Of Headlines and Coal Mines
Karen Elliott’s journey from journalism to the law
Published in 2017 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine on April 13, 2017
If there’s one thing that Eckert Seamans’ Karen Elliott will never forget, it’s this: While all mammals are animals, not all animals are mammals. It’s not a lesson borne of case law, but a cub reporter’s rookie mistake. “Let’s just say the head of National Geographic was not pleased,” Elliott says.
Elliott spent a few years as a journalist and scored her first gig for National Geographic’s children’s title, World Magazine. “I wrote science stories, and in this case, the science didn’t quite check out,” she recalls with a laugh. But she loved the work. “That job was fantastic for the later influence it would have on my legal writing—active voice, active voice, active voice,” she says. Plus word counts were low—another lesson she pocketed. “You were forced to be very succinct.”
She adds, “I love to write; I love talking to people; and I love learning new things.”
All of that helped acclimate the city slicker, who grew up in the Arlington metro area, to her new digs in Bristol, where she moved for a reporting job. “We’re talking the coal fields of Southern Virginia,” she says. “It was completely eye-opening.”
The half-Lebanese Elliott stuck out. “My skin was darker,” she says, “and I had what one might consider ‘Jersey hair.’ So the two questions I got most often were, ‘Are you Jewish?’ ‘Are you from New Jersey?’”
She was also the minority in the Herald Courier’s newsroom.
“I was the second female reporter the paper ever had,” she says. “I remember grabbing a cup of soda off a colleague’s desk and him reacting strongly: ‘No! Don’t do that,’ he said. I was like, ‘Come on, I’m thirsty.’ He told me it was tobacco juice. Every colleague had a cup on his desk.”
Despite being outnumbered, she says she felt welcome at the Courier, and in Washington County, which she covered.
“Here I come along to the coal fields with my college education,” she says, “and I was often interviewing people with eighth-grade educations. But they were amazing storytellers—the oral tradition of storytelling there is incredible. I learned to play the lap dulcimer. I learned to clog. I did things this little city girl had never heard about. But mostly I learned that while I had an education, I wasn’t educated. I met people who were far better read and educated than I.”
She remembers covering The Catcher in the Rye book-burning that brought 60 Minutes to town. “Local government, the water authority, local court cases … basically, anything going on in the county, I was on it,” Elliott says.
When local attorney Wyatt B. Durrette ran for governor in the early ’80s, his wife’s handlers thought she might do well to go down into the coal mines and shake some hands. So down went Elliott.
“Afterward, when we went to clear our sinuses, the kerchief was black,” she says. “You drive through the coal fields and see sheets hanging up, and one side would be stained black. You knew a coal miner lived there because they sweat the coal out at night.”
Elliott can thank one particular water authority meeting for pointing her toward a J.D.
“I had been to so many of these meetings, and in the middle of one, an official said, ‘Karen, what do you think we ought to do?’ I was like, ‘Whoa. I’m just a reporter.’ But I realized that I really did want to tell them what they ought to do.”
Elliott is content with the hints of the reporter life that she finds in her employment practice—particularly, a dependence on deadlines and facts.
“Many lawyers are adrenaline junkies, and there is a very strong similarity to reporting with our many deadlines and fast-evolving matters. Just today, something happened and now somebody wants to fire somebody. I’m like, ‘No. Let’s take a step back. Let’s get the facts, and let’s figure this out.’”