Voice of Experience: Karen Nelson, Partner, Katten

Karen NelsonPerspective is a wonderful thing, finds Katten’s Karen Nelson.

“It’s natural to get wrapped up in stressful aspects of deals, and as young lawyers, it’s easy to become overwrought when things aren’t going perfectly,” she said. “However an accumulation of experience helps you see that everything is resolvable, and we can work through it. It allows you to maintain that sense of calm and confidence that clients need.”

Relationships as the Core

Nelson has achieved this perspective throughout her career, which began in Chicago after she graduated from Northwestern University School of Law, relocating to Charlotte in 2006. A commercial real estate finance attorney, Nelson has been at Katten’s Charlotte office since 2012, where she has advised some of the largest commercial and investment banks, insurance companies and real estate investment trusts (REITs) across the country, leading large and complicated finance transactions on behalf of her clients. Nelson’s success stems from not only her diligence and business-savviness as an attorney and skillful practitioner in the real estate industry, but also her belief in the value of fostering relationships with her clients and getting to know their business as if they were her own.

In fact, those long and deep relationships represent the professional achievement she is most proud of. “The best part of my job is being fully integrated with these clients, in relationships I developed professionally and that have become personal as well, as we have worked together for more than a decade,” Nelson said. Her case load has continued to expand, and that is a continuing inspiration as she strives to further grow her practice.

Expanding Roles for Women

Both the firm as a whole and the Charlotte office of Katten are highly female-friendly, Nelson says, which has been helpful for her career. But what she’s found interesting and gratifying over the past decade is the increase in females throughout the industry—as clients and attorneys on the other side of deals. “It’s been noticeable, and now many deals might be driven completely by women, from in-house counsel to the attorneys on both sides. It’s been exciting to see that trend as more women populate the industry,” she said.

At Katten, Nelson has been active in the Women’s Leadership Forum where she leads a team in developing programs to assist female attorneys with defining, achieving and managing their career goals. She particularly enjoys participating in the annual events where members of the firm convene both for industry trainings and to build their exposure within the firm.

As part of the forum’s national mentoring panel, Nelson advises women attorneys on how to develop good business relationships, including connecting with others who are at their same level at client organizations, and shares her advice and experience regarding managing a family and a practice.

Nelson sees unending opportunity for young women attorneys, and advises them to trust their knowledge and capabilities, and not be hesitant to leave their comfort zone. “If you have ambition to grow your career, don’t be afraid to take a leap and see how it can bolster your trajectory,” she says.

As women progress, she says there is a natural pressure point once you’ve achieved the level you’ve strived for. “It can become even more important to search for that balance, as more is demanded of you as you move up the ladder,” she says. She recommends that women focus on even just taking a short break to walk outside and feel the sunshine and get re-energized before returning to a project. “Sometimes those five minutes can make all the difference,” she notes.

Nelson offers that advice from a place of experience. As a mother of two kids, ages six and eight, she devotes the majority of her time outside of work to them, while finding time to release stress through activities like climbing.

“It’s been very important for me to be at a place where I could have a meaningful, successful career and not miss out on life’s events. I strive to lead by example in my commitment to work-life balance and career development. Simply put, managing and expanding my practice while making sure that I have time for my growing family is my number one priority,” Nelson said.