EC: I love the way you framed that in terms of lawyers being innovators. I think our size is nimble to bring ideas to one another, and for us to be supportive of those ideas, it’s not this big machine where it needs to go through several committees. I think our size lends itself to that innovation. People refer to us as the cowboys and cowgirls of litigation – thinking outside the box has historically been a part of the firm’s fabric. So, when this idea presented itself and we saw its success and understood that it was very beneficial to servicing our client’s need, it was a no-brainer. And then the people, I grew up with those people, and the firm’s culture is for us to not only work well together but for us to collaborate in other ways. For example, we have partner meetings where we go away with not only the partners but our significant others and our families. And then our families become good friends, and some of the partners go away on separate vacations together; that’s kind of how our firm is. We’re very supportive of one another personally and professionally. And so I think the firm’s culture lent itself to us being supportive of this endeavor.
LB: Talking about a personality and the culture, I’ve got to imagine the culture and personality of your firm reflects, to some degree, the culture and personality of the founder and then the founding partner, and then of the early partners. How do you imagine you might curate and nurture your firm’s culture and personality as the first person in your role going forward? That seems like a tremendous responsibility.
EC: I don’t think that I would change the aspects of our culture and our personality that drew me here and that has kept me here. I’ll answer this kind of in a circuitous way, but we just finished doing our summer clerkship program virtually. I just finished interviewing some students virtually on campus; we’re always kind of looking for that connection with the person. And every time I’m interviewing a first-year or second-year law student, I’m thinking, “Can I practice with you for 20 years? Can I go to Hawaii with you?” These are the kinds of things that run through my mind because that’s so much of the fabric of how we work together and collaborate. I wouldn’t want to lose those things that brought me here and have kept me here. Regarding what sort of new path that I’m envisioning for ourselves, I think it’s KYL 2.0, which will be the better version of KYL 1.0, although 1.0 is wonderful.
We’ve historically been in certain niches of the legal space. And I’m already seeing the junior partners and the mid-level partners and the senior associates pushing towards looking at and wanting to explore different areas of law. Like I said before, we’re so collaborative, and we’re so supportive of one another that these are ideas that don’t have to go through five committees. Still, if somebody wants to experiment with an idea, I think that’s something that I would like to support. Not that 1.0 wasn’t supportive of it, but I don’t think a lot of that was going on in 1.0. That’s something that I think I would like to see. We’ve done a lot of great work in our diversity and inclusion space. Clients ask us to do better, which I love because when clients ask us to do better, we stop everything and figure out how to do it better, right? I would love for us to continue that march and not lose sight and lose focus just because we’re in COVID times and we’re trying to figure out other difficult questions.
Let me go back to your earlier question about what interested me in this role. Coming up, there weren’t a lot of role models who looked like me. Not a lot of women, not a lot of working moms, which I am. I have a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old and two puppies, and not a lot of people of color do. So, I wanted to step into the role partly because I wanted to provide that for somebody who’s coming up. And it’s already proven to be needed, talking to young people, talking to incoming associates. They’ve really gravitated towards me, mainly because of this role model mentorship that they’ve been looking for. I’m very grateful that I’m in this role.
LB: Sometimes we use words like, “Well, I had a great mentor. I observed from afar, I saw a leader that I had a connection to,” but I think that that’s such a powerful thing. It’s an important part of the next generation of leadership that we are especially thoughtful and mindful of what kinds of windows we offer people into their careers in the future. Two things that you touched on that I would like to make sure we cover. You talked a bit about new lawyers, and you also talked a bit about your diversity and inclusion background. I feel like both topics are really important right now. I want to ask a bit more about diversity and inclusion. I was at a conference, the College of Law Practice Management Conference last week, and I joined the programs from one of the law schools about equitability and inclusion. It was a very data-intensive discussion, and I pulled up our internal HRIS about our equitability and inclusion program, which we keep track of, in real-time. It’s reported at board meetings every month, etcetera. And while we had lots of great progress in some areas such as gender diversity, LGBTQ, our metrics on our African-American representation at the company was the same as if we had been a 100-year-old law firm. I was surprised because I think of our company as a company that is, quote-unquote, and I’m using air quotes here, “Diverse.”
That caused a whole conversation internally about whether we think of ourselves as diverse, and if we have not moved the needle in this area, what’s going on? I start by sharing that it’s not lost on me that many of us have work to do. It’s not only law firms that are being asked by clients to do better. Do you have an overarching philosophy about a law firm’s role in society, what you’d like to achieve, what strategies do you feel should be employed that might be successful? And then I’m going to ask, how do you bring people along? This is a change journey for many of us, and you can see my profile, some of my friends say, male, stale and pale, which of course I’d like to claim is not true. You have to bring a lot of people along for us to make a difference here. That was a long preamble.
EC: In terms of the work, it’s interesting because we’re always looking inward, looking at our metrics just like you discussed. We do very well in our gender diversity. We’re actually double the industry standard in terms of our women equity partners, which I’m very, very proud to say. We’re a firm where we’re home-grown at the firm’s upper echelons. What did you say? Male, pale and stale? That’s just because we don’t hire laterally. It’s part of our firm culture; we don’t hire laterally, we try to identify talent early on, and then we hope they stay. Because of that, the upper echelons are still not very diverse, that’s part of our core values that we’re not willing to change at this point. We’re doing really well in terms of recruiting diverse talent. We’re mindful, and we have our own goals for what we want to accomplish. Our DNI committee is making many recommendations to the partnership, so we’re doing really well there.
I do think that we are still struggling in the retention area. There are all these statistics about law firms and law firm partners and how the entrance might be, how the regular demographic in the population looks like, but then the diversity will fall off for various reasons. My focus, and part of our firm’s focus most recently, has been in retention. How do we retain the diverse talent that we’ve identified and trained early on? I think it has to do with mentorship, sponsorship, giving access when you might not have been given access. In prior years, many of our clients asked for diverse pitch teams, which helps to bring people along, like you were talking about. The first place to start is to make the business case for it, “If we do this, we will get more work.” It’s kind of hard to argue with that. If our clients ask us for it, I think it’s easier to bring people along, and then it’s education.
We did our first implicit bias training at our partner’s meeting last August, which was amazing. We spent an hour listening to a presentation and then another hour talking about the issues and figuring out how we can do better, it’s education, and we’re looking into different workshops and trying to bring people along. We’re really focused on retention. It’s more important to us, especially because we’re a firm that doesn’t hire laterally, because it could be a little bit of a quicker fix.
EC: For now, we’re going to focus on retaining. We’ve just recently decided to participate in the Mansfield certification. I was very proud of our decision to do that, and we have to meet specific markers, and even when we were going through the recruiting, we had to make sure that there was certain representation in the folks we were bringing back. We’re very mindful of breaking through some of that implicit bias that exists across the board. There are these markers that we have to answer to that’s going to help us stay on track.
LB: I think explaining to clients that you are planting trees that will harvest fruit in 20 years, and I realize perhaps that’s too long, but you get my point. I’m sure there will be some clients that will say, “That’s not fast enough.” I believe that many clients are looking for evidence, tangible evidence of what you are doing about improving all of our organization’s participation and representation of the societies and the communities that we’re part of. And so I think as you tell that story about, “Look, we have made strategic choices and culture choices around not hiring laterally, and we are putting our energy into where we recruit, how we retain, etcetera.” I think those to me are the kinds of hard yards rather than the shortcuts. What will be sustainable are the hard yards, the work that we have to do to change over time. And of course, I think many of us would like to see things move faster. I read about your work with the community of legal interns. What do you do, and why is this important to you?
EC: We changed the name to Community of Legal Innovators. I serve on the advisory board of CLI. It was started last year by Connie Brenton as her passion project. She met the chancellor of Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a conference, was blown away by him and the story of Southern and what he was saying about the students at Southern. And for the listening audience, a one-minute primer on Southern, Southern was born from a lawsuit in Louisiana where a black student applied to go to law school at LSU, but it was segregated. So, it was illegal for him to go to school there, even though he was qualified. So, there was a lawsuit that ensued. Ultimately, I think the case was settled, but the Board of Education basically founded this law school so that black students could attend this law school. Historically, it’s been a majority of black students, although now I think it’s about 50%-ish.
The tuition at Southern is $5000 per year, which is unheard of, but that affords people who could not otherwise go to law school an opportunity to go to law school. So when you go to Southern and meet these students, they all have their own back story, their story of how they ended up in law school and the dreams that they have for the future and the fact that it attracts these students with such grit and gratitude for where they are in their lives. I know it really resonated with Connie, and she asked a few of her friends to join with her in partnering with Southern to promote diversity and inclusion in the legal community, to educate not only the students that we ended up hiring at our various firms but also we opened it up to a larger community. We did this webinar series last year, which continued this year, promoting diversity and inclusion in the legal community. Partnering with Southern has been a fantastic part of that journey.
This last year, we had an intern from Southern come and clerk with us at our firm, virtually obviously. His story is amazing. It’s a law school that we would have never looked at before this. Even before we got involved in CLI, part of our commitment was to try to recruit from other law schools where we historically haven’t been to, but maybe we would have a better shot at getting some great diverse talent. We decided to go to Southern, he came and clerked for us, and we just made him an offer to join us at KYL. I’m not sure that that would have happened without CLI. It’s a great success story. Now, I just have to keep him. He’s great. So that’s some of the work that we’ve been doing with CLI.
LB: Great story. I have two questions. Leadership in tough times requires – dot, dot, dot
EC: Leadership in tough times requires flexibility. I think it also requires resiliency. It requires one to really listen to the other point of view, even if you don’t agree with it and consider it. And leadership requires strength when it’s time for you to make those tough decisions.
LB: You said something in that list of things. You touched on resiliency. How do you think the younger version of Esther learned resiliency? How do you think people learn resiliency?
EC: I know how the younger version of me learned it. My resume looks one way. Esther, she’s been at Keesal for this many years, she made partner, now she’s this. I know it reads one way, but it was really a long and windy road for me to get here. If I can get personal here. My husband and I were married ten years before we had our daughter and there was a lot of medical intervention with that. I took a leave of absence from my firm because I thought my job was too stressful, and I went part-time for a year. I thought that was not going to be well-received by the partnership, which was when I was an associate and wanted to make partner. But this other part of my life was important to me.
Through that process of being a part-time lawyer, trying to pursue this other thing personally, I made a partner, I made a partner after I had my daughter, which is great. But then, with my son, it was another difficult pregnancy, and I was on bed rest for five months. I was gone from law practice for about eight months because I was on bed rest, and then I took time off. When I came back, I didn’t know what kind of lawyer I was going to be. I had lost touch with my clients, and I had lost touch with the partners. I felt like I was completely off track. So, I had to come back from it, and I also had to learn balance. I think the younger Ester Cho – if the path was straight – I’m not sure I would have been the same sort of a leader, partner, or person. Definitely not the same sort of mom, I know that for sure. I learned resiliency by trying to navigate those tough times and leaning on my friends and my colleagues who were there for me every step of the way. Part of the other reason I’m still here, I’m very loyal to my law firm because they’re a part of my story and my life.
LB: Thank you for sharing that with us. A wonderful conversation. Thank you for joining me today.
EC: Thank you so much for asking me. It’s been a pleasure.