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Lawyer Limelight: Jason S. Kim

Jason S. Kim of Los Angeles’ Blank Rome remembers growing up in Seoul, South Korea, watching “Wonder Woman” and “The Six-Million Dollar Man.”

America was so glitzy and exciting. So when at the age of 11 his family moved to the capitol of the United States, it was a bit of a mystery why D.C. was so sleepy and suburban. His parents had presumed that as a capitol – think Paris or London – D.C. would be a vibrant hub with fast cars and people who looked like Lynda Carter or Lee Majors.

His father worked two jobs, eventually buying and running Roland’s of Capitol Hill, a corner grocery frequented by legislators and lobbyists. Jason learned English, winning admission to UCLA, where he found the exciting multicultural city for which he yearned. Los Angeles also opened the doors to his passion for helping entrepreneurs – often from families and fellow immigrants – build their businesses and preserve their wealth.

Though his path through law firms was challenging, his journey through pro bono and community engagement was his rock. The Los Angeles riots broke out in 1992 as he was about to take his third-year law school finals. He knew Korean families whose stores were burned and became aware of the divisions among Los Angeles’ diverse communities. He determined then to be part of the conversation and solution, and has been a prominent member of the Los Angeles public interest and business communities ever since.

Lawdragon: Tell me a little about yourself.  Why did your family move from South Korea to the U.S.?

Jason Kim:  Like most immigrants, my parents were looking for economic opportunities that the U.S. offered.  In Korea, the biggest, most robust city is its capitol, Seoul. So, without knowing much about the U.S., they just assumed that D.C., as the U.S. capitol, would be the biggest city with the most opportunities.  That’s how we ended up just outside of D.C.

LD: What was it like for you moving from Seoul as an 11-year-old to this new country?

JK:  I imagined a country of fast cars and good-looking people, but, when I got to Silver Spring, I thought, “This is a lot quainter than I thought America would be.” I grew up in a peaceful neighborhood where folks rarely locked their doors and kids would go from house to house to play until the sun went down. The initial challenge, of course, was the language. My father is a former Army officer and essentially ordered me and my two younger sisters to read every day. One of the first books he gave us was Charlotte’s Web. He said, “I want you to circle every word that you don’t know. Here is an English-Korean dictionary. Use it to look up the words you don’t know and finish the book.”

LD: When did you start forming ideas about becoming a lawyer?

JK: It didn’t dawn on me until I got to college. I came to UCLA, became a political science major and studied a narrow field of political theory that used disciplines from Freud and Marx to analyze political events. It was fun but not very practical. In my junior year, I said, “Oh boy, I’ve been taking a lot of these esoteric, theoretical classes. I’m in trouble when I graduate. I’ve got to do something.”

That’s when I stumbled upon a couple of folks who were attorneys or who had friends whose fathers were attorneys and thought law would be a great career for me. At that time, I had a “be a prosecutor, do something good for society, put the bad guys in jail” mentality. I planned to go back home to the D.C. area and attend a law school there. But towards the end of my junior year I started dating a girl who is now my wife, who is an L.A.-native, so I ended up changing my mind and applied to UCLA Law School and got in.

LD: How did your progression occur from wanting to become a prosecutor to becoming a corporate lawyer?

JK: When I graduated in 1992, it was the start of a recession. When it came time for my class to interview on campus, many of the government agencies had implemented a hiring freeze, so there were no positions in the District Attorney’s office or the City Attorney’s office or the Attorney General’s office. Many of us then scrambled to get jobs at private firms, but they started cutting back on the interviews and job openings. I was fortunate enough to get a job at a small local firm, Knapp, Petersen & Clarke.

LD: What experience did you get at Knapp Petersen?

JK: When I joined, it was an insurance defense litigation boutique, but they had just brought on a partner by the name of Jim Phillippi, who’s still there. Jim had a very eclectic transactional practice mostly dealing with real estate and real estate financing matters. I began working with him, and that was my introduction into something that is not strictly litigation-oriented. But, the recession only worsened. By the time I left the firm, they had shed 40 to 50 percent of their lawyers.

LD: Those were tough years in the Los Angeles legal market. How did you handle that?

JK:  With few job openings, I had no choice but to create my own opportunity. We moved to Korea, where I formed a small company with a friend from college. It was just a two-person shop. We negotiated for and obtained from U.S. brand name apparel companies exclusive licenses to sell their products in Korea. The Korean economy was growing and its market was opening up to foreign investments. So, we thought the timing was right. We approached various U.S. brand name apparel companies, and, with the backing of some investors in Korea, we were able to close a few deals. I thought I would be doing that for a while, but after 18 months there, my wife became pregnant with our first son and wanted to return to L.A. Fortunately, by that time the recession had passed and jobs were plentiful again. I came back to L.A. and got a job at another small firm. It was a great place to work.

In 1997 or 1998, I was seconded into a local community bank for a year or so. When my secondment ended, the partners that I was working with were gone from the firm. I followed one of them to his new firm but then decided to leave in 2000 to start my own practice, since, by that time I had built a small book of business, representing mostly local community banks on loan transactions.  It was tough in the beginning because of the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. By late 2005 or 2006, however, I had a decent practice and I would get approached by friends of mine who were partners in larger firms, asking me, “What are you doing out there by yourself? Every time you have a matter from a client that you cannot handle on your own, you are referring it to us. If you joined our bigger platform, you could capture all that revenue on your book of business.”

I thought to myself, “If I really need to have a less-stressful work life, I needed to invest a lot more money and build out the practice.” And that was a very scary proposition. I thought if I joined a bigger platform, I wouldn’t have to do that. I can just kind of move in, slide into the infrastructure and use the resources they already have.

LD: Your law firm career is quite representative of what many young attorneys have experienced in Los Angeles, in particular, with the volatility in the law firm market. So your move back into big firms was to join the ill-fated Dreier Stein & Kahan?

JK:  My friend, Judy Lam, told me that Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan was breaking up and that she was going with the group led by Larry Stein and Bob Kahan. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in joining. Bob Kahan has a tremendous reputation in L.A. as a corporate lawyer. So, I said, “I’m in.” I inked the deal, and joined after they inked a deal with Mark Dreier.

I was at Dreier Stein until the collapse in late 2008. The Mark Dreier thing was just completely out of left field. During the first week of December, a message from Larry Stein came up on the Blackberries of all the partners that read something like, “Emergency partners meeting, sixth floor conference room.  No phone-ins. Must attend in person.” All the partners gathered and the first thing Larry says is, “Don’t ask any questions, I don’t know any more than what I’m about to tell you, but Mark Dreier has been arrested in Canada for criminal impersonation.” And everybody looked at each other and said, “What’s criminal impersonation?”

LD: Are we on candid camera? You can’t be serious.

JK:  I’m so not in that world of criminal law. I’m thinking, “Was he using a fake ID?” And then of course, over that weekend we discovered what happened. After spending a day or so figuring out what we needed to do, we decided to protect ourselves by dissolving Dreier Stein and cutting all ties with Mark Dreier.

I eventually joined a small practice, Margolis & Tisman, through a friend of mine, Adam Schorr, who was a partner there. I was a happy partner working and serving my clients until Mike Margolis basically said, “We need a bigger platform, we’re getting deals and litigation matters, especially from Asia, that are just way too big.”

So, we started looking. I was against joining a big firm at the beginning. But, I knew Mike was right. So, we talked to various law firms and then took the best opportunity offered. That’s how I joined Blank Rome four years ago.

LD: Your career seems to be an interesting lesson in the importance of continuing to focus on building your own practice rather than relying on the law firm.

JK: I don’t know what I did right in my previous life, but I’ve been blessed with amazing clients. Yes, clients come and go, there are clients who’ve retired and companies that have been sold. But, it’s just been amazing how clients sort of stuck with me through thick and thin. Some of the most encouraging words that I received were from my clients. I still have two or three companies that I’ve been servicing for 15 years or so. I know their business well; I know exactly their likes and dislikes. It’s allowed me to continue to build slowly but solidly a group of clients where I’m just always grateful that I get to work with people that I love and do the type of work that I love.

LD: Can you talk about one or two of your recent deals that you found interesting, or exemplified what you like about your practice?

JK: I handle primarily corporate mergers and acquisitions, but because L.A. is such a middle-market place, it’s common for deal lawyers here to have what I would call “minors” – like in college. My minor has always been real estate.

I just closed another hotel purchase up in Sacramento for a family-owned enterprise. I’ve been working with the family for a sufficient number of years where I know their risk tolerance level. When I get the initial draft of the purchase and sale agreement from the seller’s counsel, I know exactly what terms my client is going to zero in on and what terms they don’t care about. So it reduces the time and angst involved with such deals. And, from the client’s perspective, it cuts down on the legal spend.

LD: Can you tell us a bit more about how you met that client? I know you’re incredibly active in the L.A. business community, serving as the Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of the Asian Business Association of Los Angeles.

JK:  I met that client at a community association meeting. We were just talking and he was talking about the various hotel acquisitions that he was doing. I asked him a couple of questions and must have left him with an impression that I sort of knew what I was doing, because he called me up later and said, “Look, we have this deal that we’re doing in El Segundo, would you like to represent us?” That was about five years ago.

One-third of my work is representing foreign interests, including banks, funds, and global conglomerates doing business or investing in the U.S. Primarily Korean, although there’s a significantly greater China contingency there. Another client of mine that I’ve been representing for a while is a large apparel manufacturer out of Korea. Most of its manufacturing facilities are in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti. And, I just did a deal where its Nicaraguan and Guatemalan subsidiaries acquired a U.S.-based manufacturer and its Guatemalan affiliate.

The other two-thirds of my practice involves representing middle-market, L.A.-based, typically family-owned companies. I would say half of them are owned by first-generation immigrants and, for many of them, I serve as their outside general counsel. I’ve known many of their children since they were four-, five-years old and now they’re all grown.

JD: I know you’re also deeply involved in public interest and diversity within the firm and within the business community. Can you explain the importance of that to you personally as well as professionally?

JK:  That’s my other passion. I continue to be involved in the pro bono program for the Korean American Bar Association of Southern California. I’d like to think that maybe I was born with this interest, but I don’t think that’s the case.

The 1992 L.A. riots, which erupted during the finals week of my third year at UCLA Law School, was just a slap on my face. It turned what I thought – my perspective on the world, Los Angeles, the community and people in general – just completely upside down. And I’m a little bit embarrassed to say, especially because I myself am a minority, that until the riots I had no idea about the schism between different racial groups in Los Angeles. I had no idea about the pent-up frustration on all sides.

This was right when I was about to take my first step as a lawyer. So, I got involved with the Korean American Bar Association, led by Angela Oh, to assist – really to perform triage – for the Korean American business owners. Their businesses had been burned and looted. My contribution was to assist them in rebuilding by dealing with the insurance companies to make sure that they were fairly compensated.

And then on a long-term basis, my experience with the riots led me to try to tackle this issue of, “What do we, as Korean American attorneys, attorneys of color, need to do to really connect and communicate on a deeper level so things like the riots don’t happen again? And what is it that I can contribute to that end?”

I still go to the monthly pro bono clinic that’s sponsored by the Korean-American Bar Association, even though I’m often the oldest volunteer attorney at the clinic now.

LD: Experiencing the riots had a dramatic impact on all of us who were here during them. It seems like even today they drive you to help L.A. live up to its potential.

JK: L.A. and our profession. That’s what drives me in terms of making diversity in our profession a priority. It has to be a priority because it is the right thing to do and because it is actually a good thing for everyone. This is why I’ve been very actively involved with the diversity committee and its programs at Blank Rome.

True diversity is not just increasing the number of attorneys of color coming into the legal profession. True diversity means promotion and retention. True diversity means inclusion of not just attorneys of color, but women attorneys and LGBTQ attorneys. We as a firm wrestle with that issue of true diversity. I don’t think we’ve found the solution. I don’t think anyone has found the solution. But at least I’m happy to say that I’m part of a team that’s constantly thinking about the issue and is willing to implement different ways to try to solve the problem.

By the way, I remember calling the law school during the riots to ask if we would still have finals because the riots were happening. And the person on the phone said there were no fires in Westwood.

LD: And you said, “But the city’s burning down!”

JK: That’s right. I knew folks whose parents’ stores were burned down. I had friends whose family members were on top of their stores with guns defending their livelihood. And so, in looking back, I believe what I try to do within the community has its roots in the riots. The riots happened as I was coming out of law school and into my profession thereby forever influencing the way I view the world and what I think I can do to contribute to improving the society that I’m a part of.