Influential attorney represents the best of what women can offer


 by Cynthia Price

Legal News
Carol J. Karr has initiated many firsts in her time, and in March she received recognition for her trailblazing ways.
Grand Rapids Business Journal named Karr one of the 50 most influential women in West Michigan.
Karr was the first lawyer at Miller Johnson to specialize in estate planning and probate, the first female partner, the first woman to serve on the firm’s management committee, the first woman chair of the State Bar of Michigan’s Taxation Council.
There were over 130 nominations for the 50 influential women spots, and Karr prevailed. “Although they took into consideration community work, I get the impression the decision was heavily weighted towards leadership within your profession.”
Immediately after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1978, Karr came to work for Miller Johnson.
Though she admits things were different then, Karr seems reluctant to regard her gender as a barrier.  She has always been hard-working and has focused on developing her particular area of expertise.
But she remembers a time when her firm would hold meetings at a club that did not allow women, and having to go in through a different door. 
And among her many honors is Quotarian of the Year for the District 20 Chapter of Quota International in Michigan. Quota International is a service organization for women, developed in response to the fact that  groups like Rotary at one time did not admit women.
She says that Miller Johnson has always been supportive of women attorneys. When she started in 1978 there was one other female lawyer, but that woman left within a short period of time, and Karr often found herself the only female in the room.
One of the areas where Karr sees most progress at Miller Johnson is in extending flexibility to attorneys at the firm.
Karr is no stranger to accolades, having also been named a “Thought Leader in the Law” for 2009 by the  Business Review of Western Michigan. She is also listed in the “Best Lawyers in America®,” for both tax law and trusts/estates, and has appeared on the “Super Lawyer”   Top 50 Women list since its inception. She has received a YWCA Tribute award, given to women who exhibit professional leadership and community involvement.
Community involvement is one of Karr’s strongest points.
In fact, she says that what she likes best about practicing in the Grand Rapids area is the broad opportunity offered to those who want to do meaningful community work.
Karr says that when she talks to fellow Harvard Law graduates, those who have practiced all their careers in major metropolitan areas have simply not been able to serve their communities to the degree she has.
She currently is on the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan YMCA and serves as chair of its Heritage Club Committee, having formerly been on the Executive Committee; is vice-chair for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and serves on their Professional Advisory Committee as well as the Van Andel Institute Planned Giving Council; is a long-time member of the Metro Health Hospital Foundation; and participates in the pro bono program of Legal Aid of Western Michigan.
When asked to name the community organizations she formerly served, she has difficulty remembering them all. A few that come to mind are Indian Trails Camp, the Ryerson Library Foundation, and Black Educational Excellence, which helped African-American students excel academically.
“My nonprofit work is what I find the most rewarding,” she says. “I think being a lawyer has opened those doors to me. The Grand Rapids community makes it so easy to get involved and make an impact.”
The Probate and Estate Planning Practice Group Karr heads has grown considerably, and for the past two years has brought in approximately 15-16.5% of Miller Johnson’s income.
Karr points out that the other lawyer named as one of the 50 most influential women is Marilyn Lankfer, who she says is from the same “vintage” she is and has the same legal specialization, probate and estate planning. Karr says Lankfer has also contributed heavily in both community work and to her profession.
Karr lives in Kent City and is the mother of four boys who are prominently displayed on her desktop computer screen. She lives in a semi-rural setting and is able to raise chickens, which she refers to as “sweet little things.”
Her advice to new female lawyers? “You really need to be true to yourself and find your own passion and your own style – you can’t pattern yourself after other people, male or female. Women have made big changes in the way law is practiced and by going with your own instincts, you’ll find your path.”