Karen has had an impressive career in both private practice and public service. She was one of the first women trial lawyers to make partner at S&C. She worked in public service for two periods during her career—first as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1990 to 1996, becoming the chief of the General Crimes Unit, and then as the chief of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York from 2002 to 2004, where she supervised 165 federal prosecutors and oversaw all criminal investigations and prosecutors in the district. During her time as a federal prosecutor, her successes included the conviction of a top aide to erstwhile junk-bond king Michael Milken and serving as lead prosecutor in the Martha Stewart insider-trading case. During the high-profile Martha Stewart 2004 trial, a USA Today article called her “the USA's highest-profile lawyer these days. It's a position that doesn't surprise those who know her well.”
When searching for the right law firm, Karen says she was looking for a firm that had an international platform. “There wasn't another firm that would provide me with the experience that Sullivan & Cromwell would in terms of the training, mentoring and the high-profile cases. It was ultimately the work that drove me to come here,” she notes. Karen also found that she enjoyed living in the Big Apple. “I wasn't certain that I would love living in New York. But I did, and it's now home, and I can't imagine living anywhere else.”
As an associate, Karen worked closely with Vince DiBlasi, Rich Klapper and Bob Sacks. Her first project was working on the Kodak-Polaroid litigation, which, at the time, was the largest patent infringement case to date. “I joined the case at a time when they were completing discovery, so I got to do many depositions and work side by side with the partners. I shadowed them in court each day. It was a wonderful learning experience to watch them develop our work product into something really terrific in the courtroom.”
Karen's trial experience at S&C led her to pursue becoming an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a position she says was an honor and a great privilege to hold. She explains, “On a daily basis, you feel like you're truly making a difference in the public interest.” She credits her experience in the U.S. Attorney's Office as being incredibly important in the development of her career. “It created a lot of opportunities for me,” she says.
One of those opportunities was returning to private practice at S&C after her first stint in the government. “I knew I wanted to continue as a litigator, but I wasn't sure on which area I wanted to focus. When I came back to S&C, I had a more traditional civil litigation focus, representing Claudia Cohen in matrimonial litigation involving Ron Perelman, as an example. But the assignments that appealed to me most were those with a regulatory or criminal nexus, such as the Oxford Health Plan's litigation. I very much enjoyed helping the senior officers in a very complex accounting securities fraud case, which required understanding not only the facts and the law, but also their personalities and their fears in dealing with regulatory action. I liked the client relations side of it much more than I thought I would.”
She says that developing close relationships with her clients as a defense attorney and helping them navigate some of the most difficult issues they will ever face appealed to her. “As a prosecutor, you don't really have clients; your client is the United States. But as a defense attorney you have real people, or real people at a corporation or an institution who tell you what their concerns, hopes, dreams and fears are, and you try to meet those needs. I found it very challenging and difficult but ultimately rewarding because you feel as if you're really making a difference to someone.”
Navigating the ever-changing regulatory environment that her clients face presents many challenges to Karen. “Our clients are being pulled in so many directions—helping them find a path to get to where they need to be, whether it's cooperating with the government or fighting it, and dealing with competing demands to help them achieve what they want, is a real challenge. I find it intellectually stimulating but also personally rewarding to have that one-on-one relationship with clients,” she says.
Karen admits it wasn't always easy to balance the demands of family and work while raising her two sons, Walton and Ben, noting that, in order to have meaningful time with her children, she needed “to be rigid about making time, and be good at shifting gears,” she said.
“Every day, women feel pulled in a million directions, and the advice I give to women at the Firm who are trying to find balance is to accept that although you may never feel 100 percent perfect at anything—realize all of the things you are accomplishing on a daily basis. There's no perfect mother, no perfect lawyer, no perfect spouse—do the best you can. And you know what? You're probably better-performing and more productive than if you weren't juggling so much.”
She says that, for her, living close to the office was one of the keys to being able to juggle work and family responsibilities, as well as having a supportive work environment, and, last but not least, a very supportive husband (Karen's husband is S&C partner Sam Seymour).
Family: I live in Brooklyn Heights with my husband, Sam, and our two sons.
Hobbies: I went to a Nature Conservatory lecture about the declining bee population where they asked for volunteers, so I signed up and enrolled Sam and myself in a class at the New York City Beekeepers Association. A few weeks later, a package of bees arrived in a little crate at our Shelter Island home. I’m happy to report that we have successfully produced packages of honey, which we give as Christmas presents to family.
Ways to relax: I love to organic garden. Sam and I train for marathons. We also love to play tennis and spend time outdoors.
What it takes to be a great litigator: “First, try to get as broad of an experience as possible. Don’t specialize too soon if at all. Second, try to get courtroom or deposition experience even if you don’t feel that you’re completely ready to do it. Don’t be afraid to fail, because nobody’s perfect when they’re in the courtroom. Third, take on as much diverse work as you can, and look out for yourself. If you want certain opportunities, find ways to make them happen.”
Pro bono work: “It’s incredibly important to give back to our communities, and given how busy we are, it’s very easy to say that you don’t have time for it. I say make time for it. If you make an effort, there’s almost always a little time. Also, you can’t wait for someone to give you a good pro bono case. Go out and look for it. Pro bono work is very important in terms of getting a well-rounded skill-set and being on the front line early on in your career.”
On finding your way as an associate at a big firm: “I think one of the main challenges for our young lawyers is that we have a lot of large cases and it’s easy to feel anonymous as a result. So make an effort to get to know people better. Even though we are all very busy, doors here are very open. I love to talk about strategy and ideas, and enjoy it when people stop by to talk.”
On achieving success: “Try to remember that you have loved ones, because you’re going to need them. Make time for yourself and make time for your family and friends.”