December 26, 1933 – April 26, 2016
I haven’t answered phone calls. Or returned emails or texts. I’ve just stayed in the cocoon of our close family. My sisters and brother, our children and in laws have been grieving together and working together in preparation for mom’s celebration of life this weekend. It has all been quite hideous and wonderful all at the same time.
Mom’s obituary details an amazing life. Chinese immigrant parents. The seventh of eleven children. Third woman to graduate in chemical engineering from the U of Illinois. Going to UW Law school with two babies and graduating three years later with two more plus being 7 months pregnant with the fifth.
This is mom’s law school class. She received an offer from a big downtown firm upon graduation, but wanted to be closer to her family. She first worked for a grumpy old man lawyer who pretty much terrified me. After a few years she left him and opened her own general practice a few miles from our house. She was very high energy and slept 3 to 4 hours a night. Her favorite time to do laundry was at 2:00 a.m.
Mom was the most untraditional person I’ve ever known. The phrase: she walked to the beat of her own drum – is an understatement. She was a true Maverick in every sense of the word. She always believed she was right. She never gave up. And she fought like heck for everything. I once watched her sock a lawyer in court because he pushed her. The judge heard about it and after emerging from recess scolded the two of them.
In the 60s through the 80s when mom practiced law, she experienced racism and sexism. She could care less unless it was from a judge. This is because the judge was supposed to be fair and impartial. And because he had the final say like it or not. Otherwise if it was from opposing counsel or their clients she either ignored it or went into attack mode.
She loved people and would not give a second thought to starting up a conversation with a total stranger. To the contrary, she would attend any public meeting or function where she could go meet even more people. When we were children this embarrassed us to no end. As we grew into adults it still did periodically. She felt completely connected to people and did not need time to warm up to them. She had no boundaries whatsoever and would talk about whatever was on her immediate agenda. Whether the recipients liked it or not.
As she grew older mom became more unique. She introduced a bit of magical thinking into the equation. Being such a brilliant person, it was interesting to watch people trying to follow her train of thought. She felt she was on another sphere of intellectual and spiritual being and she was right.
Three lessons I learned from mom were: 1) tell the truth even if bluntly; 2) be strong enough to fight for what is right; and 3) always be there for your family.
Mom had many other sayings and pieces of advice. This collection comes from memories of my childhood:
- sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never harm me
- to be Eurasian means you are the best of both worlds
- ignore them – they don’t know what they’re talking about
- eat everything on your plate – there are children starving in (fill in the blank)
- your hair needs to be cut
- what is that stuff (makeup) on your face – you don’t need anything
- beauty is skin deep
- women can do anything men can do and usually better
- stand up straight
- don’t slouch or you’ll grow a hump
- you have your grandmother’s hands
- tell them you can see better with your four eyes than they can with their two eyes
- next time he socks you, sock him back as hard as you can
- it’s a natural bodily function
Perhaps the most wonderful quality of mom was her brightness. I cannot remember seeing her depressed. If she felt down she didn’t show it. If she was unhappy or upset she did not cry or mope. Instead she came out swinging as hard as she could. Granted if you were a victim of her wrath, it was no fun. But mainly mom was elated with life. Whether it was beating someone in a game, winning a motion, playing with her grandkids, getting a great deal during her bargain hunting, predicting something correctly or eating an ice cream cone – she laughed and crowed and whooped in utter delight.
We will miss her forever.
Photos: (1) our family archives; (2) my partner Paul Whelan dug this up for me the day after she died; (3) mom and the five kids.
A male news anchor from Australia wore the same suit every day for a year – changing his shirt and tie – and no one noticed. He did this to prove a point after becoming frustrated with the constant criticisms levied by the public against his female co-anchor’s appearance.
“No one has noticed; no one gives a s**t. But women, they wear the wrong colour and they get pulled up. Women are judged much more harshly and keenly for what they do, what they say and what they wear.”
I am pragmatic in dealing with this kind of double standard.
My top priority is my client. I have to do everything in my power to put their interests first. If jurors or judges are going to have inherent biases against me based on appearance, it is my j.o.b. to do my best to make sure these biases are neutralized one way or the other.
I choose not to spend my time railing against the unfairness of stereotypical gender based clothing differences in the legal profession. Instead, I focus on the positives:
1. The stereotype of the “shark” lawyer that our public dislikes – is a white male in a suit and tie carrying a briefcase. I will never look like that and am not so quickly type cast.
2. The “male suit” looks formal and harsh, like a coat of armor, unless you are wearing seer sucker or linen which pretty much never happens in the Pacific NW.
3. The differences between a gray, black and dark blue “male suit” – are negligible. You will always look the same. This is why Mr. Australia Anchorman got away with his one suit year.
4. Remember what the people of China looked like when Mao ruled. I’m American and value individuality. I don’t want to look like a prototype.
5. We won our independence from Britain in 1776 and created a superior civil justice system that includes the right to trial by a jury of our peers. We don’t have to wear uniforms of powdered wigs and black capes. We are free of that.
6. Sometimes I want to look like Power Woman. Sometimes I want to look Gentle (which contrasts nicely if I am doing a hard cross of an expert). Sometimes I simply want to look the opposite of what the defense lawyers look like. I want to be able to harness every ounce of persuasive ability that I can muster. And that includes my visual appearance.
So the answer to the young lawyer who asked me the question of what is my typical trial wear is this:
I am formal but not overly so. I always wear a jacket but it may range from a tailored black button down Hugo Boss, to a swingy three quarter length wide sleeve, from buttons to snaps, collars to no collars. Labels to H&M. I wear a lot of skirts. A line is too confining. Typically above the knee, but there are a few longer ones. I have only a few true suits and they are all more than 10 years old. Everything is mix and match. Just gave away my last white button down shirts because never wore them. Like soft cotton or silk shirts. Dresses too. I don’t wear a lot of pants, but will. I am a blue jean/legging person and don’t care for slacks as much. No tan colored nylons. Black tights in the winter and lots of lotion in the summer.
Finally, I mainly wear black and some gray. For a few years, I tried to go lighter. But black is my favorite color. Plus everything matches which makes it easier to throw things together.
Photo: By Cristina of Me and Nala when not in trial.
Anne has started off the new year with a Fitbit. Her goal – add steps to her sedentary work day. Tearing herself away from her desk has proven difficult. Anne always has more work than she can complete.
Enter Nala. She comes to work most days. There are many hours spent lying on the floor, chewing an old antler, digging the stuffing out of her bed, and otherwise being bored. She doesn’t complain though. Afterwards we typically go for a run.
About three weeks ago, Anne had an aha moment. She was watching Nala who as usual, was exercising bad manners and jumping on someone who had come into my office for a visit. Hmm, Anne thought. And just like peanut butter and jelly the two souls came together.
Nala now has a new walking pal. And Anne has found a fun way to add between 1000 and 2000 steps to her new contraption each day.
Photo: Sunny, 50 degrees, and 3:00 Monday afternoon.
In 2007, when I was President of WSTLA, I wrote an article called the Value of Dissent.
The focus at that time was AAJ and my perception of its systemic problems in advancing diversity. I was not liked by AAJ leadership for being aggressively outspoken on the issue.
Seven years later, I am now not liked by WSAJ leadership for being aggressively outspoken on the issue of lawyers directly soliciting clients (which I abhor).
Another past president of WSTLA told me: sometimes people have a hard time with a woman who speaks out.” He wasn’t the only person who has shared this thought with me.
Regardless of why organizational leadership particularly dislikes when I speak up, here is an excerpt from the article WSTLA printed when I was at its helm:
The Value of Dissent
How colorless our world would be if we all had the same opinions…
In the forward to A Mathematician’s Apology (Cambridge University Press 1940) Prof. G.H. Hardy says:
It is never worth a first class man’s time to express a majority opinion. By definition, there are plenty of others to do that.
Progress is made, not by comfortably agreeing with the conventional wisdom, but by having the courage to say what no one else is saying and to say it with clearly articulated reasons that motivate people to change their opinions.
Perhaps the greatest value of dissent is “that the sponsoring and protection of dissent generally have progressive implications” for social change because “[d]issent communicates the fears, hopes, and aspirations of the less powerful to those in power.” Dissent, Injustice, and the Meanings of America. Steven H. Shiffrin. (Princeton University Press 1999).
There is a reason why law students are taught to argue both sides of a case. Lively debate is considered a fundamental touchstone to the truth finding process necessary in a democratic society. An organization that shies away from embracing the expression of dissident opinion, no matter how insulting, is an organization that risks being undermined and weakened by its own self satisfaction.
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. John Stuart Mill, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1947) at 15. Quoted in Justice Brennan’s opinion in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964).
Ron Ward, a true hero for the cause of diversity, sent me this quote: “…..If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder or lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” FREDRICK DOUGLASS, West Indian Emancipation Celebration at Canandaigua, New York, August 4, 1857.
Photo: When I was President of WSTLA with the board 2007/2008
She is a stranger who sends me a handwritten letter after having read something about me. I email her back and invite her to lunch. She emails back and accepts. Two months later…
“Hi!” She says with her warm smile, walking into my room. “I love this office. You have great art.”
I take her over to chat with Paul Whelan. Tour her through the maze that is our office. Down to the old racket ball court now turned into a courtroom. Out into the cool sunshine. Down and across the street to the Boat Street Café. Where we spend a delightful hour over our tasty baguette sandwiches.
Dean Annette E. Clark, M.D., J.D. graduated from SU law (previously UPS law may it rest in peace) four years after me. She immediately was hired on as a professor. And now has been elevated to head the institution. By all rights she could be stuck up and full of herself. But she isn’t.
Her eyes dance. She is talking and chewing with me. She is so cozy to be with that I have no hesitation admitting a piece of lettuce is stuck in my tooth. Before I dig it out.
We talk of our children – she has two boys, one who is in law school , the other who is a mechanical engineer. The hopes for our profession. Whether I would agree to be an adjunct in trial advocacy at SU Law, now that my long time UW teaching partner Bill Bailey has become a full time professor. How this blog got started. Even Facebook.
And honestly the whole time I’m thinking, just how cool she is.
Photo: By Ryan Monahan our IT guy – in our parking lot before Dean Clark hit the road.
J.R.: Hi Karen, I thought of you when reading the SuperLawyer Top 10. Are you the first woman to do this? CONGRATS!
Go to www.superlawyers.com top list for Washington. Interesting. Appear to be in the top 10. Walk down hall to Catherine’s room.
K: Someone said I made Top 10 superlawyers.
C: I told you that months ago, but you were typing and said – oh nice – and didn’t even pause.
Return to own office. Look up past 11 years of superlawyers’ existence. Two other females have made the top 10. Carolyn Cairnes, an employment lawyer in 20o4. Karen Jones, deputy general counsel for Microsoft, the last time in 2009.
Write back to J.R.:
K: Hi J.R. I didn’t even look at the list until I read your email. I wish more women were listed in the top 100/top 10. At least there’s 1 this year.
And wish it didn’t matter.
Photo: by Noelle Greig of me looking not particularly lawyer-like at Cheekwood Botanical Garden, Nashville TN
Walk up to door one. Open and walk through. Door two. Push button. It clicks. Enter. Write name and time on log at front desk. Write name on tag and stick on shirt. Cindy arrives and says hello. Follow her down the linoleum covered hall. Past the man in a wheelchair. An open door reveals a woman in bed watching tv. A hunched over man looks at me from another open door. His leg is bandaged. Walk towards the eating area where several others are congregated. Mostly in wheelchairs. Chatting. Average age probably middle 70s. Or older.
Reach Marissa’s room. She is in a wheelchair. A plastic toy drum on her lap. Eyes closed. Sleeping. Next to her is Brianna, her sister. When I first met Marissa she was 20 and Brianna was in the 4th grade. Brianna is going to be a high school junior in the fall. Cindy sits on the bed.
Marissa had just graduated from high school when she was struck head on by a teenager who crossed the center line. Marissa’s car was pulverized. And so was she. The other teenager exited her vehicle unscathed. We sued the car manufacturer and the negligent driver. Years ago.
Marissa sleeps. Cindy, Brianna and I talk.
Me: Has the other driver ever visited.
Me: Have her parents.
Me: A phone call.
Me: A card.
Me: It is not for me to forgive. Marissa is not my daughter. And I believe in forgiveness. But I do not understand how you can forgive someone who changed your daughter’s life and that of your entire family – who has never even said they are sorry.
Them: We thought that they would. We were waiting for it to happen and wondering if it would make us feel differently. We believed it would. But they never did. And we have given up thinking that they ever will. And we try not to think of it.
Me: I mean, maybe the insurance company or their lawyer told them not to say sorry because that would mean they were at fault. Maybe I could understand that. But this case has been over for how long now.
Them: It happened eight years ago and ended six years ago.
Me: Yeah. No excuse.
Them: Can’t believe eight years have gone by.
Me: It’s not just that Marissa will have to live in a nursing home for the rest of her life. It affected your entire family. Brianna spent so much of her childhood in this nursing home. You still come here every day. You have spent hours, days, weeks, months, years here. And they have never said they are sorry. It just makes me mad.
Them: We see them sometimes out in the community and they never acknowledge us.
Me: It was not intentional. She was a young, inexperienced and bad driver. That did not make her a bad person. But if my child had wrecked a family, I would feel morally obligated to reach out to them – to let them know that I cared and was so sorry.
Them. Us too.
Me: I mean, send a card. Do something. Do anything. Be a decent human being.
Cindy gently shakes Marissa. She opens her eyes. Gets cleaned up. We caravan down the linoleum halls. Past another locked door with a buzzer. Out to an empty courtyard. In the beautiful spring weather. Under a tree with a red robin’s nest. Listening to the chirping. Waving away the occasional bee. As Marissa bangs on her drum.
Photo: Marissa, Brianna and Cindy.
Mary Fung Koehler is 80 today. So far, these are the lives that she has led:
- Child number 7 of 11 to immigrant parents
- Worker in the family Chinese restaurants in Chicago during the depression
- 3rd female to graduate from the University of Illinois in chemical engineering
- Employed as a chemical engineer
- Married to Jim and a wife for almost 3 decades
- Mother to Karen, Debbie, Susan, Jennifer and Gregory
- Law student when pregnant with Susan, Jennifer and Gregory
- Practicing lawyer in Lake Forest Park for 2 decades
- Real estate agent
- Predictor of IQ’s – the most famous being that Greg’s dog Izzy’s IQ was higher than that of George W. Bush.
- Dowsing fanatic and believer in all things intuitively magical.
MFK taught us to stand our ground. To fight for what is right. And that women were just as capable as men, if not better (she was and is a bit of a female chauvenist).
Happy Birthday Mom!
Photo: MFK on graduation day from UW Law School in 1968 standing in front of our garage. I was 8, Debbie 7, Susan 3, Jenny 1 and Greg was 7.5 months in utero.
Listening to my own voice used to pain me. I avoided it. Couldn’t stand it. It seemed too high. Too sweet. And if I didn’t remember to tuck my tongue in, there was a lisp. Oh, how much I yearned for a deep booming voice. So I could preach when I spoke. Like M.L.K.
I started playing piano at the age of seven. Kept at it through high school. By the end, I typically practiced two to three hours a day. My fingers could fly. At times I dreamed of becoming a professional pianist. Then reality would intrude. You see, my hands were too small. I could reach an octave. Beyond that, I had to roll the chords. I was good. But could never truly be exceptional.
This was my fear as a young attorney. That my feminine voice, like my small hands, would doom me in the quest to be the best trial lawyer that I could possibly be.
This insecurity was the by product of trying unsuccessfully to emulate male trial lawyer role models and icons. Eventually I gave up on all of that. Thank heavens!
Fast forward (a few decades)…
The voice that I worried about so much, is now a trusted and worthy friend.
Here is my confession of the day. I am not only highly detail oriented at work. There is some spill over.
My girls have done their best to keep me from going over the edge into full blown OCD. We used to have a rule from the time they could walk. The house stayed clean except they had dominion over their own rooms. So long as I could close their doors they could do what they wanted. That is until I eventually couldn’t stand it anymore and picked up and sorted through the various piles of debris.
They would commonly complain that I had picked up their dishes before they were done eating. Or I moved a critical piece of something before they were finished using it. “Relax mom ” was one of their most common phrases to back me down. Still is….
It’s simply that I like things just so. My office is clean like my house. I like order and symmetry and pretty pictures that don’t hang crooked. Every drawer deserves dividers and little baskets to help it become completely organized. Except the one drawer in the kitchen that is intentionally left messy. So we can call it a junk drawer. It is really a test. I catch myself wanting to clean and sort through it. But usually resist the urge.
At work this skill set comes in handy. The most detail oriented person in my office is Paul Stritmatter. When we work on cases together it is almost frightening. He’ll send out an email with a list of maybe 20 things and then I’ll add another 20 things and then he’ll add another bunch and then so will I. And so on. Of course we make it a competition. And have a great time. And our paralegals are rolling their eyes.
There isn’t a button I can push to completely turn off my very particular lawyer’s brain at home. But it’s okay. Because over time, my kids have adapted. And become a bit like me.
Photo: a portion of my closet…