From the outside, Kelly DuFord Williams had it all: high-end cars, designer clothing, a flourishing private practice, and recognition as one of the best business attorneys in southern California.
After a brief stint as a Las Vegas deputy district attorney—and a contentious divorce—Williams told anyone who listened that she opened up her own law firm to focus on employee development and justice for her clients. Within a few years, the 36-year-old raven-haired mother-of-three had about a dozen employees at Slate Law Group, a 10,000-square-foot office in downtown San Diego, and frequently appeared on local TV.
She was named one of San Diego Business Journal’s 40 Next Top Business Leaders Under Forty and a Woman of Influence—and was among San Diego Magazine’s 2021 Women of the Year Rising Stars. In a July 2021 Entreprenista interview, Williams defined her work ethic through two Beyoncé songs.
“From ‘Flawless,’ ‘Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes,’” Williams said, nodding to the song’s sample of Nigerian activist and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “From ‘Diva,’ ‘Diva is a female version of a hustler.’ These two songs capture it perfectly and I recommend giving them a listen anytime you need to be inspired.”
But the self-described “girl boss” may have taken her favorite anthems too literally.
The California State Bar Court last March established disciplinary charges against Williams, alleging she misappropriated more than $104,000 from at least two clients and made at least two false 911 calls in Utah where she posed as a district attorney concerned about the welfare of a child because she was angry at a former romantic flame. Williams was also accused of allowing a lawyer who was not yet licensed to practice in California to appear in court.
After a September 2022 trial, the court recommended in January that the California Supreme Court disbar her.
Former clients and employees, however, say the state bar’s findings “only scratch the surface.”
Several told The Daily Beast that Williams’ “chaotic” management style mirrored “Jekyll and Hyde,” where she would fluctuate between singing Cardi B in the office and making TikToks with co-workers to allegedly demanding they pad their own hours to bill their clients, verbally abusing staff and firing at least one employee over internal messaging platform, Slack.
“She was living her own Mean Girls life,” Bryan Morgan, who worked as a paralegal at Slate Law Group, told The Daily Beast. “She always pretended she was the biggest, baddest of them all and she was only out for justice.”
Court documents suggest that Williams was not only a bad manager who allegedly stole from her clients and lashed out at former lovers. At least three lawsuits filed in San Diego allege she owed thousands in backpay for her office space, over-billed clients, and committed malpractice.
“This woman is an evil conniver. A little scammer,” said Fernando Rodriguez, a former client who says Williams stole tens of thousands of dollars from him.
Last October, Williams’ ex-husband filed for custody of their three children, citing in his request for domestic violence restraining order that the state bar case against her, and a potential criminal investigation based on the “same conduct that gave rise to her disbarment.”
Williams, who is currently ineligible to practice law in California, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Early dreams of becoming a lawyer
According to Williams, her dreams of being a litigator started in the third grade after her family moved from Ireland.
“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from eight years old,” she said in a March 2020 Business Bros podcast. “I told my parents I wanted to be a district attorney.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Diego, Williams went to law school at California Western School of Law. After graduating in 2011, she worked as a law clerk in the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office before becoming a Las Vegas deputy district attorney a year later.
Williams married her then-husband and fellow attorney, Craig DuFord, in May 2013 and the pair had three children together, according to court records obtained by The Daily Beast. In her Entreprenista interview, Williams noted that while she felt “incredibly proud” of her work at the Clark County DA’s office, there was still “a missing piece” in her career.
In 2017, Williams returned to San Diego and opened her first firm with DuFord to focus on business and employment law litigation. It lasted three years. She and DuFord separated in December 2019 and legally divorced two years later.
The split didn’t stop Williams from pursuing her dream of owning her own firm.
In February 2020, just weeks before the coronavirus would paralyze the country, Williams closed DuFord Law and opened Whiteslate LLP, which did business as Slate Law Group. Williams told Entreprenista that Slate sought to provide “legal, tax, and HR services for small and medium-sized businesses and corporations.”
“It is damn hard work,” Williams added in the Business Bros podcast. “When it comes to the end of the day, like, your name is the one on [the door]… who owes everyone their paycheck.”
But at least three former Slate employees told The Daily Beast that Williams’ management style was more “scary” and “vicious” than collaborative.
“It was a disorganized mess,” one former law intern, who started in August 2020, stressed. “She was the cause of the chaos.”
Multiple, confusing Slack channels forced employees to “piece together” what Williams wanted, the former law intern noted. He said many of his peers were afraid of Williams. Known for her quick temper and lashing out, the former intern said that Williams once went as far as firing a paralegal over a firm-wide Slack channel.
Although Williams touted herself as a feminist, several former employees said she treated female employees poorly. On one occasion, Williams posted an Instagram story on her personal account, tagging a female Slate Law Group employee she was unhappy with. Williams wrote that the employee had had an abortion, according to a copy of the video seen by The Daily Beast. Williams also tagged the woman’s church. (Employees told The Daily Beast the woman had not had an abortion and the woman in question did not respond to a request for comment.)
“She portrayed herself as a feminist,” said one former intern, who thought that employees, clients, and local media were “hoodwinked by this person she outwardly portrayed.”
“You will be hard-pressed to find someone to defend this woman,” a second former intern added. “She’s a really bad person, a really bad attorney, and a really bad boss.”
For Morgan, who worked at Slate from April 2020 to April 2021, his experience with Williams was nothing short of traumatizing. He said he started seeing red flags just weeks into the job, including how she treated her subordinates, and how Williams would make simple mistakes in cases.
Internal Slate Law group documents obtained by The Daily Beast show Williams personally editing invoices submitted by her employees, crossing out their entries, and increasing the number of hours they worked. The documents show her changing billing rates so that clients would be charged her top hourly rate rather than that of junior colleagues.
“She would go through [billing documents] and say, ‘This isn’t enough time, you need to add more time,’” Morgan says. He says he too found some of his invoices had been altered in the company’s internal management system, and his hours increased.
Morgan says Williams had a penchant for fashion.
“She loved to spend money,” he said. “She used to sing that Cardi B song, ‘Money’. There’s one part in the song that goes [something like]: ‘There’s nothing in the world I like more than checks.’”
Ashley Torices—who was a nanny for Williams’ children and became a personal assistant in her law firm until the pair had a falling out in September 2021—said that her former employer seemed like she was always “spending more than she would have.”
Jesus Rogelio Huerta told The Daily Beast that he noticed the lawyer’s appetite for luxury goods when the pair went on their first date. He said that she had a Tesla, a Range Rover, and a closet full of Christian Louboutin shoes, Prada, Givenchy, and “YSL bags everywhere.”
“One day we went out to lunch and we went shopping. She dropped $11,000 at Nordstrom in 30 minutes,” he added.
It did not take long, however, for the dominos to fall for Williams.
Short changing others
Joshua Goens keeps meticulous notes—because in the car business, detailed records are important.
So when his boutique auto dealership experienced a flood in 2018, he knew he had lost $200,000 in equipment. Desperate, he went to his lawyer, Craig DuFord, who said that he had a “strong case” to get some of his money back. That case was successfully settled a couple of years later and Goens said he received his money.
But after the DuFords’ divorce, Williams took over Goens’ file. Goens hired Williams on another case involving a tenant—and he believes that the lawyer did not properly handle his case. He says that over those next two years, Williams billed him thousands of dollars a month for what he says was pointless, ineffective work.
“I started feeling like I was Kelly’s credit card,” he said, adding that as his anger with Williams grew, so did her temper. A lot of “vile, nasty emails” were sent back and forth, he says.
Goens said that Williams’ high billing was part of the reason he had to shutter his business last October. And it didn’t end there. He said his experience with Williams has left him broke, angry, and more anxious than ever.
“I hope to be able to earn that money back at some point. But what upset me the most is the breach of trust,” Goens added. “With Kelly, I trusted her blindly.”
While he is not sure how much he paid Williams over the years, he estimates the tab is around $250,000 and has yet to see major results in his legal cases. (Goens did not participate in the state bar case.)
And Goens is not the only one who came to believe that they were being allegedly deceived by Williams.
In December 2020, Williams and her law firm were hit with a lawsuit for failing to pay rent at the DuFord Law offices in San Diego. In the suit, obtained by The Daily Beast, Third Avenue News claims that after Williams and her husband split up, she agreed to take over the 10,000-square-foot office for Slate Law Group.
The lawsuit alleges that when Williams signed a new lease that February, she lied about the financial stability of her new firm, claiming she would be able to cover the rent. Instead, she didn’t pay, the suit says, eventually owing the landlord over $1.4 million. The status for this lawsuit is not immediately clear.
Two months later, Williams was sued again—this time for failing to pay her rent on a three-bedroom townhouse just five minutes from the heart of the city’s Little Italy. The civil case says Williams did not pay rent from April to June 2020, and owed $9,870. The case was eventually dropped in August 2021.
Around the same time, it appears Williams’ misdeeds escalated from failing to pay her rent to allegedly stealing from her clients.
The California State Bar Court alleges that after hiring Williams, Anna Koparanova won a $61,750 settlement on February 23, 2021, in a wrongful termination case against her former employer. In May, Williams gave her client a $40,910 settlement check—but Koparanova was unable to cash it because the bank said that the funds in the account were insufficient.
By July 2021, the state bar court said in their 2022 decision for disbarment that Williams gave Koparanova a second check for the same account—this time from another account that was overdrawn “with a daily balance of -$3,591.62.”
Torices said it was around that time when Koparanova started calling the office asking for her money. She remembers after one of Koparanova’s emails, Williams told her to “let Anna know I just sent her the wire.”
“Kelly would say she sent the wire and it would take a couple of days,” Torcies said. “Kelly always had an excuse. Honestly, her repeating ‘I sent the wire’ kind of reminded me of Anna Delvey.”
The constant back and forth with Williams eventually prompted Koparanova at the end of July to submit a complaint to the State Bar, according to the court’s decision. In January 2022 Koparanova received $26,000 in four separate electronic transfers from Williams. Days later, the court’s decision says, Williams sent Koparanova an email letting her know that “she would transfer the outstanding settlement balance owed” the following week.
As of January 2023, the state bar court said Koparanova has yet to receive the remaining $14,910. (Koparanova did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Taking the law into her own hands
While dodging clients, Williams had no problem communicating with potential boyfriends.
Recently divorced, Huerta first began dating Williams in early 2021 after matching on Bumble—and their relationship escalated fairly quickly.
“I felt super lucky at first,” he said. “She was the kind of person who would go running in a pair of Christian Louboutin sneakers. I am just a normal dude.”
The honeymoon phase was short-lived. Huerta said Williams began to tell “weird lies” and would get “extremely intoxicated.” During that time, Huerta said that he had been planning a St.George, Utah trip with one of his best friends and his friend’s wife, Nickole Workman.
Williams immediately inserted herself into the plan. Workman told The Daily Beast she only spoke with Williams when the two briefly discussed renting jet skis on the trip. Huerta, however, said that days before the trip, he and Williams broke up “for the most part.”
“Then suddenly, as I was preparing to leave, she randomly started sending me a bunch of pictures of her in Lululemon and talking about the trip. It was too late,” Huerta said.
During the seven-hour trip with Workman, her husband, and their 2-year-old daughter, Huerta said his phone received a constant stream of texts and phone calls from Williams. Huerta estimates he received “120 texts and at least 30 missed calls” from Williams by the time he arrived in Utah. In text messages reviewed by The Daily Beast, Williams berates Huerta in an attempt to get him to respond—starting with a simple breakup message.
“You have no respect for me and apparently you can’t even respect me breaking up with you,” Williams wrote in one message.
The messages, however, began to escalate when Williams claimed she had been sexually assaulted in the line for the bathroom. She then stated she was pregnant and had purchased abortion pills. When Huerta did not respond, Williams said she would “come for you like you don’t even know.”
“Ok, I’ll do an emergency 911 in St. George,” Williams wrote according to messages reviewed by The Daily Beast and the state bar court’s decision.
The threat became a reality at around 2:30 a.m. on April 24, 2021, when the state bar court said Williams made two phone calls to the Hurricane City Police Department.
Williams said in the first call that she “had a friend who needed a welfare check” because “they were having a panic attack.” She then falsely identified herself as “Amanda Mathis” and claimed that she was the “aunt of the daughter there” and that “they were freaking out about the daughter,” the state bar court’s decision said. The court’s decision notes that Williams named Workman as the person involved in the incident.
In a second 911 call, Williams again identified herself as “Amanda Mathis and claimed to be a deputy district attorney in San Diego.” She then provided dispatchers with the streets near the rental house before stating that “Workman was worried about her” two-year-old child.
Huerta and Workman both told The Daily Beast they were awoken in the middle of the night by loud knocking on the front door of their rental. When Huerta opened the door, officers questioned them, asking Workman to bring out her daughter to make sure that she was unharmed—after her “aunt” had called out of fear for the child’s safety.
“I was confused because I don’t have an aunt named Amanda,” Workman said. “[It was a] pretty scary situation.”
A few minutes into the conversation, Huerta showed his phone to the officers. Workman said the group then realized that Williams had made good on her threat to call the police.
Williams has since admitted to the state bar court that she was never a San Diego deputy district attorney, nor is she related to Workman or her daughter. The state bar court also noted that while the Hurricane City Police Department completed a criminal complaint request form for Williams’ false report, they could not arrest her because she lives out of state.
Huerta said that when he got home from his trip, Williams would sporadically text him and the pair did meet up one last time in 2022. Eventually, he said he was approached by the state bar court once they began their investigation in September 2021 after Workman reported the 911 incident.
He admitted that he never expected how his once-paramour would respond to the bar court’s case.
California State Bar chief trial counsel George Cardona told The Daily Beast that Williams represented herself during the 2022 trial. The court’s decision notes that while on the stand, Williams’ testimony about the 911 calls was “evasive, incredible, and inconsistent.”
Among Williams’ incredible actions: she denied seven times she sent the text message barrage to Huerta, and separately repeatedly stated that she did not remember making the 911 calls or identifying herself as “Amanda Mathis. At one point, Williams even asked the court, “so my dating life is a thing now?”
After being confronted with the recorded 911 calls, however, Williams’ story completely flipped. She confirmed it was “absolutely” her voice on the call and suddenly remembered that it was Huerta who “put her up to making the emergency call because he was worried about Workman’s child.” Huerta denies this allegation.
“She also admitted to falsely identifying herself as the child’s aunt, lying about her name, and claiming that she was a deputy district attorney,” the court’s decision states. “Still, [Williams] insisted this dishonesty was justified because there was a child in danger. The court rejects [Williams’] incredible denials of fabricating the emergency situation.”
Former clients detail deception
By the middle of 2021, Williams’ professional and personal life was unraveling. More and more clients were contacting Slate’s office looking for the money they were owed.
One of those was Kia Vaara, who Williams’ represented in a sexual harassment suit against her former employer. On July 8, 2021, the case was settled and Vaara was awarded $42,500. The state bar investigation found that the funds were sent to Slate Law Group shortly afterward, but Williams never told Vaara, who expected to receive two-thirds of the check.
Over the next month, Williams transferred at least $29,000 of the funds to other accounts, the investigation found, marking the transactions as “attorney fees,” and “expenses.” By November, Vaara had still not received any money and had been seeking answers from Williams for months.
“Where is my money!!!!!! This seriously should be illegal! I feel like you’re stealing from me now. So unprofessional!” Vaara wrote in an email to Williams in November 2021, according to the state bar investigation. Again and again, Williams promised to get the check to Vaara, the documents show.
“What are the calculations? You never even showed me what you were paying yourself,” Vaara wrote in another email to Williams, according to the state bar court’s decision. “It’s been 2 months. It’s crazy to think you wouldn’t even tell me what you charged?? Is this even ethical?”
When she realized Williams was never going to give her the money, Vaara filed a complaint with the state bar, according to the court’s decision. (Vaara did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Another client trying to get answers from Williams was Fernando Rodriguez, 68, who she had represented in a wrongful termination case against his former employer. Rodriguez was fired from his job as a manager at the Omni Hotel just before Christmas in 2018, after working for the company for 14 years. The lawsuit Rodriguez filed claims he was discriminated against at work and unjustly fired.
The case took two years, but Landry’s finally settled with Rodriguez in January 2022, he says, offering a payout of $175,000.
The money was desperately needed. Rodriguez had not been able to find full-time employment since he was laid off, he told The Daily Beast, and now works three part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Rodriguez had agreed Williams would take 33 percent of any settlement, he told The Daily Beast. But she then changed her mind, upping the percentage to 40 and then 50 percent, he says. Williams also told Rodriguez she would need to take various other fees and charges out of the settlement money and he would get the remaining balance. He never understood what the charges were for, he says, and the check never came.
“I don’t know how much she stole,” he says.
For three months, from January and March 2022, Rodriguez emailed and texted Williams almost daily, begging her to pay him the money she owed. One day, he says, he waited at the Slate offices for seven hours, only to be told Williams was not available and neither was his check. Williams gave Rodriguez different excuses as to why the money wasn’t available. At various times she told him she was sick or in hospital, or that the check was lost by UPS, according to texts and emails viewed by The Daily Beast.
“She always said: ‘The check is in the mail.’ It was never in the mail,” Rodriguez says. “She played so many games with me mentally.”
Eventually, Williams stopped replying to Rodriguez’s texts and emails.
Ultimately, Rodriguez says, he ended up with only $55,000 of the settlement. He still doesn’t know what happened to the additional $120,000.
“It hurts my feelings that you work so hard, and you get screwed. And then you get a lawyer. And the lawyer screws me,” Rodriguez says. It’s really ugly and it’s really sad.”
As Rodriguez was desperately texting Williams, looking for his money, she had other things to worry about.
That February, another former client filed a civil lawsuit against her for professional negligence.
Alexander Groisman, a professor of physics at UC San Diego, hired Williams’ ex-husband Craig DuFord, to represent him in a legal dispute with former business partners, according to the suit. When Williams and DuFord broke up, his file was transferred to her new law firm, but “no new retainer agreement was ever executed,” and Williams raised her hourly rate to $505 without telling him, he alleges.
Groisman alleges Williams “committed gross malpractice, grossly overbilled him and failed in her duties as an attorney” according to court filings. Groisman alleges that Williams failed to keep him updated about motions being filed, failed to file motions in his case, and billed him $120,000 “without any cognizable benefit.” Groizman also alleges in the suit that Williams “simply charged [his] credit card at her will.” (The case is still pending.)
Five months later, in July 2022, more former clients sued Williams. Damian and Lori McKinney hired the DuFord Law Firm in 2018 to represent them in two lawsuits, according to the lawsuit. They also accuse Williams of professional negligence, alleging in their suit that she billed them for work that was never done, and intentionally over-staffed their cases.
Like Groisman, the McKinneys also allege that their credit card was charged without their permission. They say their complaint that Williams’ firm failed to give them a $15,000 payout the firm was holding in trust. Finally, they say during the period of time WIlliams’ firm represented them, at least one “senior attorney” attached to their case was not even licensed to practice law in California. (The State Bar also alleges that Williams allowed an employee that only had a New York license to appear in California court.) The case is ongoing.
Girl boss down
Now, Williams is poised to lose everything she once banked her “girl-boss” lawyer reputation on. Her law firm is shuttered. She’s facing lawsuits from former clients accusing her of professional negligence. The California state bar has recommended to the state Supreme Court to disbar her, meaning she would be unable to practice law in the state for at least five years.
Once feted as a leading light for women business owners in San Diego, one former client now describes her as “just another sleazeball lawyer who spiraled.” But that doesn’t give her former clients or former colleagues much comfort.
“I know she belongs in jail,” Goens said. “Do I feel bad for her? I almost would if she wouldn’t have ruined so many people.”
“Because that’s what she did. And there’s no way to defend that.”