As the Arkansas River rose to historic levels last month and the Arkansas Bar Association was evacuated from its office on Cottondale Lane in Riverdale, Karen Hutchins stayed the course.
She made decisions about moving furniture and equipment from the first floor of the building to the second and, with the association's annual meeting just two weeks away, she found a temporary space for her staff to work, set up a plan with the association's information technology vendor to move the server and provide temporary Wi-Fi access there, and made arrangements for a truckload of materials to be taken to Hot Springs for the meeting.
"The annual event is the biggest event that the Bar Association has all year long, and she handled it. I can't overemphasize the amount of stress that goes with that circumstance," says Suzanne Clark, immediate past president of the Arkansas Bar Association, where Hutchins is executive director. "She handled that with such grace and such expertise. The Bar Association is incredibly blessed to have her at the helm. She keeps the wheels rolling."
Brian Rosenthal, current president of the Arkansas Bar Association and a lawyer with the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, which was not in danger of flooding, opened the doors for Hutchins and her staff to work out of a conference room there. He wasn't surprised by how well she handled the crisis.
The Arkansas Bar Association is one of 24 such state organizations that has voluntary membership, Rosenthal says. Bar associations with mandatory dues-paying membership are larger and have larger budgets.
"But, you know, I would put Karen's work and the work of our volunteers up against any bar association's," Rosenthal says. "We've got a bunch of devoted people and we're trying to help the public and we're trying to advance the profession and the administration of law and help the courts. Karen wears lots of hats as far as things that she has to manage and juggle and she does them all gracefully and tactfully with great skill. She's just the exact right person for this job."
Hutchins didn't set out to lead a bar association. She majored in finance at the University of Texas at Austin, and then went to the University of Houston Law Center.
"Everything I took in law school, it was very business-oriented," she says, explaining that her interests at the time lay in insurance, real estate, and business entities. "I took classes in oil and gas at the University of Texas. That was an oil and gas state, I guess, at the time, and so they had geology classes and things like that."
Her first job out of law school was with Exxon Company U.S.A., doing title review and negotiating trade and joint operating agreements. A couple of years later, she joined a private practice and a year or so after that she went into practice by herself.
"That was primarily oil and gas leases, pipeline easements, more property types, some probate. I just maintained that smaller practice," says Hutchins, who designed a more flexible schedule for herself after her children -- Kelley, Katy and Kirk -- were born.
Hutchins and her husband, Doug, met right after they finished high school and married in 1983, just after she finished her first year of law school. Doug Hutchins has worked for Blue Bell Creameries since he finished college. A promotion with the company is what brought them to Arkansas in 1997.
Karen Hutchins started teaching online courses in business law, business management consulting and ethics through the University of Phoenix from her new home in Little Rock.
"I taught for 11 or 12 years," she says. "The ethics courses are the ones I really enjoyed, because they challenge you to think and it shows you how different people think. There's always a line between legal and ethical boundaries, and we had great discussions on how people view that, and I enjoyed that."
She took the Arkansas Bar Examination, and soon after became the continuing legal education director with the Arkansas Bar Association.
"Somebody actually called me that I was working with in the teaching area and said that I really ought to apply for it," Hutchins says. "It just was a very good fit."
Within a year she became the Bar Association's human resources and special projects manager.
"I started getting into more management. I had a business degree, and that really interested me, being able to run the business side of it. So then I was offered the position of the executive director. It just fit so many of my interests, running a smaller business, while we're not super small -- we have about $2 million budget -- it's everything from insurance and financials to resource management and staff management, and then you add on top the volunteer management."
Hutchins says coordinating volunteer activities among Bar Association members is the "icing on the top."
"You get to meet all these people who are so passionate about their profession, what they do, wanting to do good things, wanting to have opportunities to help their profession," she says. "It makes the whole business come alive, I guess it's a nice way to put it, because you just really feel like you're doing good things, you're getting people together, who might not otherwise get together and helping them in their businesses."
During the annual meeting in June, Bar Association volunteers packed meals for needy Arkansans.
"We were just in a long line and everybody was packing and they had music going," she says. "We hope to be able to grow those types of things and make it fun so it'll attract younger attorneys, because it's real important that younger attorneys realize that value of meeting face to face. So many have more virtual practices and now they're able to do a lot of work through their computers and we want to engage them in other ways as well to let them know we're here to support them."
Arkansas Bar Association members have participated in clinics to help write wills for veterans and for those in underserved populations, and there is an effort underway for members of the Bar Association and others to provide free disaster legal services to people affected by the most recent floods.
Hutchins is a past president of the Arkansas Society of Association Executives, and in June, she completed a term as president of the National Association of Bar Executives (NABE), an independent nonprofit group that exists to help the management staff of bar associations across the country.
"That's put me in a group of all bar associations and how they work. Many of them are structured so differently, but we're all here to support our members and we're all facing the same issues that come down the pike," she says.
Rosenthal says the Arkansas Association has benefited from Hutchins' initiative in seeking out that national leadership role.
"It gives her the opportunity to bring us new ideas," he says. "If somebody has a good idea, and it's in Chicago or Kansas City, New York, or San Diego or wherever, we can collaborate and say, 'How did you do that? How did your members like that? How many people participated?' With Karen's help we have been able to be among the first bars in America to provide cyber protection services to its lawyers. So that's real cutting-edge type stuff."
Robert Craghead, executive director of the Illinois Bar Association, has worked with Hutchins through the national board for many years.
"Karen is intelligent, analytical and thoughtful, and most importantly, she cares about people. She is a recognized leader in our chosen field. She is exceptional in her ability to analyze and develop solutions to problems that the NABE has confronted over the years with respect to which way we're going to head in the future," Craghead says. "Karen was part and parcel of an extensive strategic planning effort that began roughly four years ago, if memory serves me correctly, that involved every member of the board, participating in a strategic planning process, and then an implementing task force that looked at the recommendations that came from that particular effort. Karen has been at the focal point of implementing those recommendations so that NABE can do an even better job in serving the multi-generations of the members in NABE."
Clark, whose presidency at the Arkansas Bar Association overlapped Hutchins' presidency with the national organization, compliments Hutchins' grace and diplomacy.
"I kind of joke with Karen about how she's got to deal with the personalities of new presidents every single year, with somebody new coming in with their grand ideas of what they think the association is supposed to do and be about," Clark says. "She navigates that so expertly -- it's very impressive because, really, the person who is running the Arkansas Bar Association is Karen Hutchins. The person who keeps that organization going day in day out is Karen, and she and her staff have done a phenomenal job."
KNITTING AND MEDITATION
Clark and Hutchins bonded over cooking, and when Clark's term ended she gave Hutchins a cookbook, a serving platter and some small dishes as a thank you gift.
Hutchins has long enjoyed cooking, although her husband has taken on the task periodically through the years so she could focus on her work. When their children were growing up, Hutchins made decorative birthday cakes for them every year. These days, her focus has turned from baking to healthier fare.
To relax, she picks up her knitting needles.
"The only thing I have found that totally shuts off my brain -- and I just saw an article about this, that actually they're proving it's equal to meditation -- is knitting," she says. "Knitting patterns that are not just knitting the same stitch but where you have to count and you have to keep up with patterns and color changes and all, that gives me relaxation and it helps me shut off my thoughts."
Hutchins' grandmother taught her to sew and a friend of her family taught her some knitting basics when she was about 10 years old. Seeing a friend knitting a few years ago led her back to the craft.
She has created scarves, boot cuffs and blankets, but her biggest project to date was a gold sweater she made for her daughter Kelley to wear over her strapless wedding gown six years ago.
"It was just very special to me, and so I put a lot of hours into it," she says. "It was with sleeves, but it was what I call ballet length, so just kind of a shorter bolero kind of length, with some fancy stitching on the cuffs and on the edge. It kept her shoulders warm."
Her friend, Janet Floyd, is also a knitter.
"We talk about whatever we're working on, and we've done some yarn shopping together," says Floyd, who goes to church at Highland Valley United Methodist Church with Hutchins and has a son who attended elementary school with Hutchins' son. "Karen is a person who puts her faith up front and is always looking for a way to model that faith for others in our day-to-day lives."
Floyd says Hutchins has always emphasized the importance of education for her family.
Kelley, who has a doctorate in aerospace engineering and works for NASA, was a dancer growing up and has returned to dancing as a professional for a small company in San Francisco. Katy and Kirk both graduated from Baylor. Katy is an optometrist in Little Rock, and Kirk has gotten a job with Late Model Restoration in Waco, Texas.
"She's strong with her family. She makes trips back and forth to Texas all the time," Floyd says. Hutchins' parents, Edward J. and Doris Klinkovsky, live in Temple, Texas. "Her dad has a cardiologist that he sees in Houston and she goes out there and drives him to Houston for his doctor's appointments."
Hutchins' father was a soil conservationist when she was growing up. Her mother worked in the administrative areas of elementary schools and in a two-year college.
"Both of my parents have acreage from their parents that they farm still, even though my dad is 86," Hutchins says. "I was very interested in being very respectful of agriculture and farming and real estate and oil and gas so property just made sense to me, that area of law."
Hutchins' older brother, Eddie, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma when he was in sixth grade; she was in third.
"He lived till he was 29, and I think he was a bit of a miracle back in the day," she says. "But he had recurrences, four or five and then it turned into lymphoma and he went to college and got a master's degree and was a professional electrical engineer. Shortly after that, he passed away."
She remembers staying with friends while her parents went to be with her brother in the hospital on several occasions, and she remembers how precious times were when they could all be together.
"That really made me want to focus on my family as much as I could, so for Doug and I both, it was it was truly a partnership," she says. "I think my struggle is trying to do everything I feel I should be trying to do better -- be a better daughter, be there for when my parents need me to be there, when my family needs me to be there. My husband has been extremely patient and understanding and allowing me to do what I find to be rewarding in my career."
Hutchins can see the still-receding waters of the Arkansas River from her office in Riverdale.
"I'm a little more family-oriented. And I love this job. So I guess it's just a nice combination," she says. "I'm proudest just of my family. But on a career note it's not accomplishments, it's just being a part of it all -- a part of all the legal community and being able to be heard and just to be so involved in it. It's kind of unique to have this wide of a viewpoint with the profession, and so I am very proud to be able to have that."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: March 28, 1961, Caldwell, Texas.
• THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: Inspect what you expect.
• I'M PROUDEST OF: My family, of course ... but professionally I'm proud of being a part of it all, of the community and of being able to be heard and just to be so involved in it.
• SOMEDAY I WANT TO: Become more of a gourmet chef. I would like to learn to be able to cook really well, maybe a fish -- something that's challenging to cook but that is very good.
• MY FIRST JOB WAS: Working as a clerk at Eckerd pharmacy.
• A BOOK I LIKE IS: Race to Relevance, by my friend Mary Byers, who I met through my Bar Association national work.
• I KNEW I WAS GROWN UP WHEN: I had my first child. The responsibility of taking care of another life to that extent was a defining moment. Nothing compares to that in work life.
• WHEN I WAS A CHILD: My grandmother, Matilda "Tilly" Rose Marek -- I called her Momo -- took time to teach me to sew and can foods and memorize things. We would go see them a lot on weekends and she would always make something for me and have it hidden behind the door.
• I LIKE TO EAT: Chilean sea bass, squash casserole and asparagus. I also love coffee -- that's what I have in common with my son-in-law.
• MY FAVORITE BLUE BELL ICE CREAM FLAVOR IS: Moo-llennium Crunch.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Determined
“I’m a little more family-oriented. And I love this job. So I guess it’s just a nice combination. I’m proudest just of my family. But on a career note it’s not accomplishments, it’s just being a part of it all — a part of all the legal community and being able to be heard and just to be so involved in it. It’s kind of unique to have this wide of a viewpoint with the profession, and so I am very proud to be able to have that.” - Karen Kay Klinkovsky Hutchins
High Profile on 07/21/2019
Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Karen Hutchins uses her degree to run the business side of the Arkansas Bar Association