Ahead of the Game
Kathleen Wu advocates for diversity in the boardroom and on the tennis court
Published in 2011 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 12, 2011
Updated on September 13, 2011
“If you can’t eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it.” Those words, spoken by Iranian scholar Ali Shariati, struck Dallas attorney Kathleen Wu the first time she read them.
Wu is not a civil rights or First Amendment lawyer. Rather, the partner at Andrews Kurth chose to practice real estate law, finance and business and transactions. Her time speaking out on injustices comes into play when she puts on her other hat: as a commentator on issues women face in the workplace and as vice chair of the United States Tennis Association’s diversity committee.
She’s not sure where her passion for equality came from growing up in a Long Island suburb—where she sheepishly admits she had a “very typical” high school experience—before heading off to Columbia University. “I wish there was [a role model] I could point to for you,” she says with a pause. “There really wasn’t; I think I was just sort of hardwired this way from birth, and I don’t know why or how. I had a very traditional, 1950s, ‘60s mother: did not work, dinner on the table at 6 o’clock.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Barnard College—at the time, the women’s college at Columbia University—Wu headed to The George Washington University for law school. “People I liked and respected had gone into the law and I knew it was a promising career, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to have a law degree,” she says. “As I’ve gone through these 25 years, all those things have continued to be true.”
Wu met her husband, attorney Mark Solomon, while at GWU, and in the mid-‘80s, when the two graduated, the Sun Belt boom was beckoning young attorneys to cities like Dallas for promising work in the real estate market. But by the time Wu and Solomon got there, the savings-and-loan crisis had hit the nation and the work transitioned to representing lenders in the down market.
Wu and Solomon, now married for 25 years with a 16-year-old son, Grant, remained in Texas. Several years ago Solomon joined Wu at Andrews Kurth; he’s now a managing partner at the firm’s Dallas office, and practicing corporate securities law.
While Wu has been dedicated to speaking out on the many issues women face in the workplace, personal experience doesn’t play a role. “I’ve been extremely fortunate because, suffice to say, I would not still be at this firm if it didn’t embrace these kinds of issues,” she says. “And that’s surprising. When I joined this firm in 1987, you would think, this is a Houston-based, good ol’ boy, Texas firm and every stereotype that comes with that, and it’s not. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.
“This firm has this very strong tradition of having women partners,” Wu continues. “I have had a number of leadership positions in the firm; I have been the managing partner of the Dallas office; I have been the hiring partner of this office; I have sat for many years on what we call the policy committee, which is our governing body. I have worn many, many different hats here and have been very fortunate that they’ve tapped me for those leadership positions here.”
Bob Jewell, managing partner of Andrews Kurth has been with the firm for 33 years and agrees female lawyers like Wu have had a strong role in the growth and development of the firm. “[In] three of our six domestic offices, the office managing partner is a female, and Kathleen is a former Dallas office managing partner,” he says. “That’s just a reflection of the stature that we hold our women lawyers [to]: to recognize not just their contributions, but their leadership, and Kathleen’s clearly one of the leaders of the firm.”
It’s that positive experience Wu has had at her firm that inspired her mentorship of other young female lawyers. “I figure young male lawyers have plenty of mentors and women still face a lot of challenges in the workplace, so I want to do what I can to address what I thought was important.”
Wu writes about these issues—such as a lack of women in leadership roles and difficult time demands—in multiple legal publications, and speaks at seminars and various associations’ meetings and conferences. Her expert career advice was featured in the book, All Moms Work: Short-Term Career Strategies for Long-Range Success by Sharon Reed Abboud. Wu’s advocacy has earned her recognition among the legal community, and multiple awards from legal, journalism and other professional organizations.
She explains that while many women had paved the way by the time she entered the practice—“It never ceases to amaze me how much progress women have made,” she says—a lot of work still needs to be done: “I realize that there are many complaints that women had in the ‘90s that are still problems today.”
Around 1998, Wu recalls a TV interview where she commented on a judge that had finally decided women could wear pants in his courtroom. “When I think about that,” she says, “I think, ‘OK, a lot has changed in the past 15 years; in another 15 years it’ll be changed some more, but it’s not going to be as fast or dramatic as those of us who are pushing for it want it to be.’”
Wu is also working with the USTA to push for diversity on the tennis court. She serves as the vice chair of the USTA National Committee on Diversity and Inclusion and heads the Asian-American Subcommittee. “It is my job to come up with a concrete, workable plan to get more Asian-Americans on the tennis court,” she says. “The hardest part of the job so far has been coming up with a plan that can [include] all the different ethnicities of Asian-Americans. It’s not just Japanese and Chinese; it’s a broad spectrum, and it’s a rapidly growing segment in our country so we want to make sure we grow tennis in that specific community.”
She loves the job. “Working with the USTA has been a wonderful challenge,” she says. “I’m not a marketing professional, but the idea of ‘selling’ tennis to the Asian-American community was too good to pass up. [The] USTA truly is ahead of the curve when it comes to recognizing the importance of diversity in the continued vitality of the game, so I’m honored that they’ve asked me to work on this initiative.”
Current USTA President Jon Vegosen has made diversity part of the central mission of his presidency, Wu says. Ethnic minorities are rapidly changing the face of America and it’s important for tennis to mirror the American demographic. “If we want the game of tennis to remain as vibrant as it is now, it’s important to break through the stereotypes that it’s not just white males playing tennis anymore. It’s really not,” she says. “[The USTA is] ahead of the game here; and they’re trying to make sure that we get as many people of every sexual persuasion, ethnic persuasion, racial, everything, religious persuasion to think about playing tennis.”
Wu also serves as general counsel and the vice president of administration to the Texas section of the USTA—blending her legal skills with her love of the sport. The hourly demands of the position can vary greatly and the work she does for the association is pro bono, but Wu says she has no problem making it work: “You just make sure it fits and whatever’s a priority that day bubbles up to the top regardless of what client it is.”
Wu first picked up a racket in elementary school and has always played recreationally. Her passion for the sport wasn’t fully realized until her son began playing at age 3.
“I love the sounds, I love the atmosphere, I love the action,” she says. “I love that anybody can have fun with it; even if you aren’t very good, it’s still fun to hit the ball around the court. I love that it’s never the same game twice. I love the physical endurance, to play it even at the most simple level.
“I like that it’s an individual sport; there’s not teammates to lean on,” she continues. “If you do well in the game, it’s because you played well. That’s a really good feeling. It’s not the goalie, it’s not the pitcher, it’s you. So with that comes the good and the bad, but I sort of like that about it.”
Wu clearly values autonomy, whether on the tennis court or practicing at Andrews Kurth. “It’s a firm that hasn’t bridled my voice,” she says. “I get to pursue what interests me, whether it’s tennis or issues affecting women in the workplace. And that alone is tremendous. And on top of that, I have independence to run my practice the way I think it should be run and it’s been a heck of a run.
“It takes steely determination to make it as a lawyer and a tennis player.”
Jewell explains a source of Wu’s success. “Kathleen has more energy than almost anybody. And that enables her to be involved in lots of activities and to have a very broad legal practice,” he says. “In other words, she keeps a lot of balls in the air and does a terrific job [with] all of them.”