The Accidental Trail Blazer

When that (other) rich and famous Texan decided to run for president, he chose Kim J. Askew to lead the charge

Published in 2004 Texas Super Lawyers Magazine — October 2004

Kim Askew didn't set out to be a trailblazer; she couldn’t avoid it. On her way to becoming one of the more respected litigation lawyers in the country, she just kept carving out new ground. She was the first black woman to be hired by a major Dallas law firm, the first to make partner, and the first to be elected as chair of the State Bar of Texas. When she completes her current term as vice chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of Litigation in 2006, she will be its first black woman chair.

Askew, a tall, strikingly attractive woman, dismisses talk of her record of “firsts” with a wave of the hands. “Oh, I don’t think about it,” she says. “You just do it. I can’t say why I’ve had these opportunities and others haven’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked hard and because Texas is an open place.

“My mother believed that her children could do just about anything,” she says. “When I came to Dallas, I knew of only two minority lawyers, both men, working in major firms. At first I was concerned; then I thought: How dare Dallas, Texas, not have a minority woman in a major law firm. I was smart and well trained; I knew I could do it.”

Seated in the conference room of Hughes & Luce, the Dallas firm where she has practiced for the past 20 years, Askew looks every bit the successful attorney. Warm and engaging, she is smartly turned out in a black pinstripe skirt suit accented with just the right jewelry. For three years running, Crystal Charities, a local group, has named her one of the 10 best-dressed women in Dallas.

Askew’s impeccable appearance is in stark contrast to her cluttered office — too cluttered to meet in. Unlike her colleagues’ tidy offices with their leather furniture and dark mahogany desks, hers is overflowing with papers, file folders, tottering stacks of books and notebooks on the floor, shelves crowded with photos of friends’ children, orchid plants competing for space on tabletops, and walls covered with certificates and Askew’s collection of original art.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1957, Askew is the oldest of four and, she admits, a lifelong overachiever. By the time she reached seventh grade, she had already decided to be a lawyer. It was the late 1960s, and the black community in Savannah was alive with optimism generated by the civil rights movement and President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Askew remembers attending meetings with her mother to learn about the Model Cities Program, the centerpiece of Johnson’s Great Society program.

“Black lawyers active in the civil rights movement came to our church and to community meetings to explain what the Model Cities program would mean to our community,” says Askew. “I was so impressed by these lawyers. They were so smart, and everyone admired what they were doing. I wanted to be like them.”

Raised in a community in which neighbors looked out for one another and teachers had high expectations for their students, Askew described her childhood as close to idyllic. Then the realities of Savannah in the 1960s set in. When she reached the eighth grade and joined other black children being bused to a predominantly white school, her school bus was pelted repeatedly with rocks thrown by angry segregationists.

“It was a difficult time,” she says, “especially when you were a kid and wondered why the world was like that. But we always knew that it would get better, because we were going to make it better. That was my family’s philosophy and what I heard at school and at church. We were told that we were part of the change; we were going to make it happen.”

Askew excelled in school and by the time she graduated from high school she recognized that her aspirations exceeded what Savannah could offer her. After graduating summa cum laude from Knoxville College, she worked briefly for the Tennessee Valley Authority before enrolling at Georgetown University Law Center. Askew’s professors advised her to stay in D.C. after graduation, but she confounded them by accepting a clerkship with Judge Jerry Buchmeyer and moving to Dallas.

“My professors thought I was nuts to go to Dallas when I had been offered a clerkship with a judge in D.C.,” she says, “but Judge Buchmeyer had just been named one of the best judges in the Northern District, and I was mesmerized by his brilliance. I wanted the experience of working with him and in another part of the country.”

Askew originally planned to spend one year in Dallas, but Judge Buchmeyer convinced her that the city offered opportunities to a lawyer with her training. He was right. Askew received offers to work for several firms, but she chose Hughes & Hill, now Hughes & Luce. That was in 1984. By 1991 she had made partner in the firm.

The following year, Askew had a chance to participate in a slice of history. The company Ross Perot founded, EDS, was a client of Hughes & Luce. When the Texas billionaire decided to make a bid for the presidency in 1992 as the Reform Party candidate, he turned to the firm for counsel on his campaign. Askew led the litigation teams.

“Working on ballot access issues was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve had,” says Askew. “Perot’s third-party candidacy was the most successful in history. He was a fabulous man to work with because he’s so intellectually curious and because he was so supportive of me. It helps to have a client who says to others in your firm, ‘This is a really good lawyer.’ It builds your confidence and your reputation in the firm and in the community to be associated with clients who set standards of excellence.”

After the election, Askew returned to her primary areas of practice and continued to build her reputation by representing clients in complex commercial and employment litigation cases. Many employment cases are settled or won by summary judgment. The employment cases Askew tries are the tough ones: race discrimination, sexual harassment and disability. And making it tougher, she typically represents employers on cases in which juries are inclined to side with the plaintiffs.

“My clients are usually companies,” she says, “so I have to find ways to humanize them, to show juries that companies are made up of people like you and me. Juries want information presented in ways that relate to their everyday world because that’s how they make decisions. I work hard on developing the facts in ways that bring the cases alive so that juries want to go with my clients.”

Askew’s approach has worked. She has led winning teams that have successfully tried cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Title VII and ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act).

Askew has worked hard for her success but, as she tells the young lawyers she mentors, hard work isn’t enough: You have to work smart. That means figuring out where you want to be and having a strategy for getting there. “I’ve never been afraid to tell people what I’m interested in, and I’ve always found people willing to help me. I’ve had very good mentors, starting with Judge Buchmeyer and people in the firm. When you’re starting out, you have to be willing to take the hard cases that others don’t want. It helps you build your skills, and it enhances your reputation as a lawyer.”

Askew didn’t stop there. For the past 20 years, she’s been actively involved in her local and state bar associations and with the ABA. Starting out serving on committees, she’s won leadership roles in all three associations. This past June, she completed her one-year term as chair of the State Bar of Texas.

“I had been in the trenches of these organizations for years,” she says. “I’ve worked on and lived the issues. I’ve written more papers than I want to remember, but the writing keeps me up-to-date and informs the profession. I owe it to these organizations to make use of that experience.”

As chair of the Texas Bar this past year, Askew shepherded a multi-year project aimed at making the technology the bar uses accessible to its 76,000 members. Under her leadership, the bar developed a Web site that allows members to pay dues online and get free research. It was a huge, time-consuming task, but Askew thinks of it in terms of service. “I give something and in return I get to work with some of the best lawyers in the country. If you’re advancing the profession, you’re making it better for the public because, ultimately, they’ll be served by better lawyers.”

As the first black woman to hold high offices in these associations, Askew is aware of opening doors for women and minority lawyers. “It’s important for women and minorities to see themselves represented in leadership positions, especially in traditional organizations like the ABA. It encourages others to aspire to leadership roles, but it also says something about how far these associations have come.”

You’d think that being a partner in a law firm and simultaneously serving on local, state and national bar associations would barely leave time for eating and sleeping. But the indefatigable Askew still manages to serve on the boards of the Dallas Museum of Art; the regents of Georgetown University; and Victims Outreach, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling services and legal assistance to crime victims. And that’s not all. Last year she worked more than 100 hours on pro bono cases, primarily in the area of family law. In recognition of her professional achievements and contributions to the community, this year Girls, Inc. awarded her the “She Knows Where She’s Going” award.

In her 20 years in practice, Askew has racked up more honors than most lawyers dream of. Consider the awards she won in 2003 alone: Texas Super Lawyer, Texas Super Lawyers magazine; Best Lawyers in America, Business Litigation, Corporate Counsel; Best Lawyers in Dallas, Labor and Employment, D Magazine; Trailblazer Award, J.L. Turner Legal Association; and Louise Raggio Award, Dallas Women Lawyers Association.

So where does this star lawyer go next? In the mid-1990s, Askew was approached by a representative of President Clinton about a federal judgeship. She wasn’t ready to be on the bench then, she says, and she isn’t now. And as for political aspirations, she doesn’t have them either, at least not now.

“When people ask me, ‘What next?’” she says, “I tell them, I’ll know when I get there. I learned from Judge Buchmeyer that satisfaction in this profession is very much about working with people who share your goals, your sense of purpose, your community spirit. But that’s only half of it. It’s also about working with people you like and laughing a lot, and I’m still having a lot of fun practicing law.”

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