Kia Williams realized early in life that it was impossible to lie to her mother. Her mom, a family law attorney, always seemed to know when her daughter was being less than honest about anything from friendship to homework.
Growing up with a litigator for a parent brought both challenges and opportunity. In her teens, Williams became a de facto paralegal who helped her mom type motions and prep for cases. The process birthed in Williams a lifelong passion for litigation, which has taken her to top in-house spots at two of the nation’s biggest retailers.
Williams loves applying logic to piece together an argument and try a case. “Some people love skydiving, and others jump off cliffs or ski down a mountain. I chase that same adrenaline rush in the courtroom,” she says, adding that her early career goal was to try as many cases as possible.
She got that chance in St. Louis at Bryan Cave (now Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner), where she eagerly volunteered for every task. Soon, she was taking depositions—and even landed a personal appointment from a federal court to try her own case as a young associate. Once the firm’s partners realized Williams’s energy wasn’t fading, they placed her on important commercial litigation and labor and employment cases, where she started supporting major actions. In just three years, Williams handled multiple depositions and made numerous court appearances.
Driven by her hunger to try even more cases, Williams moved to government administration as assistant counselor for St. Louis County. As in-house counsel for Missouri’s largest county, she created employment policies and coordinated all aspects of a high-volume litigation practice.
Williams then returned to the private sector, going in-house to defend Liberty Mutual insureds against liability claims. Two years later, she took a job with Macy’s, the largest department store in the United States.
The move ushered in a new era in her career, as she started advising business leaders and adding related skills and experience to her growing résumé. “I love working in-house at large companies because in-house lawyers aren’t just putting out fires. We’re also preventing fires from happening in the first place,” she explains. The shift, however, was bittersweet. As Williams worked hard to negotiate and settle matters for her one client, she often lost the opportunity to step inside the courtroom.
Williams started looking for another hybrid role where she could stay active in litigation but also create the labor and employment policies that protect employees and help companies thrive. That led her to Mattress Firm, a company with 2,300 locations and more than eight thousand employees, where she advises business leaders and manages labor and employment litigation.
It didn’t take Williams long to realize she had found her home. “Mattress Firm is special because it has an inviting energy and a welcoming culture,” she says. “I get to be the partner that I want to be here.” Leaders designed the company’s Houston “BEDquarters” to reflect its culture and inspire both collaboration and creativity. The space features an open workspace, a ping-pong table, a graffiti mural, and, of course, a nap room.
Mattress Firm is one of the relatively few large retailers in America with a female general counsel. Williams says that fact demonstrates the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, but that commitment goes beyond surface level. Mattress Firm looks for opportunities to integrate diversity and inclusion into everything it does with its people, practices, and how it interacts and engages with its customers. Mattress Firm has employee resource groups and a diversity and inclusion council, where its employees can directly contribute to the organization’s diversity plan and make a real impact.
While she’s progressed in her career, Williams has maintained her continuous learning mindset and still volunteers for stretch assignments. As technology and innovation continue to push labor and employment law forward, she’s learned more about data privacy and related areas. A supportive general counsel, Kindel Nuno, has supported Williams while she has earned certifications in US and EU privacy and data protections. Those certifications have, in turn, led to work on the data governance committee and in developing data management and privacy policies.
Williams is leveraging what she’s learned to help her department and Mattress Firm’s human capital team harness the power of technology and automation. “Some leaders are scared of artificial intelligence, but that fear is misguided,” she says. “AI is going to be a support and not a replacement.”
According to Williams, advanced tools can streamline processes, reduce repetitive tasks, and increase job satisfaction, as employees no longer have to manually comb through layers of data. Chatbots and other implementations make the hiring process easier for prospective employees.
Within the legal department, Williams hopes to use AI in a variety of ways. She says it won’t be long until computer programs input data and spit out settlement numbers at multiple points in a case. For now, she’s capitalizing on every opportunity technology presents while shaping Mattress Firm’s data privacy and cybersecurity controls to match state-led laws until the day a federal standard emerges.
Although Williams has taken on a growing list of roles and responsibilities, she still gets the occasional opportunity to work as the lead in litigation. While serving as first chair and winning a jury verdict may always be her true passion, Williams has made herself into more than a talented litigator—she’s a leader, advisor, strategist, and true business partner.
“Given Kia’s track-record at two of America’s largest retailers, it’s no surprise that she’s being recognized as a strategic player in our industry. She is a demonstrated problem-solver and top-notch litigator. Most importantly, she gets things done.”
–Erica Mason, Partner