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Esther Cho – The Power of a Distinct Firm Culture

This Next Normal Leadership series podcast features Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with Esther Cho, Shareholder and Chair of the Executive Committee at Keesal, Young & Logan.

Culture Drives Loyalty, Innovation, and Diversity

This Next Normal Leadership series podcast features Elevate’s Chairman and CEO,  Liam Brown, talking with Esther Cho, Shareholder and Chair of the Executive Committee at Keesal, Young & Logan.   KYL is doing innovative work in financial services, maritime, environmental, employment, and complex business litigation.

Esther took on her role as the Chair of the Executive Committee at KYL immediately before COVID and the need for a WFH directive.   Esther has engaged in several firm initiatives in the ten months following while continuing to practice law.  KY Labs, diversity and inclusion, and the Community of Legal Innovators, to name a few.

‘We’ve done a lot of great work in our diversity and inclusion space. Clients are asking us to do better, which I love because when clients ask us to do better, then we stop everything and we figure out how to do it better.’

– Esther Cho

‘I believe that many clients, they’re looking for evidence, tangible evidence of what are you doing about improving all of our organization’s participation and representation of the societies and the communities that we’re part of.’

– Liam Brown

Episode highlights include:

  • [01:15] – Esther’s KYL journey
  • [03:42] – Let’s make it official… a new leadership for the firm
  • [05:49] – KP Labs – an innovation experiment
  • [07:04] – Lawyers as innovators
  • [09:50] – An important and distinct firm culture
  • [15:38] – The real diversity problem – retention
  • [17:43] – Planting trees for diversity and inclusion, ‘putting in the hard yards’
  • [18:46] – Taking real action with the Community of Legal Innovators
  • [21:00] – Leadership in tough times requires …
  • [22:13] – A culture of support during an important personal time


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Podcast Transcript

Note: This transcript has been adjusted to improve readability. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. The context and more than 95% of the actual transcript have been preserved.  We strongly encourage our listeners to listen to the audio.


Nicole Giantonio: Hello, this is Nicole Giantonio, the Head of Global Marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you’re about to hear is part of our Next Normal Leadership Series, featuring Elevate’s Chairman and CEO Liam Brown, talking with Esther Cho, Shareholder and Chair of the Executive Committee at Keesal, Young & Logan. KYL has built a national reputation with innovative work in financial services, maritime, environmental employment, and complex business litigation. During this episode, Liam and Ester discussed leadership, culture, diversity, and a personal story that highlights KYL’s approach to all three.

Liam Brown: Esther, thank you for joining me today. I’m glad to speak to you as a relatively new leader of a law firm. I’d like to start by getting to know you. Would you take a few minutes to talk about the journey that has led you to the role that you have now, please?

Esther Cho: Sure, and thank you, Liam, for asking me to be a part of this podcast. I’m very honored to be here with you. My journey began at Keesal, Young & Logan. I know my history is a little bit unique to our industry, but I started as a law clerk at KYL when I was a second-year law student. I finished my clerkship there, and I got a permanent job offer. I started as a KYL lawyer back in 1999, and I’ve been at the firm ever since. I know that story sounds a little bit crazy, especially in our times and in our industry, but my story is not unique to my firm. More than 80% of us have been home-grown, we started our careers at the firm, and are still practicing at KYL. I think that tells you a bit about the culture of our firm.  I started as an associate, became a partner back in 2008, and started serving on the executive committee a couple of years ago. Just recently, right before we all got sent home for the pandemic, I was voted into the chair role, late February.

LB: So, the timing was perfect. How different has it been from what you expected, generally, and given the obvious COVID environment? I remember the first time I became a CEO, and it was different from what I thought it was going to be. Maybe it’s too early to ask that question, but I’ll ask.

EC: I don’t know what I expected, really. It’s actually a new role for the firm; we’re still very much a first-generation firm, our founding partner is still very involved and up until about two years ago, we never had an executive committee. That was created a couple of years ago, and I think the natural next step was to figure out the committee’s leadership. It’s a new endeavor for us as a law firm – I’m the Executive Committee’s first chair. So, I’m not sure that I was expecting anything. I knew that it would be a gradual transition, it’s still gradually transitioning, but we’ve had to pivot to deal with the challenges of COVID and being at home; a lot of the role has been triage. I don’t know that I had a picture of what it was going to look like, and then even if I did, I’m sure it’s different from what I would have anticipated.

LB: What causes a lawyer to get interested in leadership? What are the kinds of things that called your attention as your career progressed and developed? And joining the executive community in the first place, ultimately, I don’t know the processes you’ve gone through to become the chair, but it’s not like you went through business school to become a CEO. Lawyers need leadership, too. So, what do you think caught your attention or caught your interest in leaning into this sort of role?

EC: Sure. So, it’s interesting you ask that question because as soon as I got appointed, I got a few calls from colleagues in the industry saying, “Are you going to be practicing anymore? What are your day-to-day duties going to look like?” And I never envision myself not practicing law with this role ever. We are very much a practicing law firm, we’re primarily a litigation law firm, and I love that part of my job. I would never want to give that part up. That’s what gets me fired up, but it was a natural progression from being one of the firm’s leaders; it was always something I was interested in. A couple of my mentors have articulated it this way – it was already a role that I was leaning into, in terms of leadership and different aspects of the firm, especially those folks that nominated me and backed me up. I think they thought it would be a natural progression and a more formalized role of what I was already informally doing within the firm. I don’t envision myself just running the law firm. I’m absolutely still practicing. That’s what gets me excited.

LB: I think many of us end up in our careers because the currents move us along. When I prepared to talk to you, I read about the firm and its focus, and I read about some of the things you do. One thing that leaped out at me as a CEO of a law company, or if I may use the term, a parallel legal business, is that your firm doesn’t only deliver traditional legal services. One of the things that I don’t think many people know about KYL is that you’ve not only embraced – I almost don’t want to say the word innovation, but I will for a moment – not only have you embraced innovation, you’ve structurally done something different. You’ve created an entity that actually has another focus. I know that was started before you stepped into this role, but can you talk a bit about the reason for doing that and the reason for actually creating a separate entity? And how does that create value for customers and the firm? And how do you see it create value for the people in the entity you’ve created?

EC: Sure. Thank you so much for asking about KP Labs; we are very proud of that company. So, KP Labs is a sister company to our law firm, KYL, born out of this experiment to better service one of our large clients. They knew they needed something in the space to try to automate a certain process, but they didn’t know exactly what that looked like. As their lawyers and counsel, we were trying to help them through this portfolio of work. It started as an experiment to try to figure out how to service the client’s needs efficiently. And that’s always important to us, and I know that’s important to your company too, Liam. We started it as an experiment, and we built a couple of workflows to automate this process. The client loved it, and then we thought to ourselves, “Why can’t we replicate that with other clients or in other respects?” We spun off this company to be a stand-alone company, which is now KP Labs, and it’s doing extraordinarily well in that space.

KP Labs clients don’t necessarily intersect with KYL clients, although we’re trying to get everything married together, or as much as possible. They’re a stand-alone company and doing very, very well in that space. We’re very proud to be associated with the launch of that company, and we’re still very involved in consultation to the extent that they need legal help or lawyers to step in. We’re involved, and we’re still trying to collaborate as much as possible.

We started it as an experiment, and we built a couple of workflows to automate this process. The client loved it, and then we thought to ourselves, “Why can’t we replicate that with other clients or in other respects?

Esther Cho

LB: I work with global law firms that have experimented with innovation or working differently or delivering differently. I’ve seen lots of different business models, I’ve seen lots of different management models, I have seen very few firms take the leap of pushing an experiment out of the nest and then seeing it fly. I really congratulate you and your partners on taking that approach. I am quite a believer that lawyers are very innovative. I think lawyers think out of the box to solve their customers’ or clients’ problems every day. I think that law firms get a bit of a bad reputation for not being innovative because of what I’ll call business model structural reasons, or in some cases, economic reasons. When I see a not necessarily innovative law firm, but made up of innovative lawyers, actually do something as innovative as, “Hey, let’s create a company that will solve these client or customer problems with skills and capabilities,” and attracts people that are perhaps different from the people that would ordinarily join a law firm – kudos to you.

I have seen very few firms take the leap of pushing an experiment out of the nest and then seeing it fly. I really congratulate you and your partners on taking that approach.

liam brown

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.

LB: Yes.

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.

About the Author(s)

The host of this interview is Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with Esther Cho, Shareholder and Chair of the Executive Committee and Kessal, Young and Logan.

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