal education and the young lawyers just starting in practice," she says.
On the complexities and nuances of leading a bar association, Wilkinson is almost certain to get some advice at home. Her husband, Thomas G. Wilkinson Jr., a partner at Center City's Cozen O'Connor law firm, is president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, and his term will overlap with his wife's through May 2013.
Mark Tarasiewicz, assistant executive director of the Philadelphia Bar Association, said it appeared that the Wilkinsons will be the first husband-and-wife team to simultaneously run the state and city bar associations.
Wilkinson, a Haverford mother of three who enjoys spending time in Cape May and who serves on the entertainment committee of the Merion Cricket Club, where she is a member, among other non-legal activities, takes over leadership of the association amid signs the legal marketplace has stabilized.
That has helped boost membership in the bar association, which lost some dues-paying members in 2008 and 2009 as firms laid off lawyers or declined to pay dues of lawyers still on staff.
Wilkinson says she has been meeting with the leaders of some big firms, pitching bar association membership as a smorgasbord of networking and training opportunities for young lawyers.
She says she has been able to persuade some to pick up the tab once again.
"Law firms have to think about what they can do that is of value to the young associate," she said. "The bar association is doing all these programs. They owe it to their associates so they can grow, develop, and learn."
Wilkinson has a long history with the bar association.
She says that after graduating from Villanova University law school in 1981, she threw herself into the bar association's newly formed Women in the Profession Committee and later became co-chair of the Rules Committee, a nuts-and-bolts panel that sorts out issues of civil procedure impacting the Philadelphia court system.
She was elected vice chancellor in 2010, and assumed that post on Jan. 1, 2011. Under the association's leadership election rules, she automatically became chancellor-elect this year, and will take over as chancellor on Jan. 1.
There were no lawyers in Wilkinson's family when she was a child. She didn't even know any lawyers in the North Jersey town where she grew up.
Looking back, she says her main inspiration was the 1949 film Adam's Rib, with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who play husband-and-wife lawyers who find themselves on opposite sides in a criminal case involving a woman who shot her adulterous husband. Hepburn prevails, winning an acquittal of the accused shooter, whom Tracy prosecutes.
"She is such a great actress and she played the role so well," says Wilkinson. "It was probably the first female that I saw on TV playing a lawyer, and I thought, 'Gee, this is really cool.' "