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“Female Powerbrokers Q&A: Quarles & Brady’s Kim Johnson”

Law360

Kimberly Leach Johnson is the newly inaugurated chairwoman of Quarles & Brady LLP. She previously chaired the firm’s finance committee and was an elected member of the firm’s executive committee, among other roles. She practices in the area of trusts and estates, and represents individuals, families and organizations in the management and disposition of their financial assets. She is a fellow of the American Bar Foundation and was recently named “Top Woman Lawyer of the Year” by the Collier County Women’s Bar Association.


Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys’ network?

A: By focusing on what really counts in the legal profession: hard work, client goals, relationship management, business discipline, attention to detail, honest opinions, dedicated follow-up, caring service, etc. The last time I looked, none of these qualities was gender-specific. When I first became a lawyer, the partner who recruited me was shortly ousted from the firm, and he took his entire book of business with him. In the wake of his departure, the firm gave me a year to build a viable practice from the ground up, so I did. The managing partner clearly didn’t expect me to succeed, but there was no denying I had met his terms of entrance to the “old boys’ network,” so I was inside before he realized he had underestimated me.

Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?

A: There are not a lot of role models for women firm chairs. Certainly, you can learn from women of influence who came before you in other industries, but within the legal profession there remains a lot of uncharted territory. Generally speaking, I think there are genuine gender differences in terms of how executives conduct themselves, which are neither better nor worse in themselves, but we female attorneys in leadership positions have been learning on the job how those differences play out in law firms, without much historical context to help us.

Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.

A: As mentioned above, I had barely joined my first firm, fresh out of law school, when the attorney who recruited me was ejected from the partnership and took the firm’s entire trusts and estates practice with him. Upon that departure, the firm’s managing partner not only gave me just a year to build my own practice from scratch, but he simultaneously condemned the effort, saying, “Women can’t be lawyers.” I handled it simply by proving him wrong.

A year later, he amended his sexism by clarifying, “Women can’t be litigators.” I think he figured I couldn’t prove him wrong again unless I wanted to change practice areas and throw away all the work I had done, so I recruited a woman litigator to join the firm, who was an outstanding performer and eventually went on to become a judge. (We’ve grown much closer since then, and he actually has taught me a great deal about being a lawyer, so an important lesson for us all is, “Don’t burn bridges.”)

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?

A: First, don’t let anyone define you, your professional status or your objectives. Whatever your gender, you will encounter saboteurs all through your career, who will try to undermine your objectives (most likely by projecting their own inadequacies and insecurities onto you) — don’t let them.

Second, allow yourself all of the life goals that are important to you, rather than “sacrificing” one dream for another. The average career lasts for many years, and you have time to achieve multiple life goals if you plan for them, don’t insist on having them all at once, and don’t let anyone tell you that you have to choose between them. I have raised three kids, built a solid practice, participated in community activities that are important to me, found time to enjoy life with my husband, and now I’m the chairwoman of an AmLaw 200 firm. You’ve probably read articles that question whether a woman can “have it all.” Maybe not, but if it’s important to you, you can still have a whole lot.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?

A: Broadly, it’s important to have mentoring and training programs in place that promote positive career development for all employees. This includes paying attention to diverse attorneys, women and otherwise. It’s not “special treatment” to ensure that women have ample opportunities to demonstrate their value, even if it requires a few special programs to be sure they can, and everyone wins when they do. More specifically, it’s important to mentor women and ensure that they have full and equal access to the same opportunities that men have enjoyed. Finally, there’s nothing more attractive and empowering for all attorneys, but women in particular, than flexible work schedules. A firm that accommodates the many demands on women’s lives is likely to attract the very best talent, and flexible hours can unleash a powerful level of productivity.

Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.

A: In the context of this Q&A, it’s hard to find a more admirable attorney than Sandra Day O’Connor! Not only did she break the glass ceiling in the U.S. Supreme Court, opening the way up for Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (and many more to follow, I’m sure), but she voluntarily stepped down to spend more time with her husband, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. She is a woman who has indeed had it all, and that’s what I call “keeping your priorities straight.”

Article originally appeared in Law360, November 15, 2013

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