Alumni Interview: Karen Layng

The construction attorney on making her mark in a male-dominated field, serving as the national president of the Girl Scouts and helping girls become leaders

“People think of the Girl Scouts as cookies and crafts, but, in fact, it’s an entrepreneurial leadership organization,” says Karen Layng, ’84 LAS, JD ’87, who heads M.A.I.T. Co., a law firm specializing in the construction, manufacturing and engineering industries. (Image by Diane M. Smutny)
The construction attorney on making her mark in a male-dominated field, serving as the national president of the Girl Scouts and helping girls become leaders

The Seventh Circuit Bar Association was founded in 1951. But it had never had a woman president before me, in 2001. If you go up to the ceremonial courtroom in the Dirksen Center, there’s a wall of photos of 50 non-diverse men, and then there’s mine.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the last; there are many after me, an important legacy. Making the path easier for girls and women also is the work I have ahead as the new national president of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.

I started in Girl Scouts as a Brownie because they didn’t have Daisies then. One of my troop leaders had served as a cook during the Korean conflict; she was a very strong, trailblazing woman. With more opportunities, she could have conquered the world.

She was an advocate for women and girls, and encouraged us to consider college. The top 20 kids in our class at Glenbard East High School [Lombard, Ill.] were given an application to U of I, and all but one or two of us ultimately became Illini.

Once I arrived on campus, it seemed that everyone I met was a valedictorian or salutatorian. They all wanted to do better than the past generation. I was so impressed and thought, “This is a place where I can learn and excel.”

I pledged a sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, where I learned sophistication, grace and leadership. I studied abroad in Dijon, France. I’d been on a plane only once before, and none of my relatives had taken an international trip since they came over on the boat through Ellis Island. It was amazing to think about how world-changing my college experience was.

I loved U of I so much that I stayed for law school. In my tax class, I learned that I didn’t want to practice tax law, but the handsome guy a row in front of me was interesting. Pat, ’84 BUS, JD ’87, and I have now been married for 32 years.

My first months out of law school, I was working for a Chicago firm. The partner who recruited me, an Illinois alumnus, had a construction case and asked me if I wanted to try it. (I knew a little bit about construction because my dad was a factory maintenance manager.)

We had to wait a week until I swore into the bar—but then the case was mine, along with every similar one after it. That type of work makes up the lion’s share of what I’ve done since 1987. Now, I have my own firm, specializing in legal, governance, consulting and strategy for the construction and engineering industries.

I’m not saying this was easy. I was the first woman at the firm Vedder Price to have a baby as an associate, then stay and make partner. In those days, we had no maternity policy or family leave, which was the case across Big Law. I worked at the firm for over 23 years (raising our three kids all the while). I have tried to educate young women entering law school about the challenges they’ll face attempting to balance career and family, letting them know that many women had to pay dues and sacrifice their personal lives.

Even today, we have a lot to do. There are still too few women leaders in fields like law and construction. Through my leadership at the Girl Scouts, I intend to make it easier for women like my daughter, and all the other Girl Scouts in the troop I led for 13 years, to advance.

People think of the Girl Scouts as cookies and crafts, but in fact, it’s an entrepreneurial leadership organization. We’re working to tell college administrators and hiring managers about the leadership opportunities in Girl Scouting, and to look for these attributes on résumés.

I might not receive a W-2 as national president, but I do have my own badge, which my daughter Shannon designed. It has Lady Justice, along with a blue plane and an orange circumnavigation of the world. It’s University of Illinois colors because that’s where I learned to travel and expand my world.

Those experiences, along with Girl Scouts, helped me immensely. Now, I want to help all these other girls who don’t have those key people or places in their lives.