A Great Opportunity to Be of Service: An Interview with ABA President Karen J. Mathis
Marguerite L. Carr is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and an assistant district attorney in Farmington, New Mexico.
Karen J. Mathis of Denver, Colorado, became President of the American Bar Association at the Association’s 2006 Annual Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. During her distinguished career she has served the ABA as Chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession, as Chair of the ABA House of Delegates, and as Chair of the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section (now Division). She is a partner in the Denver office of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, where she concentrates her practice in commercial and business law.
A past Speaker of the ABA YLD Assembly, Ms. Mathis graciously took time from her busy schedule to share her thoughts about leadership, service, and her year as ABA President with The Affiliate .
The Affiliate : How did you start off your law career?
Mathis: In 1975, I graduated from the University of Colorado Law School and went to work at KPMG (then Peat Marwick) as the first woman hired directly into the Denver Tax Department. I wanted to learn tax, and I did. I left two years later to practice law in a small firm with an incredible mentor, Sandra Rothenberg, who has been a Colorado Court of Appeals judge since 1987. The truth is that I’ve always been drawn to serving other people and first thought I’d be a school teacher or a nun. But the law was the perfect outlet for those hopes. The legal profession is rooted in serving the common good—most of us believe that service is an essential part of our calling as lawyers. When we serve, we acknowledge that we are part of the greater whole, and we become more productive members of society.
The Affiliate : When did you first become involved in the ABA?
Mathis: In 1978 I served as Chair of the Denver Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section. In that capacity I attended an AOP conference in Las Vegas. I was hooked! I learned as a kid that I could stand on the sidelines, watching others play ball, or get out on the court and join them. So, I’ve always been someone who wants to get involved. I’ve been an active member of the ABA for almost thirty years. The opportunities have helped me become a better lawyer, and a better person.
The Affiliate : How did you progress through the Young Lawyers Division?
Mathis: I served on a number of committees, including YLD liaison to the American Bar Association Committee on Membership, as a director, the Clerk, and then Speaker of the Assembly. Then I aged out! But my time in Young Lawyers remains a big part of who I am as a lawyer. I made some extraordinary friendships in YLD, and many of those friendships are still going strong today.
The Affiliate : When did you decide you wanted to serve as president of the ABA?
Mathis: Perhaps others decide ten years before they are elected that they want to be ABA President, but that wasn’t the case for me. I just wanted to do the jobs I had well—chair of membership, chair of the Commission on Women, an officer in GP|Solo. It wasn’t until I served as Chair of the House of Delegates that I seriously considered a run for the Presidency. The ABA and the organized bar have been such a rich part of my experience as a lawyer that it seemed like a great opportunity to be of service.
The Affiliate : Have mentors been an important part of your ascension through the ABA ranks?
Mathis: Absolutely. It’s dangerous to name some, and forget to mention others. However, Jerry Shestack, Martha Barnett, and John Krsul come to mind immediately. I have never been a big fan of the word “I.” Almost everything of value benefits from collaboration. Even now, as ABA President, it’s important to draw on the wisdom and experience of others. Probably the most important thing any young lawyer can do is to find lawyers with greater seasoning and experience, to help guide them through the early stages of their careers.
The Affiliate : Do you have any advice for young lawyers who aspire to become ABA President?
Mathis: Sleep a lot before you begin your President-Elect year!
The Affiliate : Why should a young lawyer join the ABA as opposed to another entity?
Mathis: It’s not either/or, it should be both! All bars provide useful service, because they help us remember and uphold the values that caused us to become lawyers in the first place. They also give us the tools to keep learning the law and practice at our highest level. Only when a person rolls up her sleeves and gets involved can she change things. So it’s important that all ABA members get involved, if not at the national level, then with their local or state bars. But I do believe that the ABA holds a special place. It is the largest volunteer professional organization in the world, it represents every conceivable specialty among lawyers, and it truly is the voice of the legal profession.
The Affiliate : What is your theme or themes for the year?
Mathis: “Service” is the theme for this bar year. When we think back, what originally attracted many of us to the practice of law was the desire to do good.
We serve because it is our nature. Service is the guiding principle behind what we do from the bar and from the bench.
This is a complicated time in America, and a complex time in the lives of lawyers. But whether we prosecute or defend, draft legislation, or help clients comply with it, we serve the legal system, and through it, our country. Our training and work prepares us to serve others.
The American Bar Association prepares us, too. The desire to serve the profession is what brought many of us to the ABA: we recognized that membership in the Association offered an ideal way to improve the legal profession and our country’s justice system.
The Affiliate : Do you have specific plans for how to implement them?
Mathis: This year, we are recognizing and supporting, encouraging and building on the Association’s tradition of service. The ABA is reaching out to both ends of our nation’s age continuum through two exciting initiatives: Youth at Risk and Second Season of Service.
America ’s youth is our most important asset—our future is in their hands. Yet many young people face problems that are getting wider, deeper, and more complex. We see this in the growth of girl gangs and the dramatic rise of adolescent girls in the juvenile justice system, in foster children released to the streets at age eighteen with little preparation for life, in the failure of courts and schools to assist “status offenders,” such as truant students and difficult-to-parent children. As lawyers, we can use our unique skills and vantage point to play a new role in helping our nation’s most at-risk youth. The ABA can “connect the dots,” by facilitating schools, doctors, police, courts, foster care providers, youth serving organizations, and government agencies in their efforts to work collectively. We can work with policymakers to change the law. We can work with courts to help youngsters before their lives slip hopelessly off course.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the legal profession in the United States is facing a massive movement of lawyers who will be leaving the full-time, active practice of law: as many as 400,000 over the next ten to fifteen years. Lawyers departing from full-time practice are entering a Second Season of Service. Our communities still need us as we leave full-time practice, and baby boomer lawyers represent a potent combination of talent and available time. If each retiring lawyer gives fifty hours of volunteer service, one work week for a typical lawyer, we will have a 2 million hour resource for good each year! The ABA is uniquely able to assist in this transition, and we will bring all of our resources to channel this talented group’s attention back into the communities that need it.
Finally, helping build comprehensive capacities and infrastructure for systems of justice is among the ABA’s most important goals. Convening policy leaders and expert legal professionals to work collaboratively to create and employ rule of law initiatives is a particular priority for this year. In September, the ABA hosted an invitation-only Presidential Conference on the rule of law, co-sponsored by the International Bar Association. Working groups from that two-day session will reconvene in New York City in 2007 at the ABA International Law Section’s U.N. Day, and we plan to have a legislative program to present to the ABA House of Delegates in August 2007.
The Affiliate : What can we as young lawyers do to help you fulfill your goals for the year?
The YLD has a well-deserved reputation for service and volunteer work. The “Youth at Risk Initiative,” especially, can use the effort of young lawyers willing to get involved to help the next generation. A starting point would be to go to the Youth at Risk Commission webpage at www.abanet.org/initiatives/youthatrisk
And, of course, YLD members should vigorously take part in the Division’s own program, Choose Law: A Profession for All.
This outstanding public service project, which is targeting high school students of color, is described at www.abanet.org/media/issues/chooselaw06.html
The Affiliate : Will the ABA be partnering with other national organizations to implement your projects?
Mathis: The ABA has already begun partnering with several youth organizations, most notably the Girl Scouts of America and the Boys & Girls Club of America. These partnerships are one of the most exciting parts of the “Youth at Risk Initiative.” With the Girl Scouts, we already have begun doing pilot units with different Girl Scout troops, in which lawyer volunteers give young girls skills in violence prevention and teach them about careers in the legal field. It’s so important to give young people hope and options, and our goal, after the piloting stage is over, is to make this a national program.
The Affiliate : What do you envision has been your greatest challenge so far during your Presidency?
Mathis: Finding more than 24 hours a day—there’s lots of work and never enough time.
The Affiliate : If you could see any performer in concert, who would it be?
The Affiliate : Did you have a childhood hero growing up?
Mathis: I had a lot of good guidance. I grew up as an Army brat, from a family with four generations of military service, and attended thirteen different schools before finally graduating high school in Colorado Springs. Everywhere we lived, family came first, and so did a sense of duty. I attended Catholic elementary and junior high schools. Before the age of feminism officially began, the nuns gave me a daily example of strong leadership and commitment to service. In many ways, the nuns were my heroes.
My mother also taught me to reach high. There’s a joke in my family that as a kid my mother told me, “You argue so much, you ought to be a lawyer.” She even called me “KJ,” because she said people wouldn’t know if I was a woman or man, which would make it easier to be a professional!
The Affiliate : You were a managing partner in your own small law firm. Any advice for young lawyers who have thought of going that same route?
Mathis: Law is a profession, never forget that. You have to pay your bills and care for your employees or partners, but the clients always come first.
The Affiliate : Were you given any advice as a young lawyer that you reflect back on now and say “that’s the best advice I ever received?”
Mathis: I’ve received a lot of great advice along the way, but some of the people closest to me have taught me that success is a total package. We need to balance a successful career with a successful life.
My friend, Steve Keeva, says, “Don’t neglect your inner life just because law practice is so demanding, especially when cultivating a vibrant inner life can make it easier to handle the demands, while noticing opportunities for personal growth along the way.”
Mary Mocine, a lawyer and spiritualist, believes that: “Being kind in an adversary system can be an act of courage. As zealous advocates we may pay a high price in terms of stress, personal relationships, and ultimately professional success if we submit to the temptation to forget our common humanity.”
Or as a law partner of mine, a litigator, says, “I want to be the nicest lawyer who ever beat you.”
I think these are some of the keys to happiness as a lawyer: Choose the right employers, and stay with them; set clear goals and manage your expectations; find influential mentors and be a mentor; network, network, network; build an external reputation, but be well rounded.
Finally, be proud of our profession, and always do our profession proud.