Kim Keenan made an odd request two years ago when she became president-elect of the 94,000-member District of Columbia Bar, the second-largest unified bar in the country. Rather than drop by the office for meetings a few hours here and there throughout the week, she wanted to come in regularly for two full days at a time.
Keenan is a solo practitioner—which is unusual enough for the head of a major bar—and as counter-intuitive as the scheduling seemed, it best fit her style.
“If you want to do a lot of things well, you have to live in the moment,” says Keenan, who is involved in more civic and professional activities than many big-firm lawyers who enjoy blessings and backup from their partners.
“If I have a deposition to do, that’s all I think about,” Keenan says. She has taken thousands of them in 18 years of litigation, mostly medical malpractice. “You won’t get me to talk about another project. I’ll be very focused, get it done and then take up the next most important thing on my schedule.”
She also sets aside specific time for multitasking, splitting the laser focus into more of a kaleidoscope.
“Kim structured her year with very careful use of time,” says Katherine A. Mazzaferri, executive director of the D.C. Bar. “She didn’t want to be running back and forth all the time.”
Not that Keenan, 48, isn’t in perpetual motion. In addition to being on a slew of boards having to do with everything from civil rights to the YMCA National Capital, as well as teaching trial practice and a course for would-be and new law students, she became a part-time mediator with the McCammon Group in January.
Keenan’s main gig is her practice, the Keenan Firm, which is just her—no associates. Though she does, in addition to her virtual toehold office in D.C., get some staff support where she shares space in nearby Largo, Md., at Rosier & Associates. It’s a small firm headed by a former president of the National Bar Association, the largest and oldest national association of African-American lawyers.
Keenan, too, is a former NBA president. And before that she was president of its affiliate, the Washington Bar Association.
Over the years Keenan has gotten a name for getting things done. Of course, that snowballs with requests to do even more.
While National Bar president, Keenan spearheaded its efforts, along with other minority bars, to get lawyers into the community to help voters understand a significant change in voting laws, the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The statute was a cleanup measure after the controversial and technologically challenged presidential election of 2000, but its complexity could have boomeranged and kept voters away.
In ’02 Keenan was tapped by the D.C. Bar president to head a committee for solving serious problems with the way the city’s courts dealt with landlord-tenant matters. The result was a notably successful self-help center in the district’s superior court for tenants without lawyers.
As D.C. Bar president last year, Keenan applied her trial-lawyer and mediation skills to handle the move to mandatory IOLTA accounts. Many of that bar’s members are licensed in multiple jurisdictions, especially those with Virginia-Maryland-D.C. practices. The biggest question concerned which jurisdiction’s ethical rules applied.
And Keenan’s approach was typical: Make it simple, especially for solo and small-firm lawyers who don’t have the luxury of big-firm administrators and committees looking out for them.
Mazzaferri was a close observer on this issue and others as Keenan reached out to a broad network of mentors.
“It was a fascinating and solid approach because she got the benefit of other leaders and other strategies and found her place in the world of leadership,” says Mazzaferri. “I watched as she really expanded her approach as leader, facilitator, mediator—and she already was tremendous at those things.”
Keenan has been guided by two dynamics: Everything she’s done has changed her, especially in recent years. And she’s always plotting her next moves.
“If you practice by rote and are not innovating and changing, then you’re not creating anything, and I find it difficult to be excited when doing the same thing over and over,” Keenan says. “You wake up one day and it turns out you’re good at other things. More and more I’m marrying up my passions with my work.”
Her passions include building and creating something out of whole cloth that helps people before something needs fixing with litigation, as well as negotiation, governance and strategic roles, and civil rights.
Her new work as a mediator—she’s handled two tort matters and is listed for civil rights cases—“is a bridge,” Keenan says, leading to a new place where she expects to be within five years.
Some corporate or nonprofit leadership or advisory role?