Mary Emma Karam: Practical, Strategic Leadership

May 12, 2015 | Spotlight

Building a practice from the ground up in one of the most complex and dynamic areas of law might seem daunting to some lawyers, but not to Mary Emma Karam.

She has never been afraid to break new ground, and that enterprising approach enables her to provide strategic, practical leadership to her clients no matter what challenges they face.

Mary Emma’s legal career has been marked by many firsts. She was the first woman associate to become a partner at Jackson Walker – in fact, she remembers being the first woman attorney on her floor when she started at the firm fresh out of law school.

“I was in law school at SMU in the late 1970s, and the class before me had just sued every major law firm in town because none of them had hired a woman – except for one: Jackson Walker,” Mary Emma recalls. “Naturally, that’s where I wanted to go, and naturally, I wanted to be a litigator since I come from a family of litigators.”

Mary Emma was a trial lawyer for the first 12 years of her career, and in that time, she never lost a bench or jury trial. One of her most high-profile successes came in the mid-1980s when she worked as part of a team at Jackson Walker that defended Texas Utilities in one of the largest and longest litigation actions in Texas history. It was a case that arose from construction of the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Glen Rose.

While building a name for herself as respected trial attorney, Mary Emma was also busy raising six children. In balancing the responsibilities of work and family, Mary Emma once again demonstrated her characteristic no-nonsense approach.

“I would take quick breaks from TU meetings to order groceries and have them delivered so that I could spend more time with my family,” she said. “I did have the opportunity to work from home, but I was always there for my clients when they needed me, even if that meant working seven days a week, or until ten o’clock at night.”

It was while expecting her fourth child that Mary Emma decided to shift the focus of her practice from litigation to healthcare law, with a specific emphasis on managed care contracts. Within a short time, she was blazing a trail as a leader in this emerging field as well.

“At the time, hardly anyone in Dallas was involved with healthcare law on the provider side, so it enabled me to create a niche that few lawyers had experience in,” she said.

After devoting a full year to study the field, Mary Emma soon became one of the foremost experts in managed care law, and within a few years, she had developed a robust practice helping clients navigate the complicated and rapidly shifting landscape of managed care contracts in Texas and across the U.S. She has represented many – if not most – of the major hospital systems in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as well as a broad range of provider and healthcare organizations. Demonstrating the depth of her experience, in 2000, the Texas Attorney General appointed Mary Emma to serve a term as Special Outside Counsel to the Office of the Attorney General for the State of Texas for consultation in healthcare/managed care matters for the state.

In serving her healthcare clients, Mary Emma draws upon her litigation background to provide strategic solutions that anticipate potential issues before they become problems.

“As a trial lawyer, you’re always thinking, ‘what if?'” she said. “You learn to think very creatively, and I bring that to the table for my clients in terms of offering practical, strategic legal advice.”

“I watch out for my clients’ interests and make sure they get not just work, but value in everything I do for them.”

– Mary Emma Karam

In addition to her managed care practice, Mary Emma serves as outside general counsel for several clients, including the Diocese of Dallas. In this capacity, she provides advice, selects legal teams and oversees work for her clients in a number of legal areas. In an age when legal costs are facing increasing scrutiny, Mary Emma personally reviews every bill that is sent out to her clients to ensure they receive efficient value from their legal work and has done so for many years.

Several of Mary Emma’s current clients are nonprofits or have service-oriented missions, and she finds it particularly gratifying to help these organizations achieve their goals. She is also passionate about giving back to the community through civic and charitable activities and pro bono work.

“I have a personal goal of getting to 50 percent pro bono, and the firm has been tremendously supportive of that,” she said. “I’m not quite there yet, but I’m going to get there.”

Over the course of her legal career, Mary Emma has transformed her practice several times. What remains constant, however, is her absolute dedication to adding value for her clients by providing savvy, strategic advice to help them excel.

“I was raised with the basic service-giving philosophy that you put the client first – before anything else, you do what’s in the best interest of the client,” she said. “I watch out for my clients’ interests and make sure they get not just work, but value in everything I do for them.”