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In Memoriam: Honoring Our Former Partner and Friend, Karen Hastie Williams

I am saddened to announce the passing of our former partner, beloved colleague, and friend, Karen Hastie Williams. Karen passed away on July 7 at age 76 surrounded by her loved ones, following a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1982, Karen became Crowell & Moring’s first female partner and first African American partner.  She was nothing short of a trailblazer in law, government, and business from the early days of her career.

After graduating from law school, Karen clerked for two of the most prominent jurists of the 20th century: Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (the first Black member of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and the first Black jurist appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, who later became the first African American to serve as its Chief Judge), and Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Karen was the first African American woman to clerk at the Supreme Court.

Karen became a true Washington “insider” at a time when few women or people of color had positions of power in the halls of government.  She served as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Budget from 1977 to 1980, and as Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy in the United States Office of Management and Budget from 1980 to 1981, under President Jimmy Carter.  Her broad network of relationships and her knowledge of the workings of federal government and politics served her well in both law and business.  She also served on the Internal Revenue Service's Oversight Board from 2000 to 2003, under President George W. Bush.

During her illustrious career, Karen translated her talents and experiences into advocacy for both institutions of power and drivers of change and opportunity.  She served on the boards of directors of Chubb Limited from 2000 to 2010, and SunTrust Banks from 2002 to 2011.  She also served on the boards of Crestar Bank, the Gannett Company, Fannie Mae, Bates College, and Amherst College, and was the first chair of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s independent board of governors.  Karen had a special passion for the Black Student Fund, serving on its Board and as its chair for many years, and pursuing educational equity for students of color.  From her first days after clerking, Karen also served on the board of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and chaired its Development Committee, generating funding and corporate support for its voting rights litigation and other racial justice initiatives.  In addition, Karen was a recognized leader in the legal community, holding several leadership posts in the American Bar Association, the Enterprise Foundation, and other organizations.  Karen placed a special emphasis on advocating for greater inclusion of women in positions of influence like the boards where she served.

Karen joined Crowell & Moring in March 1981 in the prime of her career.  Quickly ascending to partner, Karen was a member of the firm’s Government Contracts Group for three decades, retiring from the firm in 2011.  Her own account of her recruitment to Crowell provides a wonderful window into both Karen and our founder, Took Crowell:

I first met Took in 1976 at a meeting of the ABA's Section on Public Contract Law.  He was talking to the few women at the meeting and asked me why more women did not attend the Section's programs.  [Later,] I was finishing up my duties as Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Carter Administration and had been invited to speak at the closing luncheon for the Section during the ABA's Annual Meeting.  Took decided to take me under his wing and introduce me to all the members of the Section Council.  His form of introduction was typical Took: ‘You should meet my friend, Karen Hastie Williams, she is leaving the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy and is talking about going back to the Hill.  Obviously, she should not go back to the Hill but should immediately join a prestigious government contracts law firm--not any firm but the best of the best--Crowell & Moring!!’  Needless to say, it was the most unusual job offer that I ever received.

Karen was an ardent advocate for and supporter of Crowell & Moring’s pro bono program, and served as co-chair of the Public Service Committee for several years, participating directly in the recruitment of Susie Hoffman to lead those efforts.  Susie and other partners remember Karen with great admiration as “a zealous, passionately committed advocate for equal access to justice and for the firm’s pro bono program.”

Among her many other passions, Karen was devoted to efforts to raise funds for breast cancer research, often co-chairing the Race for the Cure.

In addition to her stellar professional accomplishments, Karen was an individual who exemplified the very best of our firm.  Our women attorneys, including Ellen Dwyer, Jennifer Waters, and Susie Hoffman recall Karen as a role model at a time when women partners were rare in major law firms.  Many partners recall Karen’s uncommon combination of a powerful and impressive array of accomplishments, and her extraordinary grace and genuinely warm presence.  All recall her efforts to foster community and to serve as a steward for others.  Elliott Laws recalls how Karen welcomed him and the other Black lawyers in the firm into her home soon after his arrival at Crowell, and Keith Harrison credits Karen with creating the firm’s African American affinity group though her gatherings of Black attorneys for social events.  Jennifer Waters appreciates how Karen extended her amazing relationships for the benefit of others, which included a Supreme Court Historical Society dinner at which Karen seated Jennifer next to Justice Marshall. 

Of course, Karen also brought her unique insights to the workings of federal agencies and the politics surrounding them to bear for the benefit of our clients.  Stu Newberger recounts how Karen’s influence and federal government savvy played a crucial role in the success of our early work for the victims of state-sponsored terrorism:

We had a big judgment [against Iran for Terry Anderson, the journalist held hostage in Lebanon by Hezbollah for seven years], and no method for enforcing it.  But working with Karen, we quickly developed a plan to pressure the Clinton Administration and subsequently Congress to employ frozen Iranian assets to satisfy the judgment.  The client was thrilled with the outcome, and The Washington Post ran a front-page story about it, which resulted in a lot more clients and cases coming our way. With that success we began a journey that continues today as the Victims of Terrorism practice thrives.

For my part, I recall Karen fondly for her kindness towards me when I arrived at Crowell in 2005.  She was such an impressive and accomplished individual, yet related easily to everyone, projecting no sense of her own prominence or importance.  She was committed to issues of diversity and equity, and to the firm’s role on the social justice landscape.  At that time, much of her professional efforts were exerted through the corporate and non-profit boards on which she served to great effect.

I encourage you to read the ABA trailblazer interviews with Karen from 2006, which feature reflections on her extraordinary life and career in her own words.  They include fascinating accounts of her experiences as a Black youth and woman in a world not ready to create opportunities for someone from either of those demographics.  Consider this early experience in her education:

I think the first time I realized I was really conscious of race was when I went to Junior High School at Wagner Junior High School [in Philadelphia] where the classes were probably about one-third black and I remember the teachers there had a very low expectation of what black students could do, could learn, and I remember at the time each eighth grade student had to sit down with a counselor and talk about what their aspirations were, what they were interested in doing, and whatever work experience that they had had and at the time I really hadn't had any work experience, although for a couple of summers I had helped out in one of the gift shops [her family operated] in the Virgin Islands, but my father was a lawyer, my godfather [Thurgood Marshall] was a lawyer and I indicated that I would be interested in law at some point in my career, and I'll never forget the counselor saying to me -- I think it was some sort of interest test we were supposed to take and I took that -- and she said, "You know, I think you'll make a really good store clerk some day."  And I thought to myself, ‘not quite what I had in mind.’  But that was the first time that I really got struck by the fact that there was among many in the white population a low expectation of what blacks have the intellectual capability to achieve and had the drive to go after.

Too often, our world still today affords less consideration and opportunities to women of color.  But because of iconic individuals like Karen Hastie Williams, who served in so many ways with distinction and always made sure to give back to each community to which she was connected, we’ve made great progress.  There is still much more we must do, and Karen showed us the way.

* * * * *

Karen was born on September 30, 1944 in Washington, D.C. to Beryl and William H. Hastie, Jr. Her father was the first African American Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Prior to that achievement, he became the first African American appointed to the federal judiciary when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Virgin Islands in 1937.  In 1949, he was appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (the first African American appointed to a federal circuit court), where he would serve for 21 years, including two years as its Chief Judge.  Judge William H. Hastie, along with Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and others worked on the cases that led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.  Karen’s mother was a Howard University graduate and life-long Virgin Islander.

Karen graduated from Bates College in 1966, where she earned a bachelor's degree in Government.  She earned a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1967, and a JD from the Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law in 1973.

Karen is survived by her loving husband of 53 years, the Reverend Dr. Wesley Samuel Williams, Jr., who is the first African-American to serve both as legal counsel to the U.S. Senate and president of the Harvard Law School alumni association.  He serves as the Cathedral Priest Scholar and Nave Chaplain at the Washington National Cathedral, as well as a member of the Dean Council and Service Rotas.  In addition, Karen is survived by their three adult children; a brother; numerous cousins; and countless friends around the world.

A funeral service for Karen will be held on Saturday, July 24th, 1 pm at St. John’s Episcopal Church, at Black Lives Matter Plaza, 16th and H Streets, NW, Washington, D.C.  A reception will follow at The Decatur House 1610 H Street.  In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  More information on doing so can be found in her obituary, which is located online here.  In Karen’s honor, Crowell has contributed $10,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Please join me in remembering and paying tribute to our good friend and colleague, who was an inspiration and standard-bearer for us all.  She will be missed by many, but her legacy will endure.

-Philip T. Inglima

Chair, Crowell & Moring LLP