SALT LAKE CITY — Every Thursday afternoon, "like clockwork," attorney Jay Kessler bounds into the administrative offices of Catholic Community Services' St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall to dispense free legal advice.
This past week was no different, except that there was a cake, balloons and a certificate of appreciation recognizing Kessler's lengthy volunteer service signed by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
"For me?" Kessler queried.
Staff members smiled and nodded their heads in the affirmative.
"Today is 19 years I've been doing this," Kessler said. He's been a Catholic Community Services volunteer longer than most members of the homeless resource center staff have been on the job.
"It's been lots of fun, lots of fun," he said.
While he does not represent the people he advises in court, he gives free legal counsel, refers people to community legal resources and sometimes just offers "common sense" advice.
Sometimes, after consulting with Kessler about grievances people have held onto for years, even decades, they just to need to be told to "close the door on it. Move on," Kessler said.
Matt Melville, Catholic Community Services homeless services director, said "Jay's a blessing to us and the clients here, for sure. He comes in like clockwork every Thursday and the clients, there's always somebody there ready for him."
On Thursday, a woman with a child in a stroller patiently waited for Kessler to discuss a legal matter. Even though Kessler wanted to dig into his cake, he consulted with his client first.
That's typical of Kessler, said Melville.
"Utah really sets the standard for volunteers, and Jay sets the standard in Utah. Just this much ongoing service, giving up his free time. I'm sure he's got billable projects he could be working on, but he's made this a priority for the community," he said.
Kessler has his own law practice, which gives him the flexibility to commit to volunteering weekly. He also credits his wife, Jane, who supports his gift of volunteer service understanding it means he's sacrificing a half-day of paid legal work to do it.
Kessler's unconventional path to becoming a lawyer gives him an affinity for people who are struggling and need a little help, he said.
For 21 years, Kessler worked as a heating and cooling contractor. His family lived in Pennsylvania in a farmhouse on 2 acres that Kessler restored himself.
The life the Kesslers were building for themselves came apart after he contracted Lyme disease and was no longer able to work. Worse yet, it took a long time for Kessler to receive an accurate diagnosis.
Kessler prayed for answers, at one point spending the night outside praying until dawn and reading the book of Job "because I felt like I was afflicted, too."
"I did not get an answer to my prayers," he said.
But Kessler, who was raised in the Jewish faith and is a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said his young family made a pact that no matter what happened, they would continue to be faithful and feel confident that their fate was God's will.
Eventually, Kessler was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which is spread through the bites of infected blacklegged ticks. If untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, the heart and nervous system. Most cases can be treated successfully with long courses of antibiotics.
While Kessler underwent lengthy courses of antibiotics, his wife went back to teaching music in schools. Eventually they lost their house to foreclosure.
One rainy day, while reading the Book of Mormon, Kessler happened upon a verse he had never noticed before, Alma 10:27.
It says, "And now behold, I say unto you, that the foundation of the destruction of this people is beginning to be laid by the unrighteousness of your lawyers and your judges."
"I'll never forget it because it changed my life," he said.
It was an epiphany for Kessler, who told his wife he knew what he needed to do: become a lawyer.
Jane supported his plan but she explained that people who go to law school need an undergraduate degree. Kessler, then in his mid-30s, had never attended college. No one in is family had.
He enrolled at Temple University and studied there for about 1½ years. He later completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Utah after his family moved Utah to be closer to his wife's family. The move would allow Jane to eventually pursue one of her dreams, singing with the Tabernacle Choir.
Kessler, who said he "barely graduated from high school," made the dean's list every term.
After college graduation, Kessler attended law school at Creighton University in Omaha as its "first Jewish Mormon" to attend the Jesuit university's law school.
"It goes to show the Lord can make more out of us than we can ever make out of ourselves," he said.
After graduation, the Kesslers returned to Utah.
After working for a small firm, he established his own general law practice, describing himself in a previous interview as "a ham and eggs guy."
That varied background serves him well in his volunteer capacity because he never knows what sort of legal questions he may encounter. Kessler said he is grateful for his legal education because he has tools to help people who might not otherwise have access to legal advice.
"I remember back when people were kind to me when I was down," he said.
"But for the grace of God go I."
It helps, too, that earlier in life Kessler was a high school graduate who made a living with his hands. It helps people relate to him better, he said.
After he got sick "for a little while we were homeless. We didn't live in a homeless shelter but we got from Pennsylvania to Utah. Finally, we got a little apartment. We were grateful they didn't check our credit at that time. That was in 1993, I believe."
Most people are grateful for his help, but there are occasions he has to give people advice they don't want to hear.
One man got so upset he threatened him at the homeless resource center and then traveled to Kessler's private law offices and threatened him there.
"He ended up in prison. When he was in prison, he for asked me to represent him," Kessler said, softly laughing.
Some may have quit at that point, but Kessler said he believes he should use his legal education to serve others.
Kessler said he also wants to serve a mission because his church service has blessed his life.
"It has been incredible. I never would have thought growing up that I would be doing weddings, I'd be marrying people, speaking at funerals. While I've been serving here, I've also been serving five years as a bishop and now eight years as a stake president."
When he's released from that calling, he and his wife will apply to be service missionaries.
Until that time comes, he has a standing appointment every Thursday afternoon.
Each month, the state Bar Journal publishes a list of attorneys who volunteer at various legal clinics around the state.
He said people should write stories about them, too, because there is an acute need for legal advice and representation in Utah.1 comment on this story
While most people enter law school fully intending to better their communities and serve others, real-world responsibilities get in the way as people work to pay off law school loans, fulfill their work responsibilities and support their families.
"Being an attorney is a real blessing in that I've been able to serve. That's how I look at it," he said.
Melville marvels at Kessler's "staying power" as a volunteer.
"He saw the vision early on and the need. As long as there's a need, he's been coming. There's always a need for it," Melville said.
"It's been a really good ride," Kessler said.