Karen Jones launched her career in good-old-boy Dallas in 1981, at age 25.
In her first sweltering day on the job, decked out in a blue skirt-suit, “goofy” bow tie, pumps and pantyhose, she did her best to fit in with the men and ended up carrying one of their briefcases. (This was after interviewing for another firm, where she learned that “equal opportunity” meant Playgirl would be available for lady lawyers.) When she finally appeared on her own to argue motions in a case, she showed up enthusiastic and over-prepared, only to hear the judge ask, “Why did so-and-so send his secretary?” He made her produce her Texas Bar card.
“I learned how to hold my own,” says Jones, 50, one of a small group of women managing major law firms in Seattle. “It was tempting in that era to try and model yourself after the men you were practicing with.” But she learned from early mentors, including Harriet Miers, that to be effective she didn’t have to try to be someone she wasn’t.
That lesson has served her well. For more than 20 years, Jones has marshaled her considerable talents to build an impressive client list that includes Premera Blue Cross, Holland America Line and RealNetworks. She’s considered one of the top employment attorneys in the state and is a big reason Riddell Williams was selected by Fortune Magazine in 2006 as the “go-to” firm in the area of employment law. Long a rainmaker, she has served since January 2006 as managing principal of the 50-lawyer firm.
Jones racked up this string of accomplishments on her own terms and in her own particular way. She’s no arrogant shark sent down by central casting to strip aging workers of their jobs or sweep sexual-harassment claims under the rug. She is polite but firm, prepared and resolution-oriented without being a doormat. She also has the good-guy qualities of a champion for the underdog.
Employment discrimination and civil rights lawyer Michael Subit of Frank Freed Subit & Thomas calls her “a person with a good heart.” He’s not alone in his opinion. Even her opponents are inclined to praise her.
“She’s incredibly cordial, professional and very easy to work with, and at the same time, she’s tough as nails. It’s kind of an odd combination,” says Gary Nece, a principal at Nece Allen employment-law firm. Nece battled Jones right up to the door of the courthouse when he represented two employees who alleged sexual harassment and retaliation by their boss, who was represented by Jones.
Those who underestimate her may regret it. “One is truly at a major disadvantage when they do that,” says Michael Parham, associate general counsel for RealNetworks. “[Opponents] don’t see her coming, and then they don’t know what hit ’em.” He watched Jones in action in March 2006. She represented the Internet media company in arguing for a restraining order against a former employee who had violated his non-compete agreement when he went to work for a competitor.
The competitor enlisted lawyers from a major New York law firm and two local firms—including one physically intimidating specimen who had played college football.
“We had Karen Jones,” Parham says. “And she won. She was by far the most imposing figure in the courtroom.”
“Her style is always coming from the position of knowing her facts and the law better than anyone else in the courtroom,” says Patrick McVey, a principal at Riddell Williams who has practiced with Jones for more than 20 years. “Hers is a very calm, straightforward demeanor, projecting confidence and control. She’s not a table thumper.”
“If you’d asked me coming out of law school if my career would be representing businesses on employment matters, I’m sure I would have said, ‘No way.’ Because I’m sure it would have felt like wearing the black hat,” Jones says, speaking to the very thing that seems most incongruous about her success.
When talk turns to her dad, a Columbus, Ohio, tax attorney, she says he was her role model, even before she realized it.
She remembers the time her dad missed the basket with his coin toss as he rolled through a highway tollbooth. She was a child, but it stuck in her mind because—unlike most of us, who might continue on, knowing no cop was going to run us down for a few cents—her dad turned the car around, circled back through the toll and paid again.
“I think the part that, more than anything, influenced me was he just loved his clients,” Jones says. “And as corny as it sounds, that’s really what keeps me going after all these years.”
In the traditional narrative, the employee is the little guy and the corporation is the monolith. But Jones knows business owners and executives are people, too, with challenges and a need for good problem-solving advice. “From my vantage point, I really believe that the employers I work for are trying to do the right thing,” Jones says. “Most of the problems I see are either bad matches … or poor communication.” Many of these employers have become good friends, something her father would have endorsed.
“Really, I’m deadly serious, none of us gets to where we get without a whole lot of people behind us.” Riddell Williams executive director Kati Dunn says Jones’ willingness to celebrate the successes of other attorneys and staff people helps to make her an excellent managing principal.
But talk of good hearts and doing the right thing doesn’t add up to much in the world of big businesses if it doesn’t add up for clients.
Jones delivers. She obtained a judgment in favor of an international pulp and paper company, following a trial in federal district court, on an age- and national-origin discrimination case. She obtained a summary judgment dismissing federal sex-discrimination claims in favor of a large telecommunications corporation, another dismissing prevailing wage claims on behalf of a major energy company, and another in favor of an international environmental consulting firm sued for sexual harassment.
But Jones prefers not to measure her success in courtroom victories or settlements. Her benchmarks are conflicts avoided, long relationships with satisfied clients and the ability to make rain with new clients.
“We have a wonderful history of not needing her as a litigator,” says Yori Milo. Milo is chief legal officer for Premera Blue Cross, and has worked with Jones since 1996. As a result of her abilities, he says, Premera has had great success at resolving employment issues.
She manages to avoid litigation with pragmatic counseling on everything from personnel policies, employee reviews and disciplinary action to leaves of absence, drug and alcohol testing, compensation and thousands of other employment challenges.
“An awful lot of what I do today is advice,” Jones says. “If I was to say what am I proudest of, it’s the everyday little stories of the five minutes you spend with people.”
But, says RealNetworks’ Parham, “she doesn’t give advice in a vacuum. Karen is very good at understanding the special needs of her clients, so she can tailor her advice to suit their particular needs.” She can learn new developments and make them understandable to people—including juries and judges—outside that particular industry.
Jones keeps uppermost in her mind the challenge of hiring, retaining and nurturing the best people, which is something she now struggles with in her role as managing principal.
That business savvy has helped Jones build an enviable and loyal book of clients. She won’t disclose her roster, but Riddell Williams’ Website lists Microsoft, Allstate Insurance, T-Mobile, Idaho Power Co. and Quanta Energy Services among its employment-practice clients. She’s worked with many of her clients for 10 to 15 years, and some as long as 20.
Jones says she learned valuable lessons at her first job as a waitress at the Ponderosa Steak House in Columbus. While serving T-bones, she discovered the value of putting customers first. And though she left her culotte-and-cowboy-hat costume behind, she carried that core understanding with her.
“I suspect a lot of lawyers think that to build a client base is one of the hardest things about practicing law,” says Riddell Williams principal Robert Howie. “Karen is one of the best marketers I’ve ever met.” Howie took over the chair of the labor and employment practice group when Jones became managing partner.
In addition to her practice and responsibilities as managing principal, she puts her people skills to work as a certified mediator.
“She seems to have time for everything,” Howie says. “I guess some people can have it all.”