Karol Corbin Walker’s faith-forward approach to life and the law began at home
Published in 2021 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine on March 23, 2021
Twice a day, Karol Corbin Walker hits pause on her business, commercial and employment litigation work to connect with people, and it has nothing to do with the deeply isolating pandemic. It’s a long-practiced, reflective pause, a daily routine each morning and evening of sharing spiritual messages, devotionals, prayers, affirmations and such with the 100 or so people across her various social groups.
“You never know what another person is going through,” Walker says. That’s why she dedicates the time to email or text family, friends and colleagues with inspirational messages. “If it doesn’t help one person, maybe it will help someone else they might know.”
Walker recently added an attorney to her text lists. She doesn’t know him well, but she knew his home life was in turmoil. There were children involved, she notes, and when they spoke during a business call, she could hear the pain in his voice. He never replied to any of her texts, but he told her niece, who was a close colleague and friend of his, that Walker’s daily messages saved his life.
“When I hear things like that, that goes to the core of who I am,” Walker says. “We’re all on this planet for a purpose, and it’s up to us to find that purpose and to use our God-given gifts. That’s what I try to do every single day.”
Paulette Brown, senior partner with Locke Lord and the first woman of color to serve as president of the American Bar Association, says Walker can be unrelenting, but in the best way. “That’s how she is. When she believes in something, she’s going to go all the way with it. If she’s in your corner, nobody’s going to talk her out of it.”
“She interacts with people with real kindness,” says Anne E. Thompson, the first Black woman federal judge in the District of New Jersey. “That’s not a word that’s used so much. I believe she knows the name of every lawyer in the state or at least in the bar association. She’s the kind of person who knows if someone has a child who’s sick or an aging parent in difficult health, and she’s making phone calls and sending notes and caring.”
“I’m not impressed by anybody’s title or what they do. I was taught we’re all God’s children and to treat everybody the same,” says Walker, who joined Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck in 2019. “I know the [building’s] cleaning woman’s name. I know the garage attendant’s name. We all have a purpose in life.”
That commitment to others began at home.
She grew up in Jersey City with the kind of childhood where neighbors looked out for neighbors.
Her mother, Jeanette, juggled a part-time job and raising a family while squeezing in a college course here and there until, after 20 years of persistence, she joined her daughter as each accepted a Bachelor’s degree with honors from New Jersey City University. Walker’s father, George, a laborer, was so determined not to miss a day at work that he would walk the several miles from their Jersey City home to Western Electric whenever inclement weather rendered the roads impassable.
Walker’s childhood home had an open-door policy. Her mom would gather hungry strangers to her kitchen table. Her dad served as a surrogate father to kids in the neighborhood who needed one. The family was active in their community, giving back not only through their church but also individually: at the homeless shelter, the food pantry, the soup kitchen.
Jeanette shared her spiritualism. Until her death in 1992, she and Walker spoke on the phone daily and made sure to recite Psalm 118:24 in unison, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Her funeral was standing room only, with mourners crowded even into the choir loft behind the altar.
“People I didn’t even know came up to me and told me she’d had an impact on them,” Walker says. “Every year, including this one, someone will say, ‘You’ll never know what your mother did for me.’ Her legacy lives. The way I was raised … that’s how I became the woman I am today.”
Walker made history in 1995 when she became the first Black woman partner at a major New Jersey law firm (Robinson St. John & Wayne, a predecessor to LeClairRyan). In 1998, she was the first Black woman appointed chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee. Five years after that, she became the first Black president of the New Jersey State Bar Association in its then-105-year history.
“One of the great honors of my life was to introduce her as the newly elected president of the New Jersey State Bar before hundreds of lawyers at the convention in Atlantic City,” says Ted Wells, a Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison partner and co-chair of its litigation department. He met Walker when he interviewed her for a summer associate position at Lowenstein Sandler in the mid ‘80s. “Karol Corbin Walker is a history-maker, and she is a force of nature.”
Wells’ and Walker’s mentor-mentee relationship has flourished over the decades. “This is not somebody who takes titles to embellish her resume or because she just likes titles,” Wells says. “She is authentic and hard-working and dedicated to the public good. She may have started as my mentee, but she has become one of my heroes.”
Walker’s father, who died of COVID last year, used to say, “Nothing in life worth having comes easy.” That message was re-enforced when Walker decided on law school.
She was working as a revenue officer at the IRS, a job she’d taken three years earlier after graduating from college. She enjoyed the work and the people, and it’s where she met husband Paul Walker. This year marks 36 years of marriage, “and he’s my best friend,” she says. She imagined herself moving up through the agency’s ranks, perhaps taking a job in the international operations office.
But she was deterred; international travel was often harrowing at the time. “In the early 1980s, they were kidnapping U.S. citizens around the world,” Walker says. Plus, a review of the federal government pay scale showed her it would be years before she reached the highest rank in her office, and even then, the salary seemed low. She went for the LSATs. Her scores were not to her liking.
“But that’s where my faith came in,” she adds.
She applied to two law schools. Only Seton Hall University School of Law was willing to take a chance. But first she had to successfully complete the Monsignor Thomas Fahy Legal Education Opportunities Institute, an intense five-week program.
“Once I was admitted, one of my professors said, ‘Karol, they opened the door for you a little bit and you just knocked it in,’” she says.
When Walker realized she could have one semester of law school paid for if she were elected president of the student government association, she ran for office. She lost, but then realized the same perk was given to the student who served as director of the spring Moot Court Board. She was the first Black student to hold that position.
“I always had a plan B,” Walker says. “Sometimes you have to step over, go around, go under or go through them, but keep your eye on the prize.”
The summer after her second year in law school, she clerked at a large firm—an experience that drove her to seek an appellate clerkship as well, to better hone certain skills. “At the big firms, you have people whose parents are lawyers and who grew up around the legal system,” she says. “There was nothing like that in my family. That environment was totally different to me and an appellate clerkship was where I could research and write and not be intimidated by any area of the law.”
After graduating in 1986 and passing both the New York and New Jersey bars on her first try, she clerked with appellate division Judge David S. Bane.
“[For my legal career], that’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Walker says.
Walker’s business, commercial and employment clients have included Fortune 500 companies, publicly and privately held corporations and insurance companies.
“I enjoy being a trial lawyer. I believe in the justice system. I believe a jury of your peers will see through a case that should never have been brought,” she says.
Some cases stick, like when she represented a plaintiff who’d worked for the U.S. Postal Service in a sexual harassment lawsuit.
“This woman was so traumatized by what she’d experienced on a regular basis at work, so distraught, that she had to have other people help her raise her children,” Walker says. “She was violated in a way she never should have been, just to do her job.”
The jury agreed, but the federal judge overruled the decision. So Walker appealed to the Third Circuit and won.
In another case, Walker was defending a company against a former employee who claimed he was unjustly fired. Walker argued that the man deserved to be terminated because of multiple sexual harassment claims that had been filed against him.
In one memorable courtroom scene, the other side argued that a witness who didn’t have 20/20 vision could not have seen his client inappropriately touch a woman from 20 feet away. The lawyer used a tape measure to put 20 feet between himself and the stand. “How could you see this far back?” he asked.
Without missing a beat, the witness described every detail of the lawyer’s ensemble. “The lapel pin, the cufflinks, the pocket square,” Walker recalls. “In my closing, I referenced that and the jury nodded in agreement.” She won.
“With some employment law cases, some people think, ‘Oh, the plaintiff brought it. It must be meritorious,’” Walker says. “That’s just not so.”
Danita Minnigan Cooper, an associate who worked with Walker at LeClairRyan and joined KDV with her, says Walker teaches as well as inspires.
“I’ve grown so much as an attorney from working with her,” Minnigan Cooper says. “She genuinely listens to everyone at the table and she’ll say, ‘I didn’t think about that aspect. That’s interesting. We should incorporate it.’ She’s always thinking and has this ability to analyze different aspects of a situation very quickly. … She just sees the bigger picture.”
Longtime colleague Joseph F. Lagrotteria, now of counsel at K&L Gates, says her focus goes beyond courtroom success. “In addition to being a good lawyer, she is interested in improving the bar association and working on diversity issues in the legal profession,” he says.
Walker has long been an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion.
When Paulette Brown became president of the American Bar Association in 2015, she appointed Walker to chair the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary; Walker suggested that members of the committee take implicit bias training, which Brown enthusiastically supported.
“She makes sure people have fair opportunities,” Brown says. “When she is in a position where she can leverage other women or women of color, you can be sure she’s going to do that.”
Corbin Walker’s niece, Dara Govan, turned to her aunt for support before talking to partners at her former law firm about creating a diversity committee. “It was a wonderful place to work, but I was one of maybe five African American associates, there was maybe one Asian American associate and no partners of color,” says Govan, now an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of New Jersey. “I polled other law firms and came up with a strategy so we could be more deliberate in terms of diversity, and tell people what we were doing. I would not have had the courage to do that if I hadn’t had her in my ear telling me it was OK.”
KDV holds a Mansfield Rule Certification, meaning the firm has shown a commitment to increasing diversity in areas including leadership and governance roles, and equity partner promotions.
Gino Zonghetti, co-managing partner of KDV’s NJ office, says Walker’s bona fides in diversity and inclusion made her a natural hire.
“If you’re trying to develop young attorneys, diverse attorneys, who else would you want but Karol Corbin Walker?” he asks. “She’s a role model, a leader. I think she’s someone we should all aspire to be.”
Walker says she has seen some progress over the years in terms of diversity in law, but “we are far from reaching a diverse and inclusive legal community.”
“Numbers are still at an anemic level,” she says. “Corporate clients have helped push that agenda because now many of them require diverse legal teams. People understand that diversity helps with respect to the products and services because people are looking at the issues from their respective experiences and it varies. You might see something someone else might not be able to see.”
If you’re looking for Walker outside of her office, you’ll often find her at Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She converted to Catholicism as an adult 27 years ago. Her husband, she says, is a “cradle Catholic.” Together they’ve helmed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program at the church since 2004. Before the pandemic, classes met every week from October through spring. She rarely misses a Sunday Mass, also serving as an Extraordinary minister. In 2005, Walker was inducted as a Dame of Malta into the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, whose members pledge to help the sick and poor while striving for spiritual perfection.
In 2009, Walker was the first person of color to receive the Saint Thomas More Medal from the Seton Hall University School of Law; in 2019, she was the first woman and first person of color to receive the Diocese of Paterson’s Advocati Christi Award. Both distinctions recognize lawyers and judges who are committed to their faith and their profession.
She’s also made pilgrimages to Poland and Spain and attended Germany’s Oberammergau Passion Play, which had been performed every 10 years since 1634—until last year. The 2020 performance was postponed until 2022, and Walker hopes to take one of her grandchildren. She has four living stepchildren, 11 living grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“Karol’s a multifaceted asset to the church. She’s down to earth, warm, welcoming,” says Assumption’s pastor, John E. Hart. “She puts her faith into action, helping the needy, the sick, the less fortunate. … I know I can call on her any time for anything.”
But for Walker, it’s just what her mama taught her.
“It’s not about me. I look at myself as being a servant doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. “I did these things not just for myself, but to open the door for others. I learned from my parents that we’re here to help others, and if we each do our part, then we’ll leave the world a much better place. Hopefully I’ve been able to contribute.”
Walker’s Daily Devotionals
What kinds of messages could you expect if you were one of the 100 or so people on Walker’s text lists? She shared a few of her favorite inspirational messages and verses with us:
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. –Psalm 118:24
Worrying is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do, but you never go anywhere. –Erma Bombeck
Everything is always in divine order.
Let go and let God.