Fielding a litany of questions when sharing what you do for a living is a familiar situation for many. The day-to-day grind of life as an attorney often does not reflect the excitement portrayed in television legal dramas. For attorney Karen Beyea-Schroeder, however, the early years of her career played out like a well-paced episode of the late 1990s legal program, JAG.
Like many of the women we have profiled in this series, Karen didn’t immediately set down the path to become a lawyer. In fact, she wanted to be an accountant. It wasn’t until she concluded that she could ultimately help more people through a career in the law that she made the decision to enroll in Seton Hall University School of Law. Initially she gravitated towards criminal law and sought out opportunities through which to gain the most trial experience possible at the conclusion of her studies. This led her to the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (“JAG”) Corps. Without any prior military experience, Karen applied for Army JAG and was accepted during her third year of law school, which began a whirlwind period of her life.
The pace at which Karen prosecuted cases during her time in JAG was extremely aggressive. She relates that she often had to prosecute tough cases involving child molestation, child abuse and rape. Not only did she take on a child molestation case where she had to prepare a small child for trial, she also prosecuted one of the first child internet pornography cases in the military. While these cases were mentally draining, Karen faced even more extreme situations during her time in JAG. Many complain, “their job is killing them”—figuratively speaking. During her time in JAG, Karen Beyea-Schroeder actually received two legitimate death threats.
The first instance occurred while she was prosecuting a child abuse case. She sketched a rough background for the case: “It began with the marriage of a U.S. Army cardiothoracic surgeon. One day, his wife called him while he was on temporary duty assignment away from the home psychotically claiming that the couple’s 13-year-old child was the root of all the problems in their marriage. The surgeon could hear the child screaming in the background, a scream he never heard before. He quickly wrote a note to his colleagues to send the military police to his house while he attempted to talk his wife down. It was later discovered that the wife had been beating her child with a baseball bat after already holding a knife to the child’s throat.”
Due to her prior training and experience in questioning special victims, Karen was called to attend the questioning of the abused child. During the prosecution of the case, child protective services determined that the wife should be allowed only supervised visitation with her children. On one of those visits, the disturbed woman kidnapped her children, called her husband—from whom she was now separated— and demanded a ransom for the children’s return. While she was driving around town with the children calling her husband with her ransom demands, she repeatedly called Karen and left what Karen described as “manic” messages on her home phone. The children ultimately returned to the father that weekend, one by jumping out a moving vehicle, another being let go by the mother for crying excessively and the last as a result of actually having the father tender a check to his wife for his own child.
The next business day, Karen received a call from the wife’s attorney requesting a plea deal for the original charge of child abuse. Many would have been so rattled by the proceedings of the case that they may have complied simply to achieve a resolution, but Karen took a strong stand. She informed opposing counsel that the case was not appropriate for plea bargaining discussion based on her actions of that weekend, the wife would face child abuse charges and several additional charges as well. At this point, Karen became aware that she was on speakerphone and the plaintiffs’ wife was in the room. Once that call was over, the unstable wife advised her attorney how she now believed Karen was the root cause of her problems and felt she had to eliminate Karen. In a turn of events that seemed to come straight out of a movie script, this prompted the wife’s attorney to confer with his partner on the exceptions to the attorney client privilege, during which time the wife went missing. The attorney called Karen and advised that the wife threatened Karen’s life and was now missing. Karen called her supervisor at the U.S. Attorney’s office who said to “lay low” until the disturbed woman was located. The wife was pulled over for road rage in a school zone close in a route from the attorney’s office to Karen’s office, which gave her enough time to “lay low.” For the next 48 hours, the FBI monitored Karen’s house, the children’s school and various other locations. The missing woman was finally found two days later and placed on a psychiatric hold. She was ultimately convicted and spent a lengthy time in prison.
The experiences that she had in JAG certainly served to develop Karen’s “thick skin.” It takes a strong woman to effectively gloss over the fact that, for a brief time, she was also on the Mexican mafia’s hit list. She recounted the story: “While working in San Antonio, the police intercepted an illegal motorcycle theft operation run by the Mexican mafia. I was the lead prosecutor on the initial case, which resulted in my name being part of a list the Mexican mafia created.” For the second time in her career, Karen had authorities monitoring her home. In the face of all she has experienced, it’s easy to see how Karen developed her no-nonsense approach to sexism in the legal field. After she left the military, Karen ultimately focused her practice on plaintiffs’ work and honed in on the fields of product liability, personal injury and complex commercial litigations. When asked if she saw a difference in the level of sexism in private legal practice versus the in military, she replied, “You find sexism wherever you go if people don’t watch their P’s and Q’s. The incidence rate is no higher in the military than it is in the civil community. When faced with sexism in your chain of command, start documenting things. Report it to HR and if that doesn’t work, talk to the partners. The important thing is to report it.”
Karen believes that it can sometimes be to a woman’s advantage to be initially underestimated. “We need to take advantage of whatever we can. If you think you’re being underestimated, then use that to take your opponent by surprise. Prove them wrong by being the most prepared and competent person in the room.” Karen tells a story about a deposition that took place while she was working for the defense. There were eight other attorneys, all male, present for the deposition of an 18-year old girl who was allegedly homebound. As the only female attorney present, Karen began to notice things about the girl that the men perhaps wouldn’t even consider. Karen observed the girl’s fresh manicure and well-done hair, and was able to lead the girl to admit that she met with friends upwards of three times a week. “A man wouldn’t have noticed a manicure or professionally-styled hair, but a woman would. Because I noticed those things, I was able to completely destroy the plaintiff’s case. No one saw that coming. When I started that line of questioning I was asked if I even wanted the questions on the record.” As a woman in the legal profession, Karen says that she had to develop a thick skin. “We need to be tough; we need to work harder to get where men are naturally. This is a ‘boys’ club’ still and if you can’t handle that, maybe you shouldn’t be a trial attorney.”
Having a strong personal support system has helped keep Karen resilient in the fight—for justice and for equality for women in the legal field. Her husband, a former police officer, has always been encouraging of her career and appreciative of her dedication to her clients—a sentiment also instilled in their son. Karen acknowledged the reality of the guilt that a working mother faces when she misses events in her children’s lives, but concluded that as her son has grown, he has come to understand that her work truly helps people.
When asked what advice she would give to young women starting out as attorneys, she answered, “Figure out what works for you. You don’t need to have it all figured out right away. I tried three different areas of the law before I found my niche—don’t be afraid to change your focus if something isn’t working for you.” Karen also stresses that balance is critical. “We all feel like we need to do it all and have it all and sometimes we can lose sight of what is important.” She put her advice into perspective: “Do you want your tombstone to say ‘she was a good lawyer’ or ‘she lived a full life’?”
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