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Karol Corbin Walker takes the oath as president of the New Jersey State Bar Association today, becoming the first African-American to lead New Jersey’s largest organization of lawyers. But her tenure is likely to be more than symbolic, given her outspokenness and go-getter reputation. “The word ‘activist’ was made for Karol,” says Donald Robinson, who hired her in 1989 at her current firm, now known as St. John & Wayne in Newark, N.J. “She’ll stir things up, and where there’s a need for change, there’ll be change.” Walker says her chief goal is to expand membership, particularly among minorities, women, small-firm members and lawyers from underrepresented regions. The theme of her presidency is “NJSBA — Inclusive of You, Your Practice and Your Community.” She wants more diversity, not just in membership, but in committees, sections and programs, she says, and she plans to elevate the Bar’s task force on diversity to a permanent standing committee. Her efforts in that direction already have generated controversy. She ruffled feathers last month when she named eight members to the judicial and prosecutorial appointments committee, five of them minorities, without first running the names by county bar leaders. Walker also opposed revisions to Bar Association bylaws that she predicted would have “a devastating impact” by shrinking the role of the membership in nominating Bar leaders. The dispute sparked a flurry of letters to the editor in the past month, and Walker sees the flap as partly due to her race. For example, the April 21 front-page stories about both controversies were headlined, “Race Takes Center Stage at State Bar,” which Walker says would have been different if she were not African-American. “I have not seen an article like that when other presidents made appointments,” says Walker, pointing out that the fuss is over five appointments out of eight to a 26-member committee. At the same time, Walker tries to put to rest any suggestion that the association is divided. She points to a Bar resolution, published in last week’s New Jersey Law Journal [172 N.J.L.J. 342], that blamed articles and letters in the legal press for incorrectly suggesting “that the proposed amendments were motivated by negative racial and gender considerations” and proclaimed the association’s “long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion.” Walker says she accepts controversy as the price for confronting issues that need to be addressed. “If I believe it’s important, I am not reluctant to pursue an issue even if it means I might make others feel uncomfortable,” she says. Her history bears that out. In 1993, as Garden State Bar Association president, Walker joined with leaders of other minority bar groups in a letter to Gov. James Florio, criticizing his failure to appoint more minority judges. The year before, she teamed with Paulette Brown, then president of the National Bar Association, to support Clifford Minor as Essex County prosecutor over objections of the New Jersey and Essex Bar associations. In 1999, Walker was chair of the judicial and prosecutorial appointments committee that opposed Peter Verniero’s nomination to the supreme court, leading Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to suspend the compact that gave the Bar a say in judicial appointments. Walker is “not afraid to enter the fray,” says former Appellate Division Judge David Baime, for whom she clerked and who will swear her in today. Walker has the energy and tenacity of a battalion, says Baime, adding, “We used to joke in chambers that she was the commander.” “She is able to keep multiple balls in the air at one time without dropping any of them,” adds friend and mentor Theodore Wells Jr., a partner with New York’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. “To her credit, she has been able to advance without compromising her principles.” A MAGNET FOR MINORITIES Wells and other black lawyers say Walker’s presidency may serve as a strong motivator for minorities to join the State Bar. “There has been an historical tendency not to view the majority bar as a place where [minorities] should devote their efforts,” but Walker’s example of achieving leadership positions in minority and majority bar groups should encourage other minority lawyers to join both, says Wells. Brian Freeman, president of the Garden State Bar, calls Walker’s ascension “a milestone” and says he has been encouraging his members to join the State Bar. Freeman, a partner with Jersey City’s Freeman & Gertner, recalls that as Garden State Bar president, Walker increased the organization’s membership and visibility. Walker notes that only about 17,000 of New Jersey’s 35,000 attorneys in active practice are State Bar members. “Some people might perceive it as an old boys’ club,” and Walker says that while that impression might have had some truth in the past, her presidency is evidence that things have changed. Walker is also only the fourth woman to lead the Bar Association. The first was Marie Garibaldi, whose 1982-83 presidency was interrupted halfway when she became a supreme court justice in November 1982. The other two were Cynthia Jacob, 1996-97, and Ann Bartlett, 1999-2000. Four years from now, Lynne Fontaine Newsome, the current secretary, will move up to the president’s office. Another aim of Walker’s presidency is to foster working relationships with New Jersey’s congressional delegation. Those efforts have begun. Last month, Walker, outgoing president Richard Badolato and three other Bar leaders went to Washington, D.C., as part of an annual American Bar Association lobbying event. They met with four congressmen, and Walker says she intends to set up meetings with the rest of the delegation. It was the first time New Jersey took part in the ABA event and Walker says it was at her urging. She sees it as essential to have input on legislation dealing with tort reform, bankruptcy, judicial pay and other issues. Other issues of concern to the State Bar are multijurisdictional practice and attempts to expand mandatory pro bono, both of which the organization opposes. FIRST N.J. BLACK WOMAN PARTNER Walker, 44, a 1986 Seton Hall University School of Law graduate, has worked at St. John & Wayne in Newark since 1989. When she became partner in 1995, she was the first black woman to do so at a major New Jersey firm. Her practice is mainly environmental defense litigation, but when asked about her most meaningful work, Walker talks about pro bono efforts in helping a woman regain custody of her children from the Division of Youth and Family Services and a plaintiff’s victory in a sex discrimination case at the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Williams v. Runyon, 130 F.3d 568 (1997). Before her current firm, Walker spent a summer at Roseland, N.J.’s Lowenstein Sandler, clerked for Baime, and worked for two years at Pitney Hardin Kipp & Szuch in Florham Park, N.J. Walker distinguished herself from the start, winning the State Bar’s Young Lawyer of the Year Award in 1993 and other honors since. Walker is a past president of the Morris County Bar Association and a member of the American, National and Essex County bar associations and of the Association of the Federal Bar of New Jersey. Her State Bar activities include four years as a trustee; chairmanship of the appointments, diversity, finance and long-term planning committees; and membership in many others. She has served on five supreme court committees, chairs the Committee on Character, is a member of the Lawyers Advisory Committee for the U.S. District of New Jersey and has served on two of that court’s merit selection panels. Walker is married to Paul Walker, a retired Internal Revenue Service branch chief of collections who does tax consulting work. She speaks daily with her father, Joseph Corbin. Walker is a Catholic, active in her Morristown parish as a Eucharistic minister and adult religious instructor, who starts each day by reading the Bible and meditating. “It helps center me,” she says. For the past decade, as part of a United Way program, she has gone into schools in Newark, Irvington, hometown Jersey City and other communities to read to children and encourage them to pursue their education. Walker is known for working such long hours that “we had difficulty getting secretaries to stay,” recalls Robinson, a partner with Newark’s Robinson & Livelli. But Walker also knows how to have fun. Robinson notes Walker’s sociability and recalls an annual bash she used to throw with a friend for hundreds of guests, complete with a DJ and dancing. Walker’s touch is already being felt in the program for this year’s annual Bar meeting, which started Wednesday. A first-time bench-bar conference will feature representatives from every court division and the municipal courts. Also new this year are sessions on professional image consulting to address wardrobe and grooming issues, plus a health fair, where blood pressure screening and body mass index testing will be provided. Lawyers are known for taking care of everything but themselves, remarks Walker. She is also looking out for spouses, she says, in adding gourmet cooking and wine-tasting events, though lawyers are also free to partake. And she will try to make new attendees feel more at home by issuing name tags that say “first time attendee” so members will go up and welcome them.

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