What She Lives By
The lessons Kayla Jackson-Williams learned as an assistant PD
Published in 2022 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine on November 8, 2022
When Kayla Jackson-Williams was studying at the University of Missouri School of Law, an assistant dean shared with the class a famous quote: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
Jackson-Williams was stirred by the words. When she became an assistant public defender with the Missouri State Public Defender in 2017, she immediately hung the quote on her new office’s wall.
“As I got more experience, the quote took on a bigger meaning,” Jackson-Williams says. “It is truly what I live by.”
From 2017 to 2020, Jackson-Williams represented clients accused of drug possession, DUI, theft, possession of firearms, and sexual assault—often working with some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including children. For her, the work was a constant exercise in listening, not judging clients preemptively, and gathering every last fact, detail, and extenuating circumstance.
On the first day of her first case, Jackson-Williams saw firsthand how some are treated by the justice system. When she arrived at the Callaway County jail to talk with her client, he was handcuffed to the table. “I just didn’t understand that,” she says. “I was there to see him and talk to him. Surely, he is not going to harm me.”
In previous roles, Jackson-Williams had been able to offer clients sodas and make small talk before discussing cases. Now, time was precious; she and her colleagues crammed their days with as many cases as possible.
“People say public defenders aren’t real attorneys, or that they must have been horrible students, and this was the only job they could get,” Jackson-Williams says. “It’s the most mind-boggling thing. People who take these jobs do it because they have a passion for service and for people who otherwise would not have a voice.”
The work tested, but ultimately strengthened her. During the second felony jury trial that she first-chaired, defending an 18-year-old charged with a first-degree crime, she kept an air mattress and toys in the office next door for her daughter, Mackenzie. “We were there for like nine hours one Saturday, and she took a nap in there and played while I was preparing for this case,” says Jackson-Williams, noting that the client was found not guilty.
Another client was arrested on his 17th birthday, making him an adult per Missouri law at the time. “Police had been monitoring him, and intentionally arrested him on that day so he would go not to the juvenile system but to the county jail,” she says. “Six months prior to this case, my brother, who was 19 at the time, was murdered. Thinking about my little brother being a young Black kid, and if he were charged as an adult in this system—it gave me a different outlook and drive to be the best attorney for him.”
Jackson-Williams’ years at the public defender’s office inform her current role as a senior associate at Rogers, Ehrhardt, Weber & Howard. The experience also inspired her to run for a seat on Missouri’s 13th Circuit bench in 2022, and serve as an adjunct law professor at her alma mater, where she shares with students the lessons she learned as a public defender.
“I encourage them to put their biases aside and learn to empathize, because people have walked different walks of life, and at the end of the day, people still have constitutional rights that we are here to protect,” she says. “I tell my students the first day, ‘People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.’ This is what I want them to remember.”
To The Bench
In August, Jackson-Williams won the Democratic primary for associate circuit judge, Division 10, and ran unopposed in November. On Jan. 1, 2023, she will become the first Black judge in Boone County, Missouri.
“I want to take that same quote into this next phase of life,” she says. “I want to show the attorneys—whether they’re defendants or plaintiffs, whomever is before the court—that I care, and that I’m here to listen. I truly do believe in our justice system, and I want that to be evident every day that they come into the courtroom.”