First Lady

Karol Corbin Walker has made a career out of doing what has never been done before

Published in 2005 New Jersey Super Lawyers — May 2005

The lens of a gorgeous Hasselblad camera is staring down Karol Corbin Walker. A photographer has arrived to snap her picture on a bright morning at the offices of St. John & Wayne on the 10th floor of Two Penn Plaza. The atmosphere is cordial but formal. She seems busy and a bit anxious to get back to work. She shifts in her seat at the firm’s conference table. Click-click-click-click. She takes a deep breath. After the breath comes a smile. Now she’s got it. The photographer tells her, “You’re at the top of the heap.” She replies, “I’m doing what I love to do. Life is too short to do something you don’t want to do.”

This pretty much sums up Karol Corbin Walker. Serious-minded, professional, logical, driven. These traits have led her to become a pioneer in the New Jersey legal community.

Born Leader

Her father, George Corbin, recognized that his daughter was destined for big things at an early age. “I knew something would come out of her because she had that voice,” he says from his home in Jersey City. He still speaks to her every day. “She can speak out, and people will listen to her,” he says. “She doesn’t need a microphone.”

She really doesn’t.

She simply breaks barriers a lot. In 1995 she became the first African-American female to be named a partner at a major firm in New Jersey. In 1998 she was the first African American appointed as chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s prestigious Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee. And in May 2003 she was installed as the first African-American president of the New Jersey State Bar Association in its 105-year history. She remembers well the day of the ceremony. Who was there? Nephews, aunts, her husband of 20 years, Paul, friends, acquaintances, colleagues. More than 750 people attended, some of whom traveled from as far away as Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Washington, D.C.

“Seeing people in that room from all walks of life, from every social, economic stratosphere you can think of, was gratifying. People with whom I went to grammar school, grade school, high school, college, people who knew my mother, people who own construction companies and people who were construction workers. Not just lawyers but the entire community,” she remembers with a smile. “Everyone that I saw was glowing, everyone was boastful of the fact that I was becoming president. Small solo practitioners — ‘Karol, I know you’re representing me.’ It was overwhelming, the outpouring of support, and just — I can’t even describe it.”

The “theme,” as she calls it, of her presidency was “NJSBA — Inclusive of You, Your Practice and Your Community.” She took this mission seriously during her one-year term. The New Jersey Law Journal quoted her saying that night, “The minority legal community is, I believe, a fertile source of new members. I strongly believe that we must look not only at who sits among us but who is absent, and ask ourselves why.” At the time, according to the Jersey Journal, there was a grand total of four African-American partners working in Newark law firms. There were fewer than three dozen African-American judges out of more than 400 on the Superior Court.

Walker set about opening doors for minority attorneys. She brought the NJSBA to the law school orientations at Rutgers-Camden and Seton Hall. She wanted to give minority students an example to follow. And she wanted more diversity in membership, committees, sections and programs. One way she achieved this was by naming minority members to the judicial and prosecutorial appointments committee.

She also established a Past Presidents Committee and met with congressional delegates in Washington, D.C. In January, the NJSBA awarded her the Distinguished Legislative Service Award.

Life at St. John & Wayne

This year marks Walker’s 16th at the firm. She is a civil litigator who represents clients in commercial, employment, environmental and product liability matters. She is cautious about discussing her clients, but does describe her most satisfying case. It was a sexual harassment matter from the 1990s.

Walker explains: “A male supervisor who drank entirely too much, excessively, on a regular basis, had physically attacked [the plaintiff], and the supervisors did not do what they should have done to rid this whole environment of this individual. It was not just sexual harassment for her but it created a hostile environment when she went to report it. It was just a mess of a case. Psychologically she was damaged by it, but it was something she has been able to overcome beautifully.”

Was there a boys’ club dynamic? “Not so much that,” she says. “More a component of incompetency, of a group of individuals not adhering to their own policies or procedures.”

Joseph Lagrotteria isn’t surprised by Walker’s success. He worked closely with her on environmental law and toxic tort cases when she arrived at the firm. “She goes above and beyond to make sure everything is covered. She prepares for her audience, adjusts for the judge, for the jury,” he says. And her exhaustive appetite for work isn’t limited to her job. “She’s helping her family, her church — she’s like four people wrapped up into one, like she’s got eight sets of hands instead of two hands,” he says. “She’d be this way no matter what she did.”

Breaking the Cement Ceiling

Walker, who earned her Bachelor of Arts with honors from New Jersey City University in 1980 and her law degree from Seton Hall in 1986, credits her successes to more than hard work and dedication. She finds strength in her faith. A Eucharistic minister at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church, in Morristown, Walker begins each day with readings from the Bible and religious pamphlets. Her belief system has given her the inner resources to reach the goals in her life, she says.

“I have personally experienced racism and sexism, but I have not allowed it to define who I am,” she says. “I think any person of color, or any woman, could recount a situation where they’ve overcome certain things.”

Asked about the glass ceiling, Walker says, “Sometimes I think it’s a cement ceiling. There are barriers, whether real or perceived, that women and people of color are still confronting. Women as a group have overcome a lot, but there’s more to be done.”

One thing is certain: She’ll continue to forge her own path, clearing the way for others to follow. “Every day you have a fighting chance,” she says.

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