The Denver Globetrotter

Karen Mathis sees the world as president of the ABA

Published in 2008 Colorado Super Lawyers — April 2008

You think you were busy the last two years? Try living Karen Mathis’ life.

During her year as American Bar Association president, she logged 250,000 air miles; last year, as immediate past president, she added another 200,000. “Travels were a bear,” she says. She describes a 12-hour car trip from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Yerevan, Armenia, in September 2006. “We had an Armenian driver who spoke Russian but no English [who drove us] through mountains on two-lane roads, passing 18-wheelers around blind curves. I put my feet up against the dash to nonverbally express my fear, but it got me nowhere. I pulled out my Act of Contrition and began reciting it. Finally I was so tired I fell asleep in the hope that when we careened off the 3,000-foot cliffs I’d be asleep until we hit the bottom.”

She survived and kept going. As ABA president (third female, first Coloradan), she worked 4,200 hours and stayed on the road for more than 330 days. She visited six continents. If there were lawyers in Antarctica, she’d have completed the set.

Colleague Roger Thomasch, chair of the litigation department at Ballard Spahr, says he once helped her pick up papers she’d dropped and when he saw her calendar he was shocked. “I’ve never seen a schedule so full,” he says. But she’s a woman on many missions. One of them is to educate both lawyers and legal systems all over the world on the service aspect of her profession.

A military brat, Mathis lived a peripatetic childhood, attending nine schools before high school. When her father retired in Colorado Springs, it allowed her, for the first time in her life, to stay in one school for four years. The experience left a lasting impression. “The nuns [at the schools] were a great inspiration to me,” she says. “They were independent, well-educated and totally devoted to serving others.”

By age 12 Mathis knew how she wanted to serve others—by becoming a lawyer—but one thing stood in her way: Her family didn’t have the money to send her to college.

in her senior year, however, a recent graduate told her about the Scholars Program Scholarship at the University of Denver. Mathis, who would graduate fifth in her class, investigated, applied and got it, then enrolled in 1968. Her back-up plan involved certification as a high school social-studies teacher. “I loved my student-teaching days,” she recalls. “But in my heart, I felt if I could get into law school I could better help people who couldn’t help themselves.” When she got accepted to the University of Colorado School of Law, she got the chance.

One of her early law partners and mentors, Sandra Rothenberg, now a Colorado Appellate Court judge, taught Mathis invaluable lessons that guided her career. “Sandy said first and foremost that law is a service profession,” Mathis remembers. “She said you should practice law for three reasons: to make law; because you like your clients; and to make a living.”

Mathis has twice had the opportunity to make law. At age 33, she became an outside corporate trust lawyer for Intrawest, a Denver bank. Intrawest’s holding company was in the process of selling its downtown bank—not all dozen banks—to First Interstate. Clients of the bank had common trust funds (CTFs), which meant everyone who had part of the trust would have capital gains. In fact, the downtown bank’s clients had millions in this fund, it was going to cost millions in taxes, and it was the bank, not the clients, who would have to pay it. So Mathis and a colleague visited the IRS in Washington, D.C., and argued that the current regulation was designed to tax CTF participants when they “left” a fund. They argued the regulation was not intended for the sale of one bank out of 12. It should not have been deemed a taxable event. The IRS ultimately agreed.

Several years later, Mathis left her large law firm to start a small firm in downtown Denver. The firm was housed on the 20th floor of the then-named Johns Manville Plaza. “We had a number of young lawyers with young children and wanted on-site day care,” she says. Zoning ordinances, however, prevented day-care facilities anywhere but on the ground level, and who wanted their children 19 floors away? So Mathis worked with then-mayor Federico Pena’s chief of staff, became connected with Governor Romer (who, as a result, put her on the Governor’s Commission on Child Care) and ultimately the Denver building codes were changed. Here’s the punch line: It took so long that by then her colleagues’ children were in school, and child care was unnecessary.

Being a people person made Rothenberg’s second reason to practice law (“because you like your clients”) a no-brainer for Mathis. “She has natural empathy for others,” says Robert Stein, immediate past executive director of the ABA. “She genuinely likes people.”

Early in her career, she was involved in a securities fraud case before Federal District Judge Richard Matsch. Her clients, a group of investors, were pitted against a promoter who sold them stock in a Vail nightclub that quickly went belly up. “These investors were hard-working guys who’d researched an opportunity,” she says. “But because we alleged the promoter put more into his pocket than the nightclub, it was a recipe for failure.” The jury delivered a verdict in her clients’ favor, but Judge Matsch threw it out on a technicality. “We were either going to appeal the judge’s decision or retry the case,” she says. Instead, she and opposing counsel, a seasoned litigator, negotiated a settlement for her clients.

She is particularly protective of clients who have suffered personal losses. “I had a woman who’d been with her partner for 35 years,” she says, “the last 10 taking care of the partner during a losing battle with cancer.” The lack of a will or verbal promises relating to the transfer of estate assets spelled doom for the woman, who became a target for the partner’s family. “This woman needed a legal navigator during her time of grief,” says Mathis, and though evidentiary rules excluded anything said by the partner, Mathis produced a number of people who vouched for the partner’s intent. In this way, and through mediation, Mathis got her client a fair share of the decedent’s property.

Since Mathis would have done the same quality job regardless of her feelings for the clients, why is “liking the client” so important? “Practicing law is not always the easiest job,” she says. “In fact, it often feels like tilting at windmills.” Liking your clients, she adds, is a great reason to continue the quixotic pursuit.

You could say Mathis effectively ignored Rothenberg’s third reason to practice law—“making a living”—these past two years.

Yet Rothenberg also taught her that one of the best ways to improve the profession is through professional organizations. Mathis got active early with the ABA Young Lawyers. Her dedication eventually placed her as the chair of the ABA House of Delegates. By 2004, when it was clear she was on the presidential path, she merged her small firm with a large Denver firm, where she could receive the support she needed during her presidency. “I settled at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter because of its great group of lawyers, its dedication to diversity, and the fact that four out of the five resident partners were women,” she says. The firm has backed Mathis’ work with the ABA. “I’ve made a good living over the years,” Mathis says. “Now it’s time for me to give back.”

Her ABA initiatives closely mirror her personal objectives of service and duty. From how the law treats the youngest members of society (“Youth at Risk”) to how senior lawyers can use their skills in retirement (“A Second Season of Service”), Mathis, says Stein, “has worked on initiatives that were both focused and comprehensive.”

Her interest in children’s issues involves both looking back at her own life and looking ahead for kids today. “Had I not had so many supportive adults in my life,” she says, “I could’ve easily gone in a different direction. With all those moves and all those schools, I could’ve been a truant.” She believes truancy and early pregnancy are two of society’s greatest scourges, which is one of the reasons the “Youth at Risk” initiative asks the question: What role can we play in the legal setting that improves the chance for at-risk youths to move past the problems they’re facing?

Her “Second Season of Service” initiative was motivated by the sheer reality of demographics. “In the next 10 years 400,000 lawyers will retire from full-time practice,” she says. “How can we utilize their skills, how can they continue to serve society, how can we get them malpractice insurance?”

Women’s issues are also big with her. She recently traveled to Singapore to address the topic of women in law and how numbers don’t equal parity. “This is a real problem in our profession,” she says, “given that, in the last 17 years, at least 40 percent of law school graduates have been women but today only 17 percent are partners. This isn’t a glass ceiling problem, it’s a sticky floor problem.” 

The trip to Singapore just scratches the surface of her travels. She went to China for a national conference on youth; Ecuador to work on anti-trafficking laws; the former Soviet Republic of Georgia to help train justices on writing legal opinions; London and Madrid as part of the advisory board for Lexis-Nexis Martindale Hubbell; New York for a seminar on risk opinion; and Atlanta to speak to 700 Air Force military lawyers. And that’s just a partial list.

Asked what she learned as ABA president, she says, “I learned that a leader is only as strong or good as the people who join you on the journey—and I was most fortunate in this regard.”

Stein, former executive director of the ABA, and an attorney with Gray Plant & Mooty in Minneapolis, considers this a strength of her leadership. “She was good at picking people who had the right skill sets for a given job,” he says. “For each of her initiatives, she brought members who were already linked to some ongoing entity at the ABA that related to her areas of interest. She brought in older lawyers to work on ‘Second Season of Service’ and members who had an interest in children’s issues to work on ‘Youth at Risk.’”

In what free time she has, she loves to hike, bike and ski. She’s a once-a-year golfer, playing recently with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who says Mathis has a nice swing, while adding “but we both needed practice.”

“After 32 years,” Mathis says, “I still love the law. No matter what I do in the future, whether it’s teaching or practicing, I will always stay closely involved with my first love.”

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