Karen Doner

The Butter Knife

Karen Doner was only a fifth-year attorney when she won the case she remembers best. She was practicing employment law as a midlevel associate for the large firm Williams Mullen and was representing Oncore Construction in a suit against a large local construction company. There were other partners on the case with more experience, but Karen was handling the bulk of it and developed the client relationship; ultimately they saw her as their attorney. The case was a classic David and Goliath scenario, with the smaller Oncore expected to lose.

Instead, Karen and Oncore won the suit, and the President of the company was more than grateful. As a thank you, he gave her a gift which, today, she still considers to be one of her prize possessions. “At the conclusion of the case, he gave me a butter knife,” she smiles. “He told me, ‘Karen, you cut their heart out with a butter knife.’ That was a turning point in my career. When you’re a mid-level senior associate, and a client compliments you in that way, you start to realize that I might actually know what I’m doing. You start thinking more like a strategic lawyer.”

“That statement—‘I cut their heart out with a butter knife’—actually is my style to this day,” Karen continues. “I’m reasonable and happy to get along with opposing counsel. I want to be reasonable since it is so much more pleasant to get along with the other attorneys. But I’m there to do a job. My job is to zealously represent my client and, of course, win. The President of Oncore is a friend of mine to this day. He recognized that skillset in me early in my career. It felt good, and it gave me a lot of confidence going forward.”

“Every client is so different; I try to get to know my clients so I can mold to their personality and what they’re looking for.”

Karen continued rising in the ranks at Williams Mullen. She stayed for ten years and ultimately became a partner at the firm and was the first female elected to the Board of Directors. After a decade learning what she could there, she and two other attorneys decided to launch a small firm of their own. That business, Roth Doner Jackson, did very well, and again, Karen gained valuable experience that she would carry with her into her own practice. She stayed for about seven years before taking the leap and founding her own firm, Doner Law, PLC, in January 2017.

Today, Karen is running a successful practice and employs two other female attorneys—one full-time and one part-time. Karen made a particular effort to ensure there would be roles for part-time attorneys at her firm since many law firms do not have meaningful positions for part-time attorneys. “There’s a whole body of mostly female litigators with families who ultimately have to drop out of the practice of law because of the difficulty in balancing family and law,” she explains. “Even when bigger firms say they have work/life balance and part-time opportunities, those opportunities are not truly part-time or they are financially punitive. I discovered at my last firm that hiring these women is really a win/win situation for both the firm and the employee. The firm can really benefit from someone providing however many hours they are able to provide, whether that’s 5 hours a week or 20 hours a week. A firm benefits from that because these are top-notch attorneys who didn’t have the opportunity to keep working in their field. And obviously it benefits them because it’s a job that’s flexible and understanding.” In fact, Roth Doner Jackson won the DC Bar Quality of Life Award for its commitment to offering a positive work environment by embracing this same model.

Although Doner Law is a small firm, Karen tries to offer all the benefits and resources of a much larger firm. She believes it’s crucial to invest in amenities like a nice office space in a well-located area with access to shared conference rooms, as well as employee benefits like paid maternity leave and a monthly childcare stipend. She has an administrative assistant and bookkeeper to ensure that she isn’t bogged down with administrative work and can focus on the clients. One thing that sets her apart from other law firms, she believes, is her responsiveness and her decisiveness.

“It’s surprising, but a lot of attorneys are not responsive,” Karen notes. “That doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re successful based on your clients, why wouldn’t you return a call in a timely manner? Even if I’m in trial, I let them know I’m in trial and will get back to them in two days. In the meantime, I let them know who they could contact in the firm. So I cultivate those relationships, and I do try to get to know the client on a personal level as well.” She is also results-driven and gives decisive results. Lawyers from larger firms tend to identify the pros and cons of each situation and then shy away from making a specific recommendation. Karen, on the other hand, assesses the risks involved and then offers direction. There is no waffling back and forth when you are talking to her about a legal issue.

As she has since law school, Karen practices employment law, generally representing employers when they face litigation over discrimination or harassment suits. She also provides counseling to employers on day-to-day matters like terminations, instituting fair policies, and avoiding litigation in the first place. That makes up 60 to 70% of the practice; the other 30-40% of her time is devoted to commercial litigation—business-to-business disputes and contract disputes.

“I believe in doing two things well for our clients in her employment practice: First, helping a business in any way I can to prevent them from being sued by an employee. Avoiding being sued means treating people fairly, not discriminating, and not engaging in anything unlawful. I know we provide excellent guidance on these matters. The second thing we do well is defend them in litigation when it is appropriate. In my experience, there are a very small percentage of valid claims that employees bring against companies. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any because there are. But they are of a much smaller percentage than the frivolous claims that I see. So I feel very good about defending against those claims.”

“My father is definitely my number one fan; he has always been extremely supportive of me and my career.”

Karen’s clients run the gamut from tiny companies with five employees to giant firms with more than 10,000 workers. Although she’s had great success getting her name out to prospective clients, her secret isn’t networking. In fact, she doesn’t do much networking at all. Instead, she just does a great job for the client, and relies on her reputation to push her practice forward. “I always try to find a way to do what the client wants to do,” Karen affirms. “When someone asks me, ‘Can I do this?’ typically my first response is, ‘Well, is that what you want to do?’ And then I try very hard to do what they want to do. Every client is so different; I try to get to know my clients so I can mold to their personality and what they’re looking for.”

Karen grew up middle class in the DC area and is proud that her success has allowed her children more privileges than she had growing up. But she’s quick to thank her father for the work ethic that got her here; it was he who gave her a solidly middle-class upbringing after his own childhood of poverty. He and his brother were given up to a foster family when he was only three, and the foster family was too poor to ever adopt them. For years, Karen’s father and uncle shared a couch as their bed in the living room of their small apartment in the Bronx. He was the first in his family to go to college. And he went on to become an aerospace electrical engineer for the Naval Research Lab. “I think about how he grew up, and then about how I grew up which was so much better,” Karen reflects. “And then I think about how my children are growing up, which is even better. That is amazing to me. My father is definitely my number one fan; he has always been extremely supportive of me and my career.”

Karen’s mother, meanwhile, was Canadian, and Karen was actually born in Montreal before she, her parents, and her older sister relocated to the DC area before she turned one. In Maryland, her mother worked as an administrator for the Montgomery County government. “My mom and I have similar personalities,” smiles Karen. “She always volunteered for various things. I don’t think she tried to get me to do it, but she led by example. My mother is very service-driven. That’s important to her, and she does it regularly.” Although she didn’t go to college, and although Karen’s father was the first in his family to go, she remembers that college was expected for her and her sister.

However, Karen was a late bloomer when it came to academics. She was more focused on spending time with her friends than studying. Until high school, her report cards suffered. Then she got involved with the local B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO), an international youth group for Jewish teenagers. There, she began to come into her own. “I had been getting into a little bit of trouble,” she laughs. “And my parents forced me to go to this group. But it really changed the course of my life. There I was part of a strong group, and I’m still friends with a lot of those people today. I ended up becoming the Regional President of the Washington area.”

Still, getting into college was tricky. She’d improved her grades since being involved with BBYO, but her transcript still left something to be desired. With her heart set on University of Delaware, she followed the advice of a counselor and applied to their Agricultural Education Department. Then, after starting at the school, she transferred out of the Ag department, began to pursue her passion, and majored in two fields—criminal justice and political science.

Everything was going swimmingly. She joined a sorority, and after years spent working at various waitressing and retail jobs, she landed a competitive internship at then-Senator Joe Biden’s district office. She was enjoying her classes and loving the social life. Unfortunately, at the beginning of her junior year, she was badly injured in a freak accident at a sorority hayride.

Karen was run over by a wagon with 20 people on it a week before Halloween. The tractor driver had headphones on and was unable to hear the screams for him to stop. Karen had fallen off and was pinned to the ground underneath the wagon. She had broken her back. “It was a very serious accident, and I was helicoptered out,” says Karen. They didn’t know whether I was going to walk again. The spinal cord injury was tremendously painful.”

She was in the hospital for several weeks, then in the National Rehab Hospital for several more weeks before being able to return home to Gaithersburg. She took the rest of the semester off and was lovingly cared for by her parents. It was a depressing and painful time for Karen since she was basically bedridden and had to relearn how to walk and perform other daily life activities.

She even started an Employment Law Society on campus, and to this day, she stays in touch with her employment law professor, who has been the strongest female mentor in her career and who Karen describes as a lifelong friend.

Finally, she returned to school for her second semester, but everything felt different. She needed a back brace and a cane to get around. She no longer enjoyed going to parties or participating in the college social scene. Instead, she buckled down, focused on her studies, and went to physical therapy regularly. During her recovery, Senator Biden reached out to offer his condolences, and when Karen decided she would attend law school, he gladly wrote her a letter of recommendation. “I applied to Syracuse, his alma mater,” she laughs. “And I was accepted there within 24 hours of them receiving his letter.”

Ultimately, Karen felt the need for a change of pace and decided to go to law school at Loyola University in Chicago. Now free of her cane and back brace, Karen loved law school and immediately developed an interest in employment law. She even started an Employment Law Society on campus, and to this day, she stays in touch with her employment law professor, who has been the strongest female mentor in her career and who Karen describes as a lifelong friend.

In the summers, Karen would return to DC, as she knew she wanted to practice in the area after graduation. Back home, she worked as a cocktail waitress, but in Chicago she landed a gig at a boutique employment law practice through her mentor. By the time she graduated, each of the seven attorneys in the practice were happy to reach out to connections in DC to help her get set up in the area. She landed her first job out of law school at a firm called Hazel & Thomas, before moving on two years later to Whiteford Taylor and Preston. “My first few years I was just trying to figure out what felt best and where I wanted to be,” says Karen. “But I always practiced both employment law and commercial litigation. I’ve done that at every firm because I do love the trial work.”

Two years after that, she landed at Williams Mullen. There, she met many mentors, although all of them happened to be male. In fact, the only sexism she encountered in her career came from fellow female attorneys. Because of these experiences, Karen prioritizes being a mentor to other young female attorneys who may have faced similar prejudices. The difficulties of juggling the responsibilities of both law and motherhood are the reason she’s so committed to offering excellent benefits, maternity leave, childcare stipends, and part-time schedules.

Karen has been fortunate to have a supportive partner as they raised her son and daughter. Her husband, Andy, actually attended the University of Delaware with her, but the two didn’t begin dating until they reconnected at a school homecoming four years after graduation. Their children are 17 and 14, and now because they’re more independent, Karen has begun to make giving back more of a priority. She’s volunteered for a variety of causes, but the project closest to her heart is the work she’s done toward getting housing for a homeless man, Marvin, in her neighborhood.

Her friendship with Marvin began around four years ago. Karen and her neighbors in Vienna had organized a monthly community service event, and it was her turn to host. She had seen Marvin from time to time and offered him food or a cold drink on a hot day. But she felt she wanted to do more to help. “I met with him, and we put together a list of stuff he would need to get through the fall and the winter,” explains Karen. “Since that time, our relationship has really grown. We are close and lifelong friends.”

Marvin is 75 years old and had been homeless for almost 50 years. One day he asked Karen for help finding a job so he could afford a place to live. Karen dove into the project knowing nothing about homelessness or the resources available. She connected him with The Lamb Center, which provides services to homeless people, as well as FACETS, an organization that paired him with a case worker to try to find him housing. With his permission, she even reached out to his relatives and located two sisters and several first cousins, some of whom are in the area. Last November, Karen found Marvin a place to live. It took some time to get him settled into a new place and routine, but Karen reports that he is doing well and is very happy. She continues to take him to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, and checks in with him regularly.

Karen thinks back to her time at BBYO as she reflects on what it takes to lead. “I learned in youth group that a good leader is someone who really listens and collaborates with others,” she says. “It’s got to be a team effort. I try to do that in my practice now and get input from others. People need to feel included and valued.”

To young people entering the working world today, she gives the simplest, but often best advice—work hard. “It seems so obvious, but I don’t always see that,” nods Karen. “That is how I was able to build a practice and be successful. I worked hard from the very beginning, proved myself, and never stopped. My work ethic is what got me to where I am today.”

Karen Doner

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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