For more than 20 years, Esther Cho’s notable securities practice has centered around collaboration.
A shareholder and Chair of the Executive Committee at Keesal, Young & Logan, Cho says, “I love talking to our junior lawyers and staff, whether formally or informally, and getting a different perspective that maybe I don’t have anymore, or never did.”
That outlook is the key to her leadership style. “You need buy-in from everybody. Otherwise, decisions aren't going to get executed, or they’re not as effective,” she says. She thinks about her two teenagers at home. “It’s the same thing around the house – if I can get them to buy into whatever we're doing, it's much easier.”
Family is a fitting analogy for Cho’s experience at Keesal, Young & Logan. Recruited out of law school, Cho has been at the firm for her entire career, bonding with her team as her life and career grew and changed. That’s not an uncommon trajectory; the firm focuses on recruiting and retaining top talent, with more than 80 percent of the team starting their careers with the firm.
Cho quickly proved herself to be part of that elite group of talent. She has focused on securities litigation from the get-go, defending financial services firms and securities broker-dealers in state and federal court and in arbitration, while also representing institutions and individuals in regulatory investigations. Her extensive experience working with financial services firms led her to take on employment litigation in that sector, as well. She has defended firms in matters including wrongful termination, breach of contract and California Labor Code violations.
Cho also serves on the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, with a focus on recruiting diverse talent. For the last several years, Cho notes, the firm’s summer associate classes have been comprised entirely of individuals from backgrounds underrepresented in law. “We’ve been strategic and specific about that approach,” Cho says.
Cho is a member of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Litigators in America.
Lawdragon: Tell me about what brought you to Keesal, Young & Logan.
Esther Cho: I was recruited during law school. During my second interview, I got to talk to many of the lawyers, and I fell in love with a lot of folks at the firm. I remember coming home and telling my husband, "I really, really, really want to work at this firm." He asked why, and I said, "The people were warm when they were talking about their practice. I actually believe them."
LD: How does that translate to the environment at the firm?
EC: We have a very collaborative and non-competitive environment.
For example, several law clerks just started yesterday, and we tell them every year, "You're not competing with each other for the job. We want all of you guys to succeed. We're hoping to make four offers." So, right off the bat, it creates this relaxed atmosphere where our clerk classes get really close to each other.
Our approach with associates is the same. As you move up in your career at the firm, we're really pulling for all of our associates to succeed and hoping that we can welcome all of them into the partnership, so they're not competing with each other, either. So, it builds that collaborative environment from the get-go. I think that's part of the reason why a lot of us have been together for so long.
We also have team-building retreats where the partners go away together, and we invite our significant others. We also have partner-associate retreats. It all builds on each other.
We like to give responsibility early and often. That’s part of what attracted me to the firm. We tell our associates, "There's no bad ideas. Be bold, and you're part of the team." I hope they feel that way from the get-go because we value everybody's opinion. I just had a second-year lawyer take an adverse witness in a big trial, and he did a fantastic job.
LD: What else made you sure you’d found the right place to practice?
EC: When I was struggling with infertility, the firm supported me in going on leave. Then I came back and worked part-time because I was still trying to get pregnant.
Finally, I got pregnant with my daughter and decided, "You know what? I worked really hard to get this little baby, so I'm going to spend more time with her." So, I worked part-time for a while with my daughter and then with my son.
My mentors and the partners at the time were so supportive of those decisions that I was making for my career. I still remember those times of struggle with such fondness. I know at another firm it would not have been the same.
LD: That’s so vital.
EC: Yes. That commitment solidified my commitment to the firm. Otherwise, I don't know that I would still be a lawyer.
This is a very difficult, demanding profession for working moms, and for anybody, really. The decisions that I wanted to make for my family could have led me down a different path. But this was a place that I felt was home and I could feel safe asking for that.
It was obviously a very painful time.
LD: Of course.
EC: But it’s something that I like to talk about because infertility is hard. The legal profession is hard. As a junior person, you think it's a very linear career path. I want to share my story so that people feel as they're going through it, "Maybe I'll come out the other side and it'll be okay." I want to give that back to folks.
LD: You mentioned you had mentors. Who did you consider a mentor?
EC: As a first-year lawyer, Steve Young, who's a named partner at our firm, pretty much cornered me and said, "Do you want to do securities?" He had another senior associate that he worked very closely with, and they needed a junior associate on their team. He’s a great lawyer and the nicest guy, so I said yes. So, my practice trajectory was set early on.
I loved working with Steve and a lot of the other partners at the firm. He and I have a really good working style because we're similar in a lot of ways. We like to prepare early, and we're practical in our approach to cases. Steve is very even-keeled, and I'm a little bit more excitable, so I think we were good together in that way.
Having mentors is important, and so is having seasons of mentors. You don't have to pick a mentor and have that mentor your entire career. Now I love mentoring junior folks, and I seek out mentors, too, internally and externally.
I want to share my story so that people feel as they're going through it, "Maybe I'll come out the other side and it'll be okay."
LD: Going back to your practice, what cases stand out as particularly memorable in your career?
EC: There's one case that I always talk about. It was a long, big case for a client that had been going on for six or seven years, and we did 35 days of arbitration.
We had a counterclaim going back to the plaintiff, which is unusual. I'm a civil litigator, mostly on the defense side. So, for me, a win is a zero. But in this case, we had a counterclaim going back, and we prevailed. We obtained an award on behalf of our client.
That was exciting because it's not usually something that I get to do. It was a significant amount of money, which is great, and I got to wear the plaintiffs’ hat. That was very challenging, and it really stretched my skills and my imagination. It was fun.
LD: Wow, so a great experience for you and a great award for the client. What other cases stand out?
EC: I’m thinking about my very first witness and my very first arbitration, where we also prevailed.
I was probably a second-year lawyer, and the partner on the case was a great trial lawyer. He gave me a couple witnesses, and it was so nerve-wracking. It was an adverse witness, and I prepared probably too much. No such thing, right?
EC: But it's a case that I will always remember because it was my first one and I got to take an adverse witness. The partner had faith in me to be able to do it.
LD: What did you learn from having that experience early on?
EC: I think I learn something from every experience or every case. But as a new lawyer, I had my outline for the witness, but I had to learn to think on my feet. I think that’s a skill that comes with a lot more practice. I remember coming away from that thinking, "I need to really sit there and listen and not just push out my agenda and questions.” That's an effective cross-examination skill. It was hard for me to get right off the bat, and it's something that I still have to remember.
LD: Looking to more recent cases, what’s keeping you busy now?
EC: I'm currently working on a huge case that's coming off arbitration. It's a nine-figure damages case for a client and it involves a prominent billionaire on the other side. It has been pretty contentious because of the issues and the personalities at play. We think it's a defensible case, so it's keeping me on my toes, and it’s been fun.
LD: What advice do you find yourself giving to junior attorneys most often now?
EC: It’s important to ask for more responsibility – to be the person who's the first one out there and willing, able and excited to be learning and doing things. Even if the partner or the client says, "No, maybe not this witness. Maybe not this case,” I'm always impressed by folks who are raising their hand and wanting to do something and being excited about it.
Also, I would also advise them to network early on in their careers. This is a lesson that I learned later, because I was busy trying to work and get my practice started. But some of your best client contacts later on might be your law school classmates, because people are going to diverge into different paths. Or, as a very junior lawyer, maybe you're working with a very junior in-house lawyer that doesn't have, you think, any decision-making power in terms of sending cases – but they maybe will in five, ten years.
The last thing, which I also didn't do early on, is knowing the importance of self-care. When you first start practicing, you let all of those things go, like exercise or time with family or friends. You're so focused on work first. But I do think taking care of yourself and having some time to yourself helps with your stress level. I think it helps with balance. It's really hard when you're starting out. I remember. But I would encourage people to carve out some time for that.
I'm always impressed by folks who are raising their hand and wanting to do something and being excited about it.
LD: What are your favorite ways to incorporate self-care?
EC: I like to exercise. I have a Peloton. My husband is a bike rider, and he's always been a bike rider. During the pandemic, it's something that the whole family started doing.
I also love to play music with my family. My husband and my daughter are guitar players, and they started building guitars during the pandemic. I'm a piano player by training. My son's a drummer. So, music is really soothing and relaxing for me.