Insight

Aim High and Fly

From a silent victim of hometown segregation to Air Force captain and lawyer of consummate skill, Karen Evans exemplifies leadership—and vows always to help those who seek to follow her path.

Karen Evans' Leadership in the Airforce
KA

Khalil Abdullah

May 11, 2022 08:30 AM

This article was originally published in our 2021 "Women in the Law" Business Edition on June 7, 2021.

The first job Karen Evans ever had was at risk. She was a 15-year-old junior counselor for 10-year-old girls at a YMCA summer camp in her hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina. Counselors who did well the first session could then work through the season. “I knew I couldn’t tell my mother and grandmother that I had lost my job,” she recalls. “I and my co–junior counselor were not guilty of telling those young girls the stories that frightened them so much they ran screaming into the night.”

The ax was imminent, and Evans knew it. She approached the camp supervisor directly and explained who was responsible for the horrific tales that let to the campsite fiasco. If anyone had to be fired, she argued, it ought to have been the senior counselors; she and the other junior should have been welcomed back for the duration. Evans rested her case. “You, young lady,” the supervisor told her, “should be a lawyer.”

The innate confidence on display that day had surfaced in Evans even earlier. “I’ve always been a take-charge personality,” she muses. Growing up, she and her close-knit clan of cousins all lived within a few blocks of her grandmother. “My mother tells the story of 5-year-old Karen being the teacher in a pretend school on the steps of my grandmother’s house,” she adds. “My older cousins were my willing pupils.” They were indulging her, perhaps, but Evans has long believed that “leadership starts with where we have been, and the people who serve as our mirrors.”

She was nurtured in the cocoon many African-Americans spun deliberately to shield their children and loved ones from the harsher aspects of society. In Wilmington, there was still only a thin veneer over the abhorrent 1898 racial violence that killed dozens and inflicted enormous property damage.

As a child, Evans didn’t ride public transportation; wherever she needed to go, she had to wait for an adult to drop her off and pick her up. “My uncle worked in a drugstore that had a soda fountain,” she recalls. “He would always say to us children, ‘Don’t come in—I’ll bring you drinks.’ We didn’t know then that the soda counter was segregated— we just knew our uncle liked to treat us to drinks outside.”

Her mother was a nurse’s aide who had hopes her daughter would go further than she had in the same line of work. In 1980, Evans graduated from East Carolina University’s nursing school and chose the Air Force to pursue her career as a registered nurse. “I saw the military as a pathway that rewarded performance. You know what you have to do, and you know what the results should be.”

She became a commissioned officer and rose to the rank of captain. “Aim high and fly,” she says, citing an Air Force motto she has embraced throughout her life and legal career. Rank itself, she observes, provides useful perspective on leadership. “I’ve seen doctors talk to nurses in all manner of ways, for example, but as a captain, they had to address me as a military officer.”

Karen Evans as 2nd Lt., ca. 1981

There was more in play than just the respect for authority that rank commands, she explains. “As an officer in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps, I was taught ‘each one, see one, do one, and teach one.’ My takeaway: A leader shares knowledge and teaches others. This resonated because it was consistent with my core values. It enabled me to find a path to leadership in a way that was natural for me.”

Military service also imbued Evans with the relentless discipline she now pours into her legal work. “Our life experiences forge the unique leadership skills that we bring to the table,” she says. “We must embrace the empowering life lessons that shape us. It is those experiences and lessons learned that help each of us develop authentic leadership.”

Although rank had its benefits, the demands of nursing—“a tough profession,” she says—took a toll. After six years, she began to consider other careers that could reward her drive and intellect. Her eureka moment came while watching two lawyers present at a seminar. “They were competent enough, but it wasn’t difficult to see myself in that role.” She adds, with a laugh, “If I knew where they were today, I would thank them.”

She earned her law degree in 1990 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law. “I didn’t know any lawyers personally when I went to law school, certainly not any Black lawyers. It’s so important to have someone to talk to. You never know how a few words may make a difference.”

As an officer in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps, I was taught each one, see one, do one, and teach one.

Mentoring is in Evans’ DNA; she has always sought to help people through instruction and example. “My nursing background and desire to help others allowed me to develop compassion and empathy, which deeply inform my personal style of leadership.”

From 2007 to 2012, Evans taught at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, D.C.’s public law school that is committed to the public interest, using the legal system to help those in need and serve the community.

Her core advice: Never stop learning. “Losing often teaches us more than winning,” she says. “Losing requires deeper self-reflection. Mistakes can be a learning experience. Discern when to ask permission and, if necessary, when to seek forgiveness.

“Sharing expertise is key to fulfilling our leadership potential,” she continues. “Surround yourself with people who possess leadership qualities and positive traits you would like to attain. Learn what works for them. Develop systems that work for you by yielding reliable results but still allow for creativity.

“Embrace experiences lived and lessons learned. These provide a true path to your unique and authentic leadership style and will reflect the values you hold and deem important.”

After a lifetime spent demanding excellence of herself—and sticking up for justice and the truth since the days of that long-ago YMCA camp—Evans has arrived at a plateau of self-realization: “Life experiences shaped the leader I am today and [still] strive to become. We all, me included, have the potential to become better leaders.”

Khalil Abdullah provides consulting, writing, and editing services on a range of policy issues. He is a former executive director of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. He was a senior writer/ researcher for the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, Inc., and managing editor of the Washington Afro-American Newspaper. He joined New America Media as the first director of its Washington, D.C. office and assisted in policy briefings and workshops for ethnic media. As a national editor for NAM, he also contributed as a writer. He is currently a contributing editor to Ethnic Media Services among other clients.

Related Articles

IN PARTNERSHIP

Salvi & Maher, LLP: Illinois and Wisconsin's Personal Injury Firm


by Justin Smulison

For more than 35 years, Salvi & Maher LLP has defended their clients throughout Illinois and Wisconsin in various areas of personal injury law, including medical malpractice, motor vehicle accidents, premises liability and trucking litigation.

Skyline of Chicago with green river and blue background

IN PARTNERSHIP

Emroch & Kilduff: Virginia's Personal Injury & Medical Malpractice Attorneys


by Emroch & Kilduff

For over 40 years, the award-winning Virginia-based firm Emroch & Kilduff has worked to represent their personal injury clients in both state and federal courts.

Skyline with water and bridge on blue background

A Roadmap for Safety in D.C.


by Justin Smulison

Three-time “Lawyer of The Year” Patrick Regan explains how we can protect cyclists from injury and the city from more litigation.

Several lawyers sitting and standing in a group in office

New England's Best Lawyers 2022


by Best Lawyers

Our New England's Best Lawyers 2022 publication features top-ranked legal talent in New England.

New England's Best Lawyers 2022

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers: The Injury & Malpractice Issue


by Best Lawyers

Featuring the top legal talent from The Best Lawyers in America, Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America and “Lawyer of the Year” recipients for personal injury and medical malpractice as well as thought leadership from some of the nation’s top lawyers.

Best Lawyers Injury & Malpractice Publication

Georgia's Injury and Malpractice Leaders


by Justin Smulison

In 2021, Adam Malone recovered more than $38 million in settlements for catastrophically injured clients, while continuing his leadership roles outside the courtroom to enhance the profession for injury lawyers.

Malone Law Remain Leaders in Personal Injury

Georgia's Best Lawyers 2022


by Best Lawyers

Our 2022 Georgia's Best Lawyers publication features top-ranked legal talent in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Greater Atlanta, Macon and Savannah.

Georgia's Best Lawyers 2022

Catastrophic Personal Injury


by Best Lawyers

Trial legend Frank Branson finds success mixing technology and new skills with vast courtroom experience.

Catastrophic Personal Injury

Big Wins From Coast to Coast


by Justin Smulison

Founder Michael S. Burg discusses how Burg Simpson’s lawyers secured major verdicts in some of the nation’s most unique cases in 2019.

Michael S. Burg Best Lawyers 2020

The Malone Legacy


by Alicia Lu

Adam Malone continues the legacy of improving lives he and his late father, Tommy Malone, achieved together.

Adam Malone Best Lawyers 2020

No Challenge Too Big


by Justin Smulison

Following its most successful year to date, Easton & Easton continues its streak of notable victories for California’s injured.

No Challenge Too Big

How Panel Voir Dire Impacts Medical Malpractice Law


by Best Lawyers

Annette Gonthier-Kiely, 2019 "Lawyer of the Year" award winner for Medical Malpractice Law in Boston, discusses her practice and trial strategy.

Annette Gonthier-Kiely "Lawyer of the Year"

Defining Leadership


by Sean Stonefield

At Boston plaintiffs’ firm Jones Kelleher, attorneys Pat Jones, Tim Kelleher, and Rob DeLello have worked together for almost 25 years and now bring 90 years of cumulative experience to their practice.

Jones Kelleher: A Tradition of Excellence

In the News: Georgia


by Nicole Ortiz

A summary of newsworthy content from Colorado lawyers and law firms.

In the News Georgia 2018

Shifting Risks in Renewable Energy


by Monica Wilson Dozier

Development of renewable energy projects is expanding at an unprecedented pace. But a burgeoning industry brings a host of legal considerations along for the ride. Here’s what counsel needs to keep in mind.

A Money Plug Connecting with an Energy Plug

The New Wild West


by Mary Frances Palisano

Artificial intelligence has only just begun upending industries of all kinds. It stands certain to play an exceedingly important role in criminal law as well.

Old Western Wanted Poster with pictures of four colorful AI robots

Trending Articles

Presenting The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to present The Best Lawyers in Australia for 2025, marking the 17th consecutive year of Best Lawyers awards in Australia.

Australia flag over outline of country

How To Find A Pro Bono Lawyer


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers dives into the vital role pro bono lawyers play in ensuring access to justice for all and the transformative impact they have on communities.

Hands joined around a table with phone, paper, pen and glasses

How Palworld Is Testing the Limits of Nintendo’s Legal Power


by Gregory Sirico

Many are calling the new game Palworld “Pokémon GO with guns,” noting the games striking similarities. Experts speculate how Nintendo could take legal action.

Animated figures with guns stand on top of creatures

Announcing The Best Lawyers in New Zealand™ 2025 Awards


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is announcing the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in New Zealand for 2025, including individual Best Lawyers and "Lawyer of the Year" awards.

New Zealand flag over image of country outline

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Japan™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

For a milestone 15th edition, Best Lawyers is proud to announce The Best Lawyers in Japan.

Japan flag over outline of country

The Best Lawyers in Singapore™ 2025 Edition


by Best Lawyers

For 2025, Best Lawyers presents the most esteemed awards for lawyers and law firms in Singapore.

Singapore flag over outline of country

How Much Is a Lawyer Consultation Fee?


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers breaks down the key differences between consultation and retainer fees when hiring an attorney, a crucial first step in the legal process.

Client consulting with lawyer wearing a suit

Presenting the 2024 Best Lawyers Employment and Workers’ Compensation Legal Guide


by Best Lawyers

The 2024 Best Lawyers Employment and Workers' Compensation Legal Guide provides exclusive access to all Best Lawyers awards in related practice areas. Read below and explore the legal guide.

Illustration of several men and women in shades of orange and teal

Things to Do Before a Car Accident Happens to You


by Ellie Shaffer

In a car accident, certain things are beyond the point of no return, while some are well within an individual's control. Here's how to stay legally prepared.

Car dashcam recording street ahead

Combating Nuclear Verdicts: Empirically Supported Strategies to Deflate the Effects of Anchoring Bias


by Sloan L. Abernathy

Sometimes a verdict can be the difference between amicability and nuclear level developments. But what is anchoring bias and how can strategy combat this?

Lawyer speaking in courtroom with crowd and judge in the foreground

Attacked From All Sides: What Is Happening in the World of Restrictive Covenants?


by Christine Bestor Townsend

One employment lawyer explains how companies can navigate challenges of federal and state governmental scrutiny on restrictive covenant agreements.

Illustration of two men pulling on string with blue door between them

The Push and Pitfalls of New York’s Attempt to Expand Wrongful Death Recovery


by Elizabeth M. Midgley and V. Christopher Potenza

The New York State Legislature recently went about updating certain wrongful death provisions and how they can be carried out in the future. Here's the latest.

Red tape blocking off a section of street

Georgia Proposes Law Requiring Parental Consent for Minors on Social Media


by Gregory Sirico

With data collection on the rise, Georgia lawmakers are currently petitioning for Senate Bill 351, which would require a user's age before social media use.

Teenager with hood on using phone as notifications pop up

Colorado Attorney General Calls For Cannabis Reclassification


by Gregory Sirico

In this article, Best Lawyers highlights a recent call to action by the Colorado state attorney general, requesting a full drug reclassification of cannabis.

Cannabis buds sitting on a checkerboard tabletop

6 Ways a Lawyer Can Help You With Your Medical Malpractice Claim


by Adam Malone

If you believe you have a medical malpractice claim, contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. Read on to learn how they can help with your claim.

Doctor in white lab coat showing x-ray to patient in blue scrubs

An Employer’s Guidebook to Responding to Online Harassment


by Belle Harris and Brent Siler

Navigating online defamation against your business requires strategic responses. Two employment lawyers guide how to leverage contracts, understand social media limitations and the risks of legal action.

Image of person pushing giant phone with mouth and words coming out