[Podcast] Getting to Know JAMS Panelist Kim Keenan
We recently spoke with one of our new JAMS neutrals, Kim M. Keenan, Esq., about how she decided to pursue a career in the legal field; the influences and roles that have guided her; her thoughts on diversity, inclusion and equity; and her passion for advocating for people and making a difference in their lives.
Interviewer: Hi Kim, good afternoon thank you for joining us.
Kim: My pleasure!
Interviewer: Thank you for taking the time to meet with us, and we're excited about getting to know you a little bit more! So why don’t we get started with your background. I really enjoyed reading about your background but I was wondering if you could give us a little insight into your career prior to joining JAMS?
Kim: Sure, so I came to Washington from Buffalo, New York and went to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and fell in love with Washington, all things Washington and never went back. I graduated and then took a year off. I worked for AT&T, it was the largest company in the universe at that time, and I worked with literally their computer network which was the backbone of the company at that time and it was a really great experience. I had already applied to law school and really wanted to go and I got accepted. I went to the University of Virginia and went there for 3 years for law school which was a really amazing experience. After I finished I clerked in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia for the Honorable John Garrett Penn and it really was a whole new education to work for a federal judge and to really see justice in action, so I treasure that experience. He has since passed away, but his family and I are very much in touch and it is very much a part of who I have become as a lawyer. He was just such a patience and thoughtful jurist, and now that I’m remembering, he really took his time. He was always very thoughtful about settlement. You know you hear about judges who pressure you to go settle that case, but now that I think about it when you think about the roots of how you became interested, I must of had this memory of him really trying to settle some tough cases. He understood that clients only have one case and to get a great result it requires real thought and energy on their case, so it was very interesting. It’s the same for both parties so I clerked for 2 years and then after that joined what was the largest law firm in the country, it was the previous Finley Kumble Wagner something. It had a very long long firm name and was the largest national law firm in Washington, D.C. It was like a television show, you got to see all the good, the bad and the ugly of working in a law firm, but it was the best training of my lifetime and so many of the lawyers that I have contact with all over the country really; were lawyers at this firm. I mean it’s so amazing now when I really think about how many lawyers it really was. We literally had over 200 lawyers in Washington alone and it had sometimes three firms in a city and I got to meet all kinds of lawyers and I got to learn a lot about what makes a good lawyer. I then left that firm and joined a boutique firm Jack H. Olender & Associate and I got really some of the best training of my lifetime. It would be like someone who’s brilliant gave you one on one training. I mean we did trial together, we did depositions together and I was left with what a burden and an honor it is to represent someone because you're caring for their case. For them it is everything, so you have to treat it as though it is everything and I love that. Of course at that firm we had lawyers who specialized in pretty much every aspect of trial, whether it was trial, you know actual trial or depositions or mediation we had a little bit of everything. So I did that for many many many years, so I was a trial lawyer I would say for a good 20 years, and then after that I decided I wanted to do something different. I had my own firm for several years that was wonderful. It’s one thing to work in a firm, but it’s another thing to have everything you get as business to be something that you brought in and you took it from soup to nuts and that was another kind of experience. I learned that I was doing so many things for individuals and I really wanted to turn my effort to doing something for bigger groups of people. I was recruited to apply for General Counsel of the NAACP. In addition to my trial work that I had been doing, I had been doing a lot for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, that I had helped co-founded. It was a group of people not just me, but a group of people who founded the Equal Rights center so I was always involved in employee discrimination and housing discrimination and disability rights. So I had been doing all this work and I had been doing it with so many civil rights organizations that when the time came they were looking around like who is this Kim Keenan, and all of the civil rights leaders were like, “well we want Kim” because we’ve worked with her and I was hired. I worked there for four years and it was a dream job, it was one of those things where when you want to become a lawyer when you grow up what will I do? Well, you could do this. I filed voting rights cases and you know again when you’re General Counsel you authorize all of the lawsuits for the NAACP coast to coast so I personally didn’t walk into court, but I did authorize you know countless voting rights cases, some housing rights cases a first amendment case, and then of course you are responsible for all of the legal work of the entity that is the NAACP. It's a pack, it’s a foundation, it’s a television show, it’s a magazine, it’s so many things that you don’t really think about but it is the granddaddy of being a General Counsel because you really have to know everything in general! I really enjoyed that experience. I am very proud of my time that I had there and the people that I worked with will always give me a warm fuzzy feeling. Afterwards I led a not for profit that focused on telecommunications and focused on getting broadband into every home because I think that tech is one of the next areas where civil rights will be super important because we just can’t leave people behind. So I did that for three years and then after I left there I had the opportunity to become co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance which is something that I still devote time to. It’s a super important organization because every American should have broadband. Perfect example especially now, you think about during this time of Covid if you have kids and they can’t get online. You know it’s one thing to not go to school because you can’t but it’s another thing to be missing out on the opportunity to learn sitting at your home, by having a virtual experience of a virtual classroom. We would be surprised that here in America one of the greatest countries in the world, every child does not have access. It’s not every child you know, some kids in urban areas or some kids in rural areas there really are no parts of the United States where all kids have that opportunity. I really am committed to that. It’s something that I feel is extraordinarily important. I write about it, I blog, I speak about it, whenever I can. I partner with students and teachers to really get the word out that we have to create a policy that really makes that a reality, because the pain to our society of not having a generation that will be a part of this technological revolution is as similar to being in a society that is segregated. You are left, left behind and this is an opportunity for people to have really a level playing field to learn and I just don’t think there’s anyone that is against that. I also had the opportunity to work for a company called Odyssey Media. Odyssey Media is a strategic branding and marketing company that focus on multicultural women, focuses on training, and skill building and you know helping them to navigate the corporate world or navigate being an entrepreneur and it’s really been an amazing journey to see how women in the workplace have different challenges, but they also have different opportunities. I conquered those valleys and I’ve done corporate work now, I’ve defended, I’ve prosecuted cases; civil cases and one of the things that I came to love along the way was mediation. You know I’ve mediated in local court in D.C. and federal court in D.C. and I’ve got that amazing training that they get and I have even in private practice spent time mediating. So that kind of brought me to this day, where I thought, “You know what, even at my job. Even when I was at Odyssey Media, people will laugh and always say, well you know Kim was always mediating. I would say well, you want this, but why do you want this? You want that, but what can we do to make this a little more like what they are talking about? We were able to get a lot of creative things done during my time there. It’s the fun of being a lawyer. You know everybody has a sweet spot about being a lawyer and I do think that my special skill, if you will, is that I like to bring people together. I've been bar president a number of times in my career and a lot of that is because I don't go into things with preconceived notions about how they should come out. I have some idea of what will be good, but I’m so open to hearing the input from people that were are usually able to create something bigger and better than what we started with. So you know you start thinking you’re doing that enough you’re “I need to be at JAMS”. It was definitely a lovefest to come to JAMS, people that I admire; Linda Singer, you know people who’d done the training forever and I've got to participate in some of those, so it really is just like the perfect storm.
Interviewer: Well, we are thrilled to have you, and I just learned something new. I didn’t know that you were a part of Linda’s training.
Kim: Oh yes, I’m positive that she was in charge of those training’s. Certainly in federal court. She did them with her partner, they did them together. I was one of the early groups that came, certainly not first but certainly one of the ones groups that came later. I knew how important it was to get that training because it was so exceptional.
Interviewer: Well now that you are here with JAMS, and you have such a broad background are there any particular case type or practice areas that you would really love to delve into. I couldn’t help but take note of your quick use of the word TV show when you were describing a previous role. Does this mean you have Entertainment experience? What cases excite you?
Kim: You are absolutely right, I’ve done a lot of different things. Yes, I’ve actually executive produced. I’ve done the agreements deals for the production companies. I’ve done deals for the networks, and I have done talent contracts, at a few of my jobs now. Then of course I’ve had my own talent contract once long ago. I did a show called the Power of Attorney, so I got to see it from both sides which was very colorful and I loved that but again a lot of my expertise is in litigation. I’ve pretty much deposed any kind of expert there is. From every medical specialty you can think of and some I can tell you about that you didn't know about. I’ve deposed architects, artists and CEO’s. I mean it really doesn’t matter, I think in my career I’ve probably taken thousands and thousands of depositions, sometimes in a single year. Any kind of litigation really appeals to me. I love things that involve contracts because I’ve done so many over the years. You know at the NAACP, we probably looked at several hundred contracts a month, and that was month in and month out. From hotels, there were a lot of those kinds of agreements, but also I’ve done Torts. Medical Malpractice, Personal Injury, Trucking, pretty much the whole bread and butter of the Torts litigation. At the NAACP I spent a lot of time on employment discrimination, and of course when I was head of the employment rights center in D.C. thinking through what kinds of lawsuits you could find to create a world where people have equal opportunities in employment. I you know have to start thinking “WOW, when were you doing all of this”? But these are the areas that fascinate me, you know they're like puzzles. You’re really trying to find an answer that resolves the issues that face two parties or three parties or five parties as they try to reach a resolution.
Interviewer: I’m curious, I always like to know what sends somebody in the direction of law school. Where did you know you wanted to go into law? What was your influence?
Kim: So when I was younger, my mom. She is by trade was a social worker and she was always talking about going to court and you know the lawyers, and it was always the lawyers that help people, the lawyers make a difference and so you grow up with this mantra of lawyers make difference, and lawyers help people. I think more than I know my mother is like the voice in my head. You know you wake up one day and that’s the voice in your head. It turns out you actually develop a passion for it. I always loved to debate, I loved oratory and I get to law school and what’s my favorite class. Trial! Trial education, it was a revelation about how to put all of these things together and go into a courtroom and advocate for people. Ever since grammar school I’ve always wanted to go to law school. Writing and advocating for people has really been at the top of my list of things that create joy for me. I’ve had the opportunity to represent so many different kinds of people, I love meeting lots of new people, new cultures, new..just new! I like having that opportunity to not always see the same people. You want to really broaden your horizons and have people who enrich your skillset because you’re exposed to them, so it’s been something that I’ve always wanted to do and I think what’s so great as I look back on it is that I’ve really had an opportunity to do the things that I love. That I wasn’t just, that I didn’t just become a lawyer. I became a lawyer that did a lot of things that if you had said to me as a little girl, “Well, what will you do? I would have said, “I’ll help people. I’ll make a difference”. You know it sounds a little like a slogan, but the truth is I’ve really had the opportunity to help people and make a difference and that makes the world to me. You know if you want to do this, I always tell people if you want to be a lawyer...do it! There’s always room for good people, always room. I don’t care how many people they say there are, how full this is or that, the reality is if you’re good and you want to do this, then this is the thing for you.
Interviewer: Well one thing that is not full in the world of ADR is diversity. We all know the need to diversify in our industry and I wondered what your thoughts are? Why is that so important that we get that done?
Kim: Well you know it takes all different kinds of people to create the matters that we resolve and I think it takes all kinds of people to resolve the matters. I mean just as no two resolutions will be identical, all the people who are neutral and who resolve the issues should not be cookie cutter or in the same box. I think it’s very important to have different voices participate. You know the skill set is not a science, it’s a bit of an art, and so I think it takes all kinds of different painters to get it done and I’m excited to be a diverse voice as a neutral because I think I will bring a richness to that process. It doesn't mean that I won’t have the same technics or I won’t pressure people to really know what their position is, it just simple means that I will bring a different set of values maybe and ideas in a way of helping them to resolve it. But you know we live in a diverse country, we live in a different world. We live in a place where everybody is different. People are different even when they don’t look different, and so having neutrals who reflect that reality gives people a voice. “I can pick someone that looks like me or maybe who doesn’t look like me but might understand what I’m going through.” I think ultimately I have represented clients so diverse that is would be difficult to explain on a spectrum, but let me tell you this. When you handle their matter like it’s the most important thing and when you are there to make a difference in their outcome! I never had a client at the end of a representation, look at me and say you don’t look like any of the lawyers I’ve seen. If anything they get adjusted and they are like “That’s my lawyer”. I can’t tell you how many times I remember being at the NAACP and I would go places in the country where people didn’t realize that the General Counsel was a woman and they were surprised. I think when they heard me and when they saw me talk about the issues then it became “That’s my lawyer”. Not “That’s my black women lawyer”, but that’s my lawyer and I think at the end of the day having different voices, but voices that are clear on the issue and voices that are focused on the results, it just makes us all better, it just makes us all better.
Interviewer: You are so accomplished, and such a successful women that I bet whether you knew it or not, you have influenced a number of women to go into the law, and if a young associate, especially a young black associate came to you right now and they were really struggling..you know first two years in the firm and they’re asking themselves, “Did I make the right choice?”, what would you say to them?
Kim: The best advice I ever got was if you don’t have a plan, you’re part of someone else’s plan, and you know whether it’s a party going into a mediation or going into an arbitration or whether you are a second year associate or whether you’re up for partner or whether you are a partner. If you don’t have a plan then someone else has already figured out what they want you to be doing, and you have to decide if that is what you want to be doing. I think sometimes when you are an associate you get lost in the grind of it, you know I have to do this assignment and then I got to get another one. Whereas people who are successful think about the big picture, is this what I want to do with my time? Is this how I want to use my time? Is this how successful people use their time? If you want to be the rain making partner and you’re sitting in your office all day, you already know you’re not going to be the rain making partner. I remember when I started being able to get business and find business and give other people business, you know it was because I was looking at people and saying what do they do? What do the successful people do? I try to emulate that, you know success doesn't have a color. Success is a person who is dedicated to their craft and if you study them and don’t imitate them, I’m never trying to be someone else, but I am trying to take the qualities that help make them successful and mirror them in my own self. I think that’s been really successful for me, I love that advice, I give that advice, I take that advice, I still remind myself of that advice. You always have to have a plan.
Interviewer: I love that! Well now comes the fun part of the interview. These are questions where we try to figure out a little bit more about you, so I was wondering if you could tell us something fun about youself, that even those people that worked closely with you in the past would be surprised to hear.
Kim: Okay, um! Alright, I have taken race car driving lessons. I love to drive, you know anyone who knows me will probably tell you that I’ve driven almost from coast to coast, east to west. I’ve definitely driven from North to South, but I love cars. I mean this is what happens when your father worked for General Motors. You grow up with a sense that you know generous motors, you love cars! I drove a stock car, I drove those, they’re not go-karts, but they look like little Formula 1 cars and you drive them around the track and I loved it! It was exhilarating and I loved the speed. Imagine being able to speed and not worry about how fast you’re going. I love having the lessons and learning the art of it. Not just getting in a car and punching the gas, but really understanding how driving impacts the car, the techniques to slow down quickly. You know really how to control this machine with all this horsepower. I loved that, I did that and I think that is something that people would imagine I would do for fun but it is a treasured activity!
Interviewer: You just put the fun in that question! I love it!
Kim: Oh good, I wanted that to be a fun answer, so yeah that's fun!
Interviewer: Okay, how about if you could wave a magic wand and you could have dinner with any person throughout history, any time, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Kim: Well because you asked me that question that way I’m going to tell you a story. When I worked at the NAACP I told people when I would literally be sitting at a desk that literally looked like it could have been Thurgood Marshall's desk because that’s how old it was. I would sit there every day and people would come in and literally ask me to resolve all, resolve all inequities in the universe. I mean people would walk in and be like we want you to fix it today, and I remember one day I said to somebody well, I’ve ordered my magic wand, and it had rubies and diamonds, it’s encrusted in gold and when it gets here I will use it. Until then I must use the old fashion way of resolving these problems, and it’s going to take a minute. I started reading about Thurgood Marshall because I kept thinking gosh, are these problems so different now than they were back then? I remembered reading that he always faced this challenge of he was going too slow or he was going too fast like everybody thought he did things too slow, and I was getting that. You’re not doing enough or you did too much on that, but not enough on this and I remember thinking I would have loved to have the opportunity to sit and talk with him and get his perspective. Certainly reading the books about him, lets me know that a lot of the challenges he faced are still there and the goal is to just keep pushing the ball forward, and if it doesn’t roll back over you, you’ve done a great job! So I would pick him and that’s why because I sat and I did get to talk to some of the other amazing General Counsel of the NAACP which was itself a history lesson, but he’s certainly the one that I did not get to talk too and would have loved to have had his insights over time.
Interviewer: I wish I could give you that magic wand, especially with the jewels!
Kim: Yes, yes I ordered it. I ordered it but it has not arrived from the universe yet so I think that’s a sign that we should just keep on pushing without it.
Interviewer: Well how’s your bucket list? We all have secret bucket lists. Can you think of something from yours? Can you tell us maybe one thing from your list that you’ve already done and one that you would still like to do?
Kim: I love to travel, you know a lot of my jobs have required extreme travel. You work for the NAACP, you probably travel by plane once a week. Sometimes more, I’ve been to big cities and small cities. Sometimes you only know what city you are in by the sign in the airport. I’ve been on small planes and crop dusters and big jets and sometimes you go all over the world. Yes, I do have a list of countries that I want to go to. One of the ones on my list that’s sort of not expected was Greece. I did get to go to Greece. I would say it’s been about six years now. Long before the way the world is now. It was great people there though most had never seen people that looked like me, and I got to really see the ruins and talk to people and eat the food. I love just seeing new cultures and meeting people that you would not expect to meet. I think that we all have humanity and it’s important that we stretch ourselves and sort of not be stuck with just the five people we met when we were born but really try to connect with people, and it turns out that I really believe that if you work hard enough we will find the connection because we really are more connected than not. So I loved it there, I loved the people, got lost and they had to help us find out way back. I actually went twice. I went once on cruise and then another time I flew there, but each time it was really really amazing. So in tandem with that on my list of things to do is to learn Spanish. I took French in college and of course I have no one to speak to everyday. I wouldn't say that in too many places, but in school of Foreign services you had to take a language to graduate. So I would say today what I would like to do if I had the time and space is to learn Spanish. I remember going to Cancun once and I met this gentleman on the beach and he said I learned to speak English watching TV, so you should be able to learn Spanish! I started laughing and said you got a point there, so I added that to my bucket list because he was right. If he, clearly he didn’t have a third of the education that I had and he could manage to learn it from television and he was good. It was not you know Spanglish, it was English and he really was proficient and I thought to myself well if he can do that then I should be able too!
Interviewer: Well good luck! Maybe since our last question is dealing with this seemingly never ending pandemic, what are you doing to keep your sanity?
Kim: You know, it is really important to have a sense of what keeps you whole and for me everything is mind, body, and spirit! If one of those is out of whack, then what I do is out of whack. I find that if I take long periods and don’t exercise and I took four years off when I worked for the NAACP and I’m still catching up with it. You know if you take time off from that then you are taking time off from you, so the pandemic is really the challenge of remembering that and living that. I try to meditate more now than I did before because it really is about being centered and not letting so much stress in. I’ve also tried to really make sure that I exercise at least once a day. Some days I’m not as successful, but I am truly truly leaning into that because I think that you know this is a time that no one ever expected, but we have to take what we’ve been given and do our best and to make the most of it. So we have to stay safe, we have to do our best, you know really when you say stay safe what people have to realize that you really mean I choose to stay safe so that I can keep other people safe. I don't want to get it and recover, but I’ve given it to someone who can’t recover. I think that’s the thing we are always trying to find a way to be safe, but at the same time really use this time to reach inward and be able to accept the benefits. You know that benefits are more time with your family, more quality time, less time with things that are more frivolous, you made time for it before but now it just seems silly. It just seems silly to be doing some of the things that you were doing when there is such a bigger call knocking at your door, but you know if we could lean into the things that we can take out of this that are good and focus on really trying to be safe so that others have the opportunity to come out of this with us. I think that when we can look back on this and say this was horrible, how do we prepare, how do we make sure this never happens again, but how do we bring as many people out of this with us as possible.
Interviewer: Well said. Kim I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to speak with us today. Thank you so much.
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