Female Law Trailblazer Karen Mathis Honored by American Bar Association
By Rabiah Alicia Burks
American Bar Association News Service
July 25, 2011
WASHINGTON — Karen J. Mathis, a former Denver lawyer and president of the American Bar Association who is now president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, is one of five trailblazing women attorneys to be honored with the 2011 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. The award, given annually by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, is named for America’s first woman lawyer, who arrived in the colonies in 1638.
“The Margaret Brent Awards recognize the remarkable achievements and accomplishments of distinguished women lawyers from around the country,” said commission chair Roberta D. Liebenberg, a Philadelphia lawyer. “Our honorees have not only achieved great professional success, they have also blazed the trail for other women lawyers, and served as inspirational role models.”
Eleanor Dean (“Eldie”) Acheson, Paulette Brown, Col. Maritza Ryan, and Hon. Esther Tomljanovich will also receive the 2011 Brent Award. A sixth honoree, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada, will receive a special award. Previous honorees include Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“The Margaret Brent award is something every woman lawyer or jurist aspires to merit,” Mathis said. “I am in awe of the past honorees, and my fellow honorees and am humbled to be in their company. Simply being nominated was a highlight in my life, so I am thrilled beyond words to receive this award.”
Mathis’s achievements range from being the first woman in the tax department at KMPG, to being the third woman president of the American Bar Association.
As president of the ABA, she started the Youth at Risk program, which focused on helping teens from troubled backgrounds navigate their way out of the criminal justice system or avoid it altogether. She practiced law for more than 34 years, most recently as a partner of Denver’s McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter.
She now runs Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the nation’s largest donor-based volunteer network of mentors for youth.
Mathis was born in Providence, R.I. Since her father was in the Air Force, she lived in various places, eventually settling in Colorado Springs when she started 8th grade.
Inspired By Films
Mathis decided by high school that she wanted to become a lawyer, even though her only exposure to attorneys was through Perry Mason and movies like To Kill a Mockingbird.
“I wanted to be a lawyer to help people,” Mathis said. “I had no concept, still don’t, that it would be a profession that would lead to access at the highest levels, or potential fame, and certainly not wealth.”
Watching family struggle through her parents’ divorce and helping her mother raise her sisters also influenced her decision to pursue law.
Paying for Law School Wasn’t Easy
While planning to attend law school, Mathis had no clue how she was going to pay for it. She had already graduated from the University of Denver, was married, and became a teacher but could not afford to further her education.
“Unless I got a scholarship, I wasn’t going,” Mathis said.
Mathis was awarded law school scholarships to both the University of Colorado in Boulder and to the University of Denver.
“I did a pretty scandalous thing, something I’m not really proud of,” Mathis said.
She accepted both scholarships and attended both schools for three weeks until she decided which one would suit her best. In the end she chose the University of Colorado.
Mathis made use of all of her skills and continued her education. She excelled at numbers and did well in her tax course in law school, so once she graduated she immediately enrolled in the University of Colorado at Denver graduate accounting program in the business school.
In 1975, she became the first woman in the tax department at KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory firm.
On Being the Only Woman
Being the only woman in the tax department had unique hurdles. Her co-workers had to get used to working with a woman.
“When any of them would curse, they would put their hand over their mouth and say they were so sorry,” Mathis said. “I just let out a string of expletives so they knew it wasn’t an issue.”
Her managing partner used to introduce her to clients in the following manner: “This is Karen, she’s a woman…but she’s both a lawyer and accountant.”
This was his way of letting the client know that even though she’s not a man, her credentials make up for it, Mathis said.
A Life of Achievement
She eventually worked with her mentor Sandra Rothenburg in opening and running a two-person law firm.
Together they worked on various criminal cases. Both were founding members of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association.
“There were no women who were being proposed for judgeships,” Mathis said. “We couldn’t even get women to be interviewed.”
At the same time Mathis, became active in the Denver Young Lawyers Bar. Within a year she worked her way up to become president.
Rothenburg was appointed a judge, so Mathis moved on to work for a number of firms and even started her own.
An active member of the American Bar Association, Mathis became the third woman to become president of the organization.
– end –
ABA News Service is a free service of the American Bar Association. News and media organizations may use, republish, reprint or redistribute this content with credit to ABA News Service as the original source of this content.