Partner-in-Charge of Jones Day’s California Offices and Former U.S. Attorney
Kelly C. Smith*
Karen Hewitt is a litigator and the Partner-in-Charge of Jones Day’s five California offices. Before joining Jones Day in 2010, Karen spent 18 years working as an attorney for the Department of Justice, eventually becoming the United States Attorney for the Southern District of California.
Karen’s career has been marked by service to her country, her clients, and her community. A trailblazer for women, her list of accomplishments and accolades is lengthy. Karen has been named one of the “Best Lawyers in America,” the “Top 50 Women Lawyers in the United States,” and the "Top 100 Lawyers in California." But even more impressive than her resume is her humility. Those who know her can all agree that Karen exudes quiet confidence, strength, and professionalism. Karen is also a staunch supporter of the local San Diego community, the federal bar, and young women leaders. The San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association is honored to feature her in this month’s member spotlight.
Karen was born in Eugene, Oregon. Her father was an officer in the United States Army, so she and her family moved frequently until they landed in San Diego when Karen was in middle school. Growing up, Karen was interested in a career in public service. Later, Karen attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a bachelor of arts in rhetoric. Inspired by her interest in public service and business, Karen decided to attend law school at the University of San Diego School of Law. She loved her time at USD, especially participating in moot court and studying constitutional law.
The Road to Becoming the United States Attorney for the Southern District of California
After graduating from law school, Karen worked for a law firm in San Diego for several years. In 1992, Karen and her husband relocated to Washington, D.C., where she accepted a position as a trial attorney for the Department of Justice. Assigned to the Civil Division of the Justice Department, Karen defended the government in civil rights actions filed against law enforcement officers and also litigated cases filed under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. Over her 8 years in Washington, Karen tried 70 bench trials.
In 2000, Karen and her family returned home to San Diego. She transferred to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California where she became an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Civil Division. While the subject matter of her cases remained similar, Karen was no longer flying across the country to try cases as she had done in her prior position. Because her cases were local, Karen was able to form deep relationships with colleagues, local law enforcement agencies, and the federal bench.
In 2007, Karen became the interim United States Attorney for the Southern District of California. Months later, the district judges appointed her to remain in that role. Karen’s goal while in office was to strengthen and improve the U.S. Attorney’s Office in any way possible. She poured her energy into supporting her AUSAs in their work and building stronger relationships with federal and local law enforcement agencies. She also sought to build on the office’s reputation amongst the judiciary and with opposing counsel. With respect to policy, Karen focused on the needs of her particular district rather than adhering to one-size-fits-all for criminal enforcement policies. That focus led her to directing the office’s resources to prioritize prosecuting felonies and violent crimes.
Karen’s role as United States Attorney came with many highs and lows. The best part of the job, she says, “was working with such driven and loyal prosecutors and agents to address serious crimes and national security issues.” The worst days were those when tragedy struck. During her tenure, Karen attended each of the 12 funerals for law enforcement agents killed in the line of duty in her district.
Partner-in-Charge at Jones Day
In 2010, Karen left the United States Attorney’s Office to join Jones Day’s San Diego office. She became the Partner-in-Charge of that office in 2012 and then appointed to lead all of Jones Day’s five California offices in 2020. Karen maintains a busy legal practice, representing companies nationwide in civil and criminal investigations and in complex business litigation. Specifically, her practice focuses on defending matters involving possible violations of federal law, including the Anti-Kickback Statute, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and the False Claims Act.
Karen is very fulfilled by her work at Jones Day. She enjoys fighting for and achieving successful results for her clients. She also speaks highly of her colleagues, their caliber of lawyering, and their commitment to the firm’s clients.
Karen is a Master in the Enright Inn of Court and a member of the Board of Visitors for the University of San Diego School of Law. She is the immediate past President of the National Association of Former U.S. Attorneys and spent many years as a member of the board of directors for the Girl Scouts of San Diego. She is also a long-time member of the San Diego FBA, which she lauds for its ability to bring people together and facilitate friendships.
A thoughtful leader, Karen has used her role at Jones Day to help build and support the firm’s pro bono programs. In 2017, Jones Day opened an office in Laredo, Texas, dedicated to assisting individuals fleeing from violence and persecution in other countries. Karen shares that each year, Jones Day attorneys represent hundreds of individuals seeking asylum in the United States, and she helps send Jones Day’s California attorneys to the Laredo office to participate in those pro bono efforts.
Advice for Young Lawyers and Women Lawyers
Karen’s advice for young lawyers is to adopt a growth mindset. She notes that change has been the only constant in her career. (In fact, she fondly recalls the first time she had to go find “the internet” and figure out how to use it for case research.) Because the legal practice will continue to evolve, Karen urges young lawyers to focus on improvement and adaptation, so they can better position themselves to help clients. She encourages young lawyers to get familiar with technology and read as much as possible, especially about emerging legal and business trends. Karen also stresses the importance of each and every opportunity: “Do not underestimate where your career could take you. When you are starting out, remember that whatever you are doing could lead to some place wonderful.”
As for women lawyers, Karen wants women to dream big and remember that anything is possible. Happily married and the mother of two, she is also quick to dispel the myth of achieving perfect balance all the time. “You can’t balance every day perfectly.” The key, she says, is to surround yourself with people who share your values, who will support you, and who you will support in return.
*Kelly Smith is a member of the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and its Public Relations Committee. She is a commercial litigator at Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis and a former clerk for the Hon. John A. Houston and the late Hon. David H. Bartick in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.