Keenan Becomes General Counsel of the NAACP
By Rebecca Barns and Rob Seal
The NAACP recently named Kim M. Keenan ’87 as general counsel, making her the youngest person to hold that position and the second woman to serve as the organization’s top lawyer.
Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the United States.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use my legal experience to make a lasting contribution to our society,” Keenan said. “Looked at another way, I could not imagine saying ‘no’ to Justice [Thurgood] Marshall's old job.”
Prior to joining the NAACP, Keenan was the principal of The Keenan Firm in Washington, D.C., and focused on complex medical malpractice litigation, mediation and arbitration, litigation consulting, and public speaking.
“Every day as I enter my office on Mount Hope Drive, surrounded by the history created by Charles Hamilton Houston, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Judge Robert Carter, my goal is to build on their legacy of service,” she said.
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a release that he is excited to work with Keenan.
“Kim’s experience and commitment to public service make her a valuable addition to our staff,” Jealous said. “She is a leader, a trailblazer, and a clear voice for the cause of justice and equality. Her exceptional skills as a litigator will strengthen NAACP’s ability to continue our historic role of using the law to advance the goals of social justice and transform our nation for the better.”
Keenan set her sights on a career in law early in life, in part because she saw in it a potential combination of discipline and creativity. Her mother was a social worker and often recounted how lawyers arguing cases in court had made a difference in the lives of many children. Her father taught her how competition can bring out the best in people.
In her third year at UVA, Keenan took a course in trial advocacy, which she described as her high point in Law School. She clerked for the late Judge John Garrett Penn of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, then went on to practice with two law firms, gaining 18 years of experience, mainly in civil litigation.
Over the years Keenan focused on what she calls “macro pro bono” cases, in which she works to further justice on behalf of large groups rather than individual clients. She investigated claims of employment discrimination through the Fair Employment Council of Greater Washington, and served as council chair. The organization also trained jobseekers to find and land jobs.
Keenan was also a founding member of the Equal Rights Center, which bypassed bureaucracy by making it possible to bring concerns involving disability rights and housing and employment discrimination to one central place.
As president of the Washington Bar Association from 2001-03, she set her sights on encouraging promising, yet disadvantaged, students to seek a career in law. To this end she helped start a fund for scholarships for law students and for up-and-coming students at the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school in southeast Washington, D.C.
In 2004 she served as the 62nd president of the National Bar Association, the largest and oldest bar association of lawyers, judges, and students of color in the world. In her term as president she worked with other minority bars to promote the outreach of lawyers into communities to help people understand the changes in voting procedures in the wake of the 2000 presidential election.
Keenan is immediate past president of the District of Columbia Bar, the second-largest jurisdictional bar in the nation. In this position she used her mediation and trial lawyer skills to clarify and streamline the process of bar members moving to mandatory IOLTA accounts, through which interest from lawyer trust accounts builds funds for legal aid. The process had been particularly challenging to manage for small firms and solo practitioners in the D.C-Virginia-Maryland area, where different rules for ethical procedures applied.
Keenan is on sabbatical from teaching duties at George Washington University Law Center, where she has taught pretrial advocacy and trial advocacy as an adjunct faculty member since 1999.
In June, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law will honor Keenan with the Wiley A. Branton Award for Civil Rights Under the Law. The award is named for a civil rights lawyer who championed the cause of school desegregation in the 1950s and black voter registration in the South in the 1960s.