Meg Steenburgh welcomes Krystal Williams to discuss her unconventional path to law. After many years as a business professional, Krystal’s hunger for learning led her to shift her sights to law. She shares some of her experiences as an older student and discusses where her legal career has taken her in the years since law school.
Krystal Williams is founder of Providentia Group, chairman of the board of KinoTek Software, and founder of The Alpha Legal Foundation.
Thank you to our sponsor NBI.
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student podcast where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads from finals and graduation to the bar exam and finding a job. This show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You’re listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Meg Steenburgh: Hello, and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student podcast. I’m Meg Steenburgh of 2L at Syracuse University College of Law JDI Program. This episode is sponsored by NBI. Taught by experienced practitioners, NBI provides practical skill-based CLE courses attorneys have trusted more than 35 years. Discover what NBI has to offer at nbi-sems.com.
Today, we are honored to have with us Krystal Williams, a Math and Psychology Major successful business school grad and leader and law school graduate. Krystal has more than 25 years of experience in driving change in organizations and communities. A former Fortune 100 senior professional, Krystal’s skillset includes executive change management, strategy development, business operations, technology marketing, and market growth. As a lawyer, she is focused on public utility regulation and renewable energy development as well as assisted private developers in regulatory commercial and litigation context, and she has represented energy companies before state agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC and in court proceedings. Prior to law school, Krystal held senior program and project management positions for more than a decade at Deere & Company, a Fortune 500 company, providing critical analysis of global manufacturing operations and negotiating major commercial in real estate contracts in the U.S. and Germany. A former Peace Corp. volunteer, Krystal continues to volunteer her time creating paths to sustainable board diversity with organizations such as the ACLU of Maine and with Maine Public. She also began the Alpha Legal Foundation to work collaboratively through systemic challenges, something we will discuss as well. Krystal is a through hiker on the Appalachian Trail. Law school must have seemed easy after that. Krystal earned her MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and her law degree from Maine University School of Law, cum laude, where she is also an adjunct professor teaching social justice lawyering. Krystal recently started Providential Group as well combining all of those skills. Krystal, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s an honor.
Krystal Williams: It’s such a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Meg Steenburgh: Well, you are fascinating for so many reasons. But among them is a fact that you were a successful business professional in a well-known company and you left it all for law school as an older law school student. Why?
Krystal Williams: Yeah. Sometimes, I still ask myself that question. But honestly, it’s because I love to learn and I’m insanely curious, and it wasn’t until I was working on several projects at Deere & Company where I was really looking at helping the company grow into different geographic markets and into different product markets that I realize how foundational the law was in shaping how businesses could operate. And so, I was very fortunate that, through my work at John Deere, I was able to work a lot with in-house counsel, which made me just even more curious about this thing called the law. And so, when the opportunity became available for me to think about going to law school as the next phase of my career, I really jumped at it.
Meg Steenburgh: So, who was your role model in this and did you have one or how did you push through all of that and find that motivation?
Krystal Williams: Yeah. So, well, the story is really interesting because it honestly started my first assignment after business school. So, I was helping a new product market, you know, go to market, and it was — we were looking at ATVs for John Deere. And so, while John Deere is well-known for its gators, those are not regulated in the same way as ATVs. So, all-terrain vehicles or utility vehicles are typically regulated more like motorcycles. So, my first job at John Deere, I spent, you know, about two weeks and a windowless room calling all 50 states to understand how they specifically regulated ATVs. And then, I took this big binder of information. I was living in North Carolina at the time. I flew to Moline to talk to the in-house attorney who was responsible for our product group, and I kind of plopped my big binder on his desk. And I said, “Okay, I need your help to understand all of this because if anything goes wrong in our product rollout, —
You’re going to be the one who’s going to be defending. You’re going to be carrying the ball.” So, he and I work through that process and he became a good friend, a mentor collaborator. He had been with the company for over 30 years, so a really seasoned attorney.
And through other projects that I worked on that equally had legal component such as cross-border tax implications when I was living over in Germany and working with the company, I ended up making a lot of friends in the legal department, the general counsel of the company at the time became a mentor of mine. And when the first attorney that I worked with, Rick Anderson, when he came to me and said, “Hey, you know, have you ever thought about law as a career?” You know, initially, I laughed it off because of my preconceptions about what lawyers do. But, after a time working in strategy, I became really, really hungry to understand law at a deeper level. And so, Jim Jenkins who was the general counsel at the time supported me looking at law school as my path forward within the company. Now, life happened and things change. I’m no longer with John Deere, but I’m forever grateful for having my eyes open in that way.
Meg Steenburgh: You know, what’s so interesting about that too is when you say that you handed all the information over and said, “This rest with you.” You still wanted to go into that challenge knowing that the buck stops with the attorney and that advice that the attorney gives, how does that feel? And did you ever say, “Okay. So, this is the moment. This is what I thought it would be like.” Is it more stress or less stress than that moment where you said, “This is all on you now.”
Krystal Williams: You know, no one has ever asked me that question before. You know, in hindsight now, particularly, when clients come to me with problems, I am even more appreciative of the perspective I had been because usually now, by the time clients decided to call me, things have already hit the fan and we’re in crisis mode. And so, we have to triage very quickly. So, you know, now thinking back, you know, it has always been my perspective that it is better if there is a chance of litigation, or if there’s a chance of regulatory enforcement to bring the lawyers in on the front end to help shape a strategy. That has always been my perspective even when I was on the business side. And now, as a lawyer, that’s how I try to work with my clients. It doesn’t always work. But that’s how I try to approach my practice.
Meg Steenburgh: You know, you see a lot of that, the dual degree. I know you didn’t receive them at the same exact time, but I would imagine the MBA and JD work really well together.
Krystal Williams: They do. They are incredibly complementary and in particular because, for me getting my MBA, I was very much on the strategy side and the organizational behavior side of thing. So, I’m very good. I like to consider my primary skillset as one where I’m able to look out into the market, you know, identify macrotrends and then think about the implications for where their businesses today and help create a strategy to take advantage of macrotrends, but in a way that makes sense for the existing constraints in the business. So, that’s really my skillset and I’m very good. I’d like to think at aligning people and processes. And so, having a legal skillset to support all of that has been incredibly valuable because, as a lawyer, you know, as you know, Meghan, as a lawyer, you’re really trained to think very critically about situations and to identify to really take a risk mitigation approach to decision-making. And so, having that additional layer of thinking and perspective, I think it just made me a more robust and thoughtful leader and business person as well.
Meg Steenburgh: It’s so interesting that you said the law skillset support the business versus the other way around in terms of the business supporting ultimately legal, but it shows you that strategic mind that you have and that business-oriented mind.
Krystal Williams: Absolutely. I mean, and it is funny because now I have a business that is a law firm. And so, from that perspective, as a solo practitioner, my business experience and background definitely support my practice of law, but I think the way I originally answered really speaks to my natural bent and where I naturally see my skillset.
Meg Steenburgh: Yeah, yeah. So, how did your age help you or hurt you in law school? Where you one of the oldest? Where you sort of in the middle?
Krystal Williams: Yeah. I was definitely on the older end of the spectrum. So, I started law school when I was 40. Gosh, I can’t believe it. So, fun fact, my birthday is actually tomorrow, September 25, I noticed.
Meg Steenburgh: Happy birthday!
Krystal Williams: So, I would say that being an older student was incredibly helpful in that I had just a better perspective on life. You know, I did not take the stress of law school that is so inherent in law school as personally or seriously. And I think that was because it was beaten out of me, you know, in business school. So, I was able to just handle the pressure I think a little bit better than I did when I was in my late 20s, early 30s going through business school and having worked in a large company being in positions like advanced technology management where I was looking at patents, being in supply chain management where I was negotiating and drafting portions of really high dollar contracts. I had a perspective of what some of the legal concepts I was learning looked like in practice. And so, having that real world experience actually made learning the law in some ways easier and much more rich.
Now, on the flip side of things, as an older student, when you’re in a classroom with a bunch of young 20-something whippersnappers, there’s just a lot on the social side and the developing your professional network that I didn’t really participate in because I was just in a very different life stage. So, I became like the wise old person sitting in the back of the room. It was still a great experience and Maine Law, in particular, is great in that it really invites older students. So, there’s a very diverse demographic who attend Maine Law, and I definitely benefited from that as well. So, I wasn’t the oldest student, but I was in the top two I think.
Meg Steenburgh: Well, that’s one component of the diversity and then as a minority as well, you know, I’ve heard a lot of those I’ve interviewed as well as others say, I also found law school lonely because it wasn’t — I didn’t see myself and it wasn’t as diverse as I needed it to be. Did you find that?
Krystal Williams: That wasn’t my personal experience only because I was an older student. So, I wasn’t looking for the law school environment to be that social and support network for me. And also quite frankly, I spent the majority of my adult life being in predominantly white settings where I am the only or one of a few. And so, it did not really surprise me to, again, have that experience being in Maine, which is – I believe it has won the honor, the dubious honor, of being the white estate. So, that didn’t surprise me. But what I was able to do was be a resource for some of the younger diverse students who were looking for more of a connection. And, honestly, that’s really why I started the Alpha Legal Foundation because I recognize my own limited capacity in being a mentor and a resource for all of the diverse students who are starting to come through Maine Law, and I wanted to create a container for those students to find community and also to begin to engage the broader legal community on how we can think more strategically about diversity in the legal profession in Maine specifically.
Meg Steenburgh: That was going to be my question for the Alpha Legal Foundation. Is that mostly in Maine? Is that a national effort and you just reach law students in particular, young lawyers?
Krystal Williams: Not quite. So, let me take it. There are a couple of different questions embedded in there.
Meg Steenburgh: Please, yeah.
Krystal Williams: So, let me start with the first one. So, right now, Alpha Legal Foundation is focused in Maine in part because I’m starting a lot of new things all at once and I don’t want to stretch myself too thin. But really the goal is to, in terms of diversifying Maine’s legal profession, I take a three-pronged approach or we take a three-pronged approach which is reaching out, reaching up, and reaching back. And what each of those represents? The reaching out is reaching out to those who are JD grads. They don’t have to be licensed attorneys. But as long as they have gone through law school and completed it, we welcome them into the community to have the conversation because part of what we recognize and this was informed by my own experience is that the legal training and the way going to law school shapes your mind is valuable in a wide variety of settings, not just as a practicing attorney.
So, we want to invite everyone to the table to say, “How can we diversify Maine’s professional class by seeding those with JDs and a variety of different professional settings.” So, that’s the reaching out. So, from that strength of community, —
We then reach up which is engaging existing legal leaders and those who have authority and power in the legal sector to really get engage in thoughtful conversations about deconstructing how law is practiced and thinking through how many of our legal traditions, which seems so — like such a fundamental practice or a such a fundamental part of practicing law to really think through whether those are actually just artifacts of how, you know, wealthy white been used to go about their day, you know, back in the 1800, so really challenging some of those cultural norms.
And then, the reaching back part is really wanting to make sure that we are both inspirational, that we both inspire and support the next generation of leaders. So, the idea kind of going back to my days of hiking is, you know, while I’m hiking on the trail in Maine, the trail is somewhat narrow. It’s broody. It’s rocky. It’s very difficult to navigate. And so, when I think that’s also how particularly as a first-generation lawyer of color, your legal experience often feels like that too and that’s the loneliness piece of it. So, we want to actually like create a graded path where people really see that there is a path for them that other people have walked the path and that there will be support for them. So, that’s really the reaching back piece.
And I don’t want to overstate what we’ve accomplished and to say that we’ve got it all figured out, but it really is a process. It’s a journey. It’s people of all ethnicities who are committed to this idea of greater diversity in Maine’s legal profession because I will just add this fun fact because I like to beat my drum on this, the first African-American attorney who was licensed in the U.S. was licensed in Maine in 1844, same as Macon Bolling Allen. Ad that is not something that is widely celebrated within Maine, and I have a personal mission to change that. So, I think Maine has a history here that we can build from and celebrate. So, I’m very excited to add to the evolution of the legal profession here in Maine.
Meg Steenburgh: And do you find that more and more are receptive to that which you are dedicated, the diversity, equity and inclusion. How has that changed over the years?
Krystal Williams: Yeah. So, I’ve been practicing in Maine for a little over four years now, and I am very pleased to say that my experience has, by and large, been positive. I think what we’ve seen what so many have seen is that after George Floyd’s murder last year, there was a collective realization that, “Oh, we’re not as far along in this post racial society as we thought we were.” And what has now happened, particularly within the legal profession, is a moment of reckoning. So, as we are learning more about the true history of the United States, part of what we’re seeing is the role that lawyers and judges played in embedding discrimination and, certainly, the legal fabric and also the cultural and social fabric of our nation. And so, I have been very pleased and blessed to be around colleagues here in the Maine bar who do want to take an active role in dismantling that system. I think the big question that we all have is, how do we do that? You know, how do you move forward when you have stare decisis? How do you move forward, when in a democratic way, when you’re trying to address the impact of wrongs that were done in the past, but our current legal structure requires race neutral laws?
So, I think there are a lot of layers to this and, you know, as a practical example, the Alpha Legal Foundation were putting on an inaugural conference next month, actually in October. And in this conference, we actually have one of the justices who sit on our Law Court. He is going to share insights from his time as a Chief Judge with the Penobscot Nation. So, Maine also has a very relatively large and very vibrant indigenous population. And so, he was the Chief Judge who actually helped start their tribal court. So, he’s going to share some of his insights and he’s going to be interviewed by a brilliant indigenous lawyer —
Who practices at one of our law firms here in the state. So, that’s going to be like a really rich conversation, and these are the discussions that everyone is very excited to have and to learn from which is, how can we leverage the insights and the things that we have done well in recent history to really chart a path forward.
Meg Steenburgh: We are speaking with Krystal Williams. We’ll be right back.
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Meg Steenburgh: And we are back now with Krystal Williams, founder of Providential Group, Alpha Legal Foundation, and adjunct professor at University of Maine School of Law. You’ve worked in practiced in a number of different fields and different firms. As you said, you’re now on your own. How did you make those choices? How do you know when you’re at the right place or maybe just as importantly at the wrong place?
Krystal Williams: Oh, wow. That is such a good question. I don’t know that there is an easy answer, but I think, for me, it became this internal feeling that I could do more and be more that would then was perhaps expected of me. So, I struggle with that question just a little bit because, as an older student, but a new lawyer, there are so many dynamics that come into play. And one of the things that I realized at the first law firm that I joined after law school, it’s, you know, a white-shoe law firm, a pretty conservative environment but very well-known for being top-notch quality and that’s what’s really attracted to me. And as I was working there, I got to a point where I realized that my business and strategy and prior professional experience really helped me frame the legal issues and identify what I believe were going to be or needed to be the priorities. And I had a few experiences where one of the partners I was working with did not appreciate my proactive efforts to be efficient and save the client time. Save us all or save the client money. Save us all time. And after a few of those experiences, I realized that what I was bringing to the table was just not a good fit. I was starting to get frustrated with myself because I did not feel like I was going to be able to fully learn the type of law that I wanted to practice in that environment because I couldn’t — I wasn’t being allowed to really bring my full self to work and to really leverage the full skills that I had.
And so, when I went to another law firm, again, also just a great group of people, I really enjoyed it and I felt more at home, more comfortable. I felt the environment was more welcoming and that law firm, not coincidentally, they also actually do intentionally invest in workplace diversity in all forms. And, honestly, what happened there was I became very practical and realized that my salary that I was getting from that law firm was just a fraction of how my time was being billed. And so now, I’m starting to think, okay, if I’m looking at the finances of continuing to stay in a law firm versus doing something else, it is no longer making sense for me just financially because I took a big – I took a pretty significant pay cut to switch from business to law. And then, with the trajectory that I was on, it was going to be, even though I was on a short and pass a partner, it was still going to be another two or three years before I was a salaried partner and then another few years before I became an equity partner and the finances of that just did not make sense with where I was in my life.
And so, I really had to be very honest with myself and say, “Okay, Krystal like, why are you so hesitant to go out on your own?” And this was internal work that I needed to do to deconstruct the societal message that I received as a black woman about what I could actually do and accomplish particularly because I grew up in a Habitat for Humanity Community in North Carolina.
So, I’ve had a lot of messages over the years about, you know, what is an appropriate place in society for me despite all of my education. And so, that was some real deep personal learning for me. And, ultimately, I just got to the point where I was like I need to make a decision for my own financial well-being and I’m going to — my knees are going to be shaking a little bit, but that’s okay because I literally have been trained to do this. I have been trained to be an attorney. I have been trained to run a business. And so, I needed to learn to trust in myself and in my training.
Meg Steenburgh: That is so fascinating because it is so risky. And, you know, to go — I was going to ask you like, what’s the key to the success. But for you, it seems like just having that confidence and trusting in yourself.
Krystal Williams: Absolutely. That’s exactly it.
Meg Steenburgh: And for you as well — I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But you really — I marvel at how you were constantly able to objectively evaluate your happiness and within that as well what is best — I guess, it’s part of happiness — what is best for me? Because sometimes, I think you get in those things and you’re in that rabbit hole and you can’t often pull back and look at that, and yet, you were able to.
Krystal Williams: Yeah. And I consider it a blessing and a benefit of age quite frankly. And it’s one of those things that I think is also important for young lawyers, want to be lawyers and attorneys to think about because so much of the law school path is being objectively evaluated and critiqued by someone else. And so, to be able to find your own center within all of that, I think is very important and powerful because it then gives you an opportunity and a mechanism for decision-making about what works best for you in your own life that is not reliant on the approval or the perception of other people who you consider colleagues.
Meg Steenburgh: I want to jump back to your hike on the Appalachian Trail, and I found it fascinating that you also analogized it to the work you’re doing and how it’s rocky and rooted and it’s straight and it’s narrow or straight in some areas and curvy in others. But would you do it again? How did that influence you? Do you tap into that a lot? And I know that there are a lot of questions there, but even just the stopping life and taking evaluation of your own life.
Krystal Williams: Yeah. I absolutely do tap into my experience all the time and this year, in particular, because this is the 10th anniversary of my thru-hike. So, you know, 10 years ago, I was very close to the finish line at this point in the year, and I think there are maybe two or three lessons. There are many more, but three that I think are particularly important to this conversation that I took from my thru-hike. And the first is patience with the process. So, when I started on Springer Mountain in Georgia, I was the classical ignorant hiker. You know, I’ve never really done anything like that before. I was grossly overweight. My pack weight was almost 60 pounds. It’s a miracle that I made at one mile let alone all the way to Katahdin.
Meg Steenburgh: Oh, my gosh.
Krystal Williams: And what I did when I was standing on Springer, I realized for myself that trying to hold the idea of Katahdin in my head was too much because there was so much that I did not know. And so, what I committed to was I committed to the process. And likewise, as a young attorney, you really don’t know where your career is going to take you because there are so many different twists and turns in careers and life and you never know what kind of small thing that will happen with a client that will take you in a completely new direction in terms of a substantive area of legal practice. And so, being committed to the process of learning and being willing to go into new areas of law where you don’t have prior experience, I think is really important and I really look back to my hike as really embedding that commitment to the process really deep within me.
I think the second and somewhat related thing is being okay with monotony, like there are going to be times when life and work, they are just a slog and showing up day after day, even though it does not look like you’re actually making progress, you are. And so, for my thru-hike, that really happened for me in mid-summer when I was hiking through Virginia. So, Virginia has 25% of the Appalachian Trail runs through Virginia.
So, you have like almost 500 miles. That is a long time. It is, you know, summer is starting to hit, so you don’t really see the large vistas. You just see a lot of green trees and meadows, and it can get quite boring. And so, that’s again, where the commitment to the process which is I’m showing up like I’m walking my 17 miles for the day or whatever they may be. I’m finding joy in the small things. For me, the legal equivalent is okay. I’m not exactly sure where this current path is going to take me, but I’m going to show up for my clients. I’m going to read the case law. I’m going to read the statute. I’m going to read the regulations. I’m going to go back to those fundamentals that we learn in first year of law school and trust that the process will keep moving me forward. So, you have to have the discipline, the mental discipline, and the emotional disciplines to get through those times that are not like exciting and thrilling.
And then, I think the other piece that I take from my thru-hike is honestly just the decision to hike in and of itself, you know, as you alluded to. I took a year off unpaid from a well-paying corporate job to pursue my dream and very much me stepping out to start my own company is very much to say. I had that same feeling of like, I’m not sure where this is going to go. I have a lot of concerns. There is a lot that I think makes me well-suited but also ill-suited for the task. But you know what? I have to give myself the opportunity to succeed in life and business on my own terms, like that is my gift to myself. And for me, you know, 10 years ago standing on top of Springer Mountain, that was my gift to myself saying I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know what success necessarily looks like, but I owe it to myself to try.
Meg Steenburgh: Wow, fascinating. Thank you for sharing all of those with us. I think one question I asked of all the guests is one that I’m going to ask you although you’ve imparted so many pieces of advice to us but, what one piece of advice you wish you could tell every law student out there and perhaps that you share with your own students now?
Krystal Williams: One piece of advice and this may be particularly relevant to female attorneys, attorneys of diverse backgrounds is to have that unwavering belief in yourself because, as I have gone through life and I have worked with people who have a lot of credentials, like ultimately it comes back to like the fundamentals of critical thinking. And sometimes, when you’re in professional settings and you have all the job titles and you have people who speak very smoothly, it’s hard to see beyond that to recognize fallacies and argument and fundamentals of critical thinking. And as I get older and as I am gaining my own sense of self and confidence through this, through my own law firm and the initiatives that I’ve started, I have realized that having that confidence to bet on myself is so important. And so, I would just — that would be my advice. Bet on yourself always 1,000%.
Meg Steenburgh: Thank you for sharing that. Krystal Williams, founder of Providential Group, founder of Alpha Legal Foundation, and adjunct professor at University of Maine School of Law, thank you so much for joining us.
Krystal Williams: Thank you for having me. This has been great.
Meg Steenburgh: And thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast. I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on Apple Podcasts. You can also reach us on Facebook at ABA for Law Students and on Twitter @abalsd.
Megan Steenburgh: That’s it for now. I’m Meg Steenburgh, thank you for listening.
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Podcast transcription by Tech-Synergy.com