In Remembrance.

In Remembrance

Ron Carne
Lila Gosch
Jessica Holland
Jim Saxe
Larry Thatcher

Karen Jo Koonan

Photo courtesy of Catherine Masud

Karen Jo Koonan, S.F. Jury Consultant Who Pioneered Paralegal Field, Dies at 77

by Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle

Picking a jury is key to any trial strategy, and no one could pick a starting 12 like Karen Jo Koonan.

Never a lawyer or even a law student, Koonan could help win a trial before it even started, as she sat at the defense table observing body language and facial cues during jury selection to weed out anyone who seemed unable to weigh a case impartially.

Koonan, who dropped out of UCLA, could do anything a lawyer could do except argue a case in court, and was a paralegal before the term was invented. She was also the first non-lawyer to be elected president of the National Lawyers Guild. But her greatest impact was always in selecting a fair-minded jury.

She had a knack for recognizing when people were being candid and truthful, as opposed to saying what they believed the lawyers wanted to hear, said Doran Weinberg, a San Francisco defense attorney for 52 years. She could see what every other person in the room failed to see and, in my experience, her perspective was always correct.

Koonan died June 5 of bile duct cancer, her close friend Marci Seville said. Koonan died in the apartment she owned for 46 years at St. Francis Square Cooperative, an idealistic low-rise affordable housing complex in the Western Addition. She was 77.

For most of her long career, Koonan worked on referral from the National Jury Project, a litigation consulting firm now called NJP and headquartered in Oakland. In 2016, she formed her own firm, Chopra Koonan Litigation Consulting. It branched out to work the plaintiff side in white collar civil cases. John Keker, a well-known San Francisco trial attorney, used Koonan’s services for 30 years, both in jury selection and as a witness coach.

As a jury consultant she was smart and analytic and could look at mock trial results and understand what would persuade people and what would turn them off, Keker said. As a witness coach she had a tremendous amount of empathy and warmth and made people feel comfortable.

Koonan was born Aug. 7, 1945, in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in a progressive household. Her mother, Eva was a modern dancer and after a divorce, she moved to Southern California. Koonan graduated from Venice High School in 1963 and enrolled at UCLA to become a dance major. After her freshman year she went to the Deep South to register Black voters in the cause that became known as Freedom Summer 1964. Most students returned to school at summer’s end, but Koonan stayed for a year, getting arrested several times for civil disobedience.

She returned briefly to UCLA but left for good to become the Los Angeles representative to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1967, she moved to San Francisco to help organize Stop the Draft Week, which shut down the Oakland Army Induction Center. This resulted in criminal prosecution for the seven male organizers. Though Koonan was equally complicit she was not charged because she was a woman, said attorney Paul Harris, who was involved in the antiwar movement as a law student.

The prosecution thought having a woman would have made them sympathetic to the jury, Harris said. We called Karen Jo ‘Number 8’ right through the trial.

Koonan went to Cambodia during the Vietnam War and cut sugar cane in Cuba during the revolution, as part of the Venceremos Brigade formed by Students for a Democratic Society. In 1969, she was hired as a regional organizer for the San Francisco office of the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive legal organization with a storefront in Haight-Ashbury. A steady stream of clients came directly from the five month strike, led by the Black Student Union at San Francisco State University.

Karen always believed that radical change was necessary and possible, said Harris, who represented the students. Equal rights for all people was the foundation of her philosophy.

It was put to practice when Koonan co-founded an egalitarian law collective called Bar Sinister in Los Angeles with attorney Joan Andersson around 1970. Koonan bridged the separation between lawyers and legal secretaries by creating a position called legal worker.

As far as we were concerned there wasn’t a difference between the lawyers and the legal workers, Andersson said, and Karen Jo was the leader in that movement.

One of Bar Sinister’s high profile cases was against Continental Airlines, to break down age, sex and weight discrimination against flight attendants. Bar Sinister won that landmark case in the early ’70s, which eliminated age and weight discrimination.

Everybody who flies sees the results of that case, said Andersson, who was the lead attorney. Karen Jo was as much of a lawyer as I was. She just couldn’t argue in court.

When she returned to San Francisco for good in the mid-1970s, she became a resident of the St. Francis Square Cooperative, a national model of multiracial low-income housing built in 1963 and financed by union pension funds.

Koonan got a three-bedroom, two bath on the second floor for less than $5,000 with the caveat that it couldn’t be sold for market rate. She got around that by never selling.

She was elected to several terms as president of the board of directors at St. Francis Square, where she raised two daughters, Taima Ford and Camisha Gentry, as a single mom. When Koonan turned 60 she realized she had not been out of the country since visiting Cambodia and Cuba in the 1960s. She made a vow to travel internationally at least three times a year and stuck to it, filling her passport book until COVID-19 put a stop to it.

She became a million-mile traveler on United. She was proud of that fact, said Seville, who accompanied her to Machu Picchu, Cape Town and a remote national park in northern Spain.

Along the way she beat breast cancer. But she could not beat bile duct cancer, which was diagnosed last October. It was late stage and inoperable, but she never retired. She consulted from her sick bed.

Up until the very end she was strategizing with lawyers, helping them prepare their opening and closing arguments, Seville said. It gave her great boosts of energy. She loved her work like nobody I know.

Koonan’s legacy lives on through three recent documentaries produced by filmmaker Abby Ginzberg of Berkeley — American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton, Judging Juries (2023) and an upcoming film with the working title, The Trials of Stephen Bingham. She did not work on any of these trials, but she appears as an expert commentator on juries and criminal justice reform, explaining complex ideas simply.

What Karen Jo was all about was diverse juries as the key to getting a fair trial, Ginzberg said. Many lawyers did not want to go to trial without Karen Jo at their side.

A few words about Karen Jo.

She was a mensch as was her mother.

I met Karen in 1967 at the Movement newspaper office on 14th Street in San Francisco. She was an original member of the Steering Committee for Stop the Draft Week and active in all parts of the organization of those demonstrations. Since I was a representative from Stanford, Karen put me in touch with her mother, Eva Zirker, and her stepfather, Joe Zirker, who lived in Menlo Park just across the border from Palo Alto. Eva fed us starving grad students from time to time and told stories about the socialist and Communist left in NYC in her youth.

Karen was a serious dancer and attempted to organize a movement dance troupe sort of like the Mime Troupe. She had plenty of women recruits but few men. Consequently, she recruited me to participate—the attempt failed, and I still have two left feet.

Karen went on to develop her legal career, beginning with support for the Oakland Seven trial. She was the Oakland Eighth—the first among many unindicted participants in Stop the Draft Week.

—John Saari

Oral History with Karen Jo Koonan

This recording of an oral history conducted by Rosalind Hinton with narrator Karen Jo Koonan was made on August 6, 2013, during the Jewish Women's Archive's Bay Area Workshop for Jewish Educators.


Karen Jo Koonan, S.F. Jury Consultant Who Pioneered Paralegal Field, Dies at 77, by Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle, July 20, 2023; updated July 21, 2023. Link

Oral History with Karen Jo Koonan, conducted by Rosalind Hinton, 2013 Bay Area Workshop, Jewish Women's Archive, August 6, 2013. Link (YouTube).

Preparing the Lay Witness, by Lois Heaney and Karen Jo Koonan, Plaintiff, November, 2007. Link

Getting the Jury You Want, by Ronald H. Rouda and Karen Jo Koonan, Plaintiff, February, 2013. Link

Effective Storytelling in Employment Trials for a Post-COVID and Pro-BLM World, P. Bobby Shulka and Karen Jo Koonan, Plaintiff, May, 2021. Link

The Oakland 7, by Elinor Langer, The Atlantic, October 1969. Link

Movement on Trial: The Oakland Seven (1960). Documentary film about the first militant anti-draft demonstration in America: Stop the Draft Week (October 17-20, 1967) in Oakland, California. Link