Karen R. Johnson in 1990, a photo frequently used for her Executive Director Reports in the Texas Bar Journal.

Austin attorney Karen R. Johnson, who received many awards and accolades during a 46-year legal career and made history as the first woman to serve as State Bar of Texas executive director, died Sunday.

Johnson served on the State Bar Board of Directors before becoming executive director in July 1990.

“Karen Johnson was an effective leader whose contributions to the bar are substantial and long-lasting,” State Bar Executive Director Michelle Hunter said. “She was a pioneer in our profession, and I stand on her shoulders.”

As executive director, Johnson was credited with improving the State Bar’s fiscal management, guiding the bar through the legislative Sunset review, adopting policies reflecting increased accountability to members, and establishing a strategic plan, among other accomplishments.

“She understood better than anyone the importance of building a consensus to get things done,” said Pat Nester, State Bar assistant deputy director. “She would personally call everyone involved to get their take on the issue and to see whether there was common ground possible. She set a great example for us all.”

Johnson resigned the position in 1994 to join Entergy Corporation/Gulf States Utilities as vice president of state governmental affairs. Over the years, she held several positions in the energy field.

In 2013, she created KRJ Resources LLC, a public policy consulting firm that focused on regulatory and policy issues concerning state agencies and the legislative and executive branches of Texas government.

Previously, Johnson served as president and CEO of United Ways of Texas (2001-2013). She also held many volunteer positions.

Women filled the top three leadership positions for the State Bar of Texas in 1992-1993. M. Colleen McHugh (left) served as board chair, Harriet Miers (center) as president, and Karen R. Johnson as executive director.

She was president of the Austin Bar Association during the 1985-1986 term. Since 2002, she had been a member of the board of directors for Global Impact, a nonprofit that raises money to meet humanitarian needs around the world. And she had been a member of the board of directors for the Texas State History Museum Foundation since 2015.

Among her many honors, Johnson recently received the Distinguished Lawyer Award at the Austin Bar Foundation’s Annual Gala in January. The award recognizes the dedication and hard work of attorneys who have practiced law for 30 years or more. Past honors included the State Bar Chairman’s Award of Merit in 1988 and the State Bar President’s Award of Merit in 1990.

Johnson received her bachelor’s degree in government from the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 and her J.D. from St. Mary’s University School of Law in 1970.