By Noha Sidhom • May 25, 2009•Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them
Bio for this week's Superwoman JD: Kim Keenan, is a native of Buffalo, New York. She is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and the University of Virginia School of Law and a former member of the University of Virginia Law Alumni Council. After law school, she served as the law clerk to the Honorable John Garrett Penn in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. She is currently the principal of the Keenan Firm in Washington, D.C. where her practice has focused on complex medical malpractice litigation and litigation consulting. Prior to that she served in the litigation practices of two nationally recognized law firms for more than eighteen years. She was recently honored as a Washington, D.C. Super Lawyer and one of the Top 50 Women Washington, D.C. Super Lawyers by Law & Politics Magazine and a Top Lawyer by Washingtonian Magazine. In May 2007 the Women’s Bar Association named her “Woman Lawyer of the Year” for her contributions to the profession.
Her career demonstrates a strong commitment to important issues affecting women and people of color, public service, and improving the legal profession. Ms. Keenan served as the sixty-second President of the National Bar Association (NBA), the oldest and largest bar association of lawyers of color in the world with a network of more than 50,000 lawyers, judges, and law students. She is the first woman from the District of Columbia to be elected to this position and only the eighth woman in the organization’s eighty-two year history to serve in the NBA’s highest elected office. During her tenure as President, the NBA deployed thousands of lawyers throughout the nation to educate voters regarding new voting laws. The Maryland Bar Foundation awarded her their Professional Legal Excellence Award for her national effort to provide nonpartisan voter education. She is also a Past President of the Washington Bar Association, one of the oldest and largest affiliates of the NBA which was founded in the same year of the NBA. She is only the third woman president of the Washington Bar Association and during her tenure was the Founding President of the Washington Bar Association Legal Fund, a nonprofit foundation which provides scholarships to students pursuing legal education.
Ms. Keenan is highly active in the District of Columbia community. In December 2008 she was nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by the District of Columbia City Council to the Board of Trustees of the University of District of Columbia. She also serves on the Board of Governors of the District of Columbia Bar Association. Since 2002, Ms. Keenan has chaired the District of Columbia Bar’s Landlord -Tenant Implementation Committee, which received the Frederick B. Abramson Award for superior service to the legal profession in June 2004. She is a member of the Women’s Bar Association and served as a speaker for the Women’s Bar Association’s groundbreaking initiative Creating Pathways to Success, which focused on the advancement and retention of women in the legal profession. In 2006, Ms. Keenan was recognized by Girls Inc. for her work in law, policy, and as a mentor to women. She received the Distinguished Black Woman Award from Black Women In Sisterhood for Action (BISA) for her public service. She has served as Treasurer of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, the largest voluntary bar in the District of Columbia and is the first African-American woman to serve in this position. She is a member of the Leadership Metropolitan Washington Class of 2000 and was elected a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation in 2001 in recognition of her professional attainment and distinguished service. Ms. Keenan has received numerous other awards for her community service activities including recognition from the National Bar Association, the Washington Bar Association, The Bar Association of the District of Columbia, the National Association of Black Women Attorneys, and the Louisiana and Virginia State Conferences of the NAACP. She received the Washington Metropolitan Top Forty Under Forty Award in 2000. In December 2002, the Young Lawyers Section of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia honored her with the first Annice M. Wagner Pioneer Award, named for the then Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
Ms. Keenan uses teaching as an opportunity to mentor young professionals. She serves on the Senior Adjunct Faculty of George Washington University Law Center where she co-teaches Pretrial Advocacy and Trial Advocacy. In 2007, she was selected to teach on the faculty of the National Trial College for the University of Virginia School of Law. For the past ten years, she has been the Civil Procedure Lecturer for the Charles Hamilton Houston Law Preparatory Course at Georgetown University Law Center. She is a nationally recognized lecturer on various legal topics and has spoken to numerous organizations including the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now known as the American Association for Justice), the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Maryland State Bar Conference of Bar Presidents.
Ms. Keenan was as a regularly featured “attorney” on the first season of Fox’s “Power of Attorney” television show. She has been a commentator for Fox News and has appeared on Fox’s legal program “Dayside.” In July 2003, she served as a Guest Host on CNN’s Sunday Morning Legal Show “Attorney-At-Law.” She has also appeared on C-SPAN, Court TV, and numerous radio programs.
Ms. Keenan’s commitment to the community extends beyond the legal profession. She is the appointed Chair of the American Lung Association’s (ALA) national Diversity Committee and is a member of its National Assembly. She has spoken by invitation to the National ALA board and provided diversity training to its national staff as well as a national law firm. She was the first African-American elected to serve as President of the District of Columbia Rape Crisis Center, one of the nation’s largest resource centers for survivors of sexual assault. She currently serves on the boards of the Equal Rights Center (Founding Member & First Vice President), the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Regional Vice Chair) and the District of Columbia Chapter of the American Lung Association (Secretary). Additionally, she serves on the advisory board of Posh Communications, a private marketing and communications company where she is a contributing legal editor for Posh’s magazine Odyssey Couleur.
1. How has being a woman affected your career or legal education?
In law school, I remember that every key legal analogy was framed in terms of a sport except when my professors were women. People still think that lawyers are men. This has changed a lot over the last two decades but some vestiges of the past still remain. Having said that, as a first generation lawyer, it was necessary for me to find my voice as a woman lawyer. If you are clear about who you are, your gender will cease to be an issue for you.
2. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started practicing law?
I wish I knew that even when you have chosen a profession you love, you will change and grow with the profession. This may mean changing paths or ebbs and flows over the course of a decades-long career.
3. What do you think the legal profession can do to increase the number of senior level females?
I think the future of the profession will lie in the recognition that productivity does not look the same for every lawyer, whether they are male or female. Once a firm creates the benchmark that senior lawyers must meet, firms will have to look at whether those needs are met not whether everyone accomplishes the goal in the same way. So lawyers who provide services in non-traditional ways will be recognized for accomplishing the same goals. I know women who can do more in six hours than they can in ten if they know that their children will be picked up from school on time.
4. Being a first year attorney anywhere is tough. How do you think young attorneys can really hone their skills in their first few years?
The best way for a young attorney to hone their skills is to take positions that will allow them to develop the skills needed for their goal positions. If you want to try cases, look for positions that focus on trying cases like Asst. United States Attorneys or Public Defenders. If you are working in a firm, emulate the skills of someone who is in the practice where you have an interest.
Once you have found an area of interest, find ways to get additional experience and volunteer for tough or non billable projects with lawyers who have the practice you envision. The goal is to learn everything you can and to demonstrate your skills at every opportunity.
5. Our profession is male dominated. How can young women balance being feminine and professional at the same time? I meet many women that simply act like one of the boys; I do not think that is the solution. Do you have any advice for handling social situations, outings with clients, etc.?
At the end of the day, you will do your best when you are yourself. It takes confidence to realize only you can be you. At the outset, you are a woman who has chosen to practice law. Acting like one of the boys will always be just that. This does not mean you cannot be assertive, aggressive, or ambitious. In any situation plot out the goal and manage any behavior that you deem inappropriate. This may take the form of talking to someone privately if they have behaved in an unacceptable manner. The issue ultimately is respect. People don’t have to like you but you must require that they respect you and this begins and ends with you.
6. There is a perception that senior female attorneys think that they had it tough and so should you. Do you think that this sentiment is true? If so, do you think there is value in figuring things out on your own like women before you had to?
This question has generational overtones. There are senior women lawyers who believe that you have to be tough to make it so they don’t hand out advice. On the other hand, there are new associates who expect that the path will be free and clear of trials and tribulations. I have seen both scenarios . Neither extreme is helpful to the profession. As a new attorney I would recommend that you demonstrate that you are prepared to face the challenges inherent in the profession. Someone is usually watching your performance and they may surprise you with valuable insights.
7. What advice do you have for young female attorneys looking for a mentor? Do you feel that there is added value in finding a female mentor? What should they be looking for in a mentor, and what can they do to make themselves someone you would want to mentor?
Everyone needs a mentor and sometimes, you need more than one. I try to have mentors from different categories. First I try to have a slightly younger mentor, they usually have mastered the latest technology and any new developments. Second, I try to have a mentor who is about five years ahead of me in their career. Finally, I like to have a “Master” mentor, someone with decades more experience. Having a mentor is like having someone who can see things you cannot see. The goal is to have someone who can outline options for you so that you can create more opportunities to reach your goals. A mentor provides insight and some guidance but at the end of the day, the choices are your own.
Finally, you should note that you a mentor is someone who either reflects where you plan to go in your career or shares your outlook on the practice of law. You cannot pick this person on the basis of a quick conversation or because you heard them give a speech. They may not look like you but you will share a connection. Mentoring is a two way process and it requires time and work to select a mentor.
8. What is your favorite thing about being a lawyer? I am sure you have a moment of achievement that made the sacrifices seem worth it. Can you tell us about a highlight in your career?
I love the lawyers’ skill set. A good lawyer writes well, analyzes information and draws appropriate conclusions, gives sound advice, advocates and persuades, negotiates effectively, and is able to change most any result. Taken individually and collectively, these skills provide me with freedom and satisfaction.
9. What are your interests/hobbies outside of the legal practice? How important do you think those interests/hobbies have been in maintaining some work life balance?
You absolutely have to cultivate interests beyond your legal practice. This insures that you will be recharged enough to meet the challenges of the profession and it promotes sanity! I love to travel. Some examples that have allowed me to escape include attending the Cannes Film Festival, cruising the Mediterranean, and participating in a professional race car course. These escapes provide me another opportunity to explore my personal goals.
10. If you could give one piece of advice to new female lawyers, what would it be?
Give everything your best effort. You never know where or when the opportunity will arise that will lead you to your professional goals. Some of the initial tasks provided to young lawyers may seem tedious, but if you can master these tasks you will be rewarded with better assignments. If that isn’t happening, then you need to volunteer for assignments that you believe would be more suited to your talents. The thing to remember is that you have to demonstrate that your exceptional skills and find ways to showcase them. Once you prove your value, you can make the determination as to whether this is how you wish to use it.
A Message from the Author: This column is a Q&A with senior level female attorneys offering advice and mentorship to young female lawyers. The questions below were sent to the interviewees and responses have not been edited for content. The advice, experiences, personalities, and approaches of these women are extremely diverse and more importantly very useful to future generations of female attorneys. I hope this column will offer helpful advice, and inspire healthy discussions. I have an exciting lineup of female leaders in the profession, but if you have someone you would like to nominate, or you yourself would like to be interviewed, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Bio for the author of the column: Noha Sidhom is a proud graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law. Before attending law school, Noha interned on Capitol Hill for the Honorable Charles Timothy Hagel and went on to campaign for Senate candidate Peter Ricketts. During law school, she clerked at Husch Blackwell Sanders, formerly Blackwell Sanders. She also did an internship at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Enforcement and an internship at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where she is now an attorney in the Office of General Counsel. Noha is licensed in New York and New Jersey, and currently resides with her husband in Washington, D.C.