ON LEADERSHIP: “A strong culture of respect is foundational to our firm,” says KYL’s Esther Cho

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On Leadership

We continue our bi-monthly column, On Leadership, created by Rose Ors for Thomson Reuters. Each installment will feature conversations with law firm CEOs or Managing Partners about how they are leading their law firms in today’s dramatically changing and highly competitive legal industry.

In this installment, Rose Ors speaks with Esther Cho, of Keesal, Young & Logan (KYL), a law firm that serves the Western United States and Pacific Rim. In March, Cho was named Chair of the firm’s Executive Committee.

Rose Ors: What is KYL’s culture?

Esther Cho: First, we are a group that genuinely cares for each other. We are also a group that knows each other very well. Eighty percent of our lawyers have spent their entire careers at KYL. So, it is no exaggeration to say that we have grown up together. We have attended each other’s weddings and raised our children together. Some people even vacation together. So, when people say we are collegial, it is an understatement.

We also have a strong culture of respect. Every member of our firm knows that they have a voice and that it will be heard. Respect is foundational to our culture.

Finally, we are intentional about creating an environment of belonging. We hold not only partner retreats, but associate retreats and staff retreats. Before the pandemic, most of us would regularly gather for lunch. Sometimes work happens during these lunches, but mostly we talk about our personal lives. These daily gatherings foster an environment of closeness and mutual respect.

Rose Ors: What does collaboration look like within the firm?

Esther Cho: I believe that true collaboration only happens when every team member feels comfortable offering their ideas and opinions. And they do here. We genuinely value every member of our team’s skills and contributions, from the most senior partner to our newest staff member. For example, one of my closest friends and chief collaborators is a senior paralegal whose contributions on a case or project are unparalleled. Our founding partner considers a paralegal who has worked with him on numerous litigation cases to be the best “lawyer” he has ever known.

It gets back to our culture of respect. All voices are welcomed and encouraged.

Rose Ors: Clients continue to push for law firms to become more efficient and cost-effective. How are you meeting these expectations?

Esther Cho: Our goal is to meet or beat expectations before they are expressed. That starts with looking at the relationship and each matter through the client’s lens. For many clients, success is settling a case as soon as possible. If we can do that with one phone call, we will. For other clients or specific matters, the preferred path is to take the dispute to trial and a verdict. Our strategy will depend on what our clients consider a win. But in every scenario, we employ the most efficient and cost-effective approach.

We also successfully partner with clients on alternative fee arrangements (AFAs), whether they be single case AFAs or AFAs across large portfolios of similar matters. Likewise, we have worked with law companies when doing so would be the most efficient and cost-effective way of handling a client matter.

On Leadership

Esther Cho, of Keesal, Young & Logan

Rose Ors: KYL was recently recognized as a midsize law firm that is “punching way above their weight.” Why is that recognition important to the firm?”

Esther Cho: It was a special honor because it was our clients’ responses to a national survey that garnered us that accolade. The firm has also been recognized for its custom workflow automation solutions designed by Keesal Propulsion Labs (KP Labs) for clients.

KP Labs started as a value-added service for our financial services clients, automating the effective handling of early dispute resolution matters. The legal process automation expertise developed at KP Labs augments our firm’s capabilities and builds deeper relationships with our clients by providing value before, during, and after litigation.

Rose Ors: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

Esther Cho: I am a consensus builder. It is an approach that aligns well with the culture of the firm. As a part of our Executive Committee and now as its Chair, I elicit feedback from all levels of the firm. Listening to and understanding the concerns, ideas, and opinions of our firm’s members is critical. I especially value the time I spend talking to people one-on-one and in small groups because that’s when people are not afraid to speak frankly and broach new ideas and concepts.

I also gravitate towards a coaching approach to leadership. I enjoy getting to know the individuals on my teams, learning their strengths, and identifying areas where they need to improve. The approach allows me to assign them projects where their strengths can shine or where they will have the opportunity to improve a weakness.

Rose Ors: You were named Executive Committee Chair just before the pandemic struck. How are you leading the firm remotely?

Esther Cho: I lead in the same way I’ve always led — I listen more than talk. The only difference is that I’ve been more intentional in reaching out to people during this challenging time. I also have more “contact” with attorneys in other offices since Zoom knows no geography. This has been one of the positive outcomes of working from home.

However, having to quickly pivot from working at the office to working remotely has had its challenges. But we adapted quickly and continue pursuing programs that were important to us. For example, while other firms eliminated or shortened their summer program, we still held our summer program because it is an integral part of our firm culture.

And our summer associate team did an outstanding job of making it a great experience for both the students and the lawyers. They organized small group Zoom events that allowed students and attorneys to interact and have fun. Some of the popular events were virtual murder mystery night, paint & sip night, and the traditional partner/clerk dinner.

Rose Ors: Why did the firm decide to be part of the Community of Legal Interns (CLI)?

Esther Cho: Diversity and inclusion are important to us. It is important to me. So, when Connie Brenton — a person who needs no introduction — asked if we would support what she describes as a ‘community-based movement to connect students and employers committed to increasing diversity and inclusion,’ we immediately agreed.

The conversation with Connie was timely because our firm had only weeks before decided to establish a paid internship for diverse first-year law students and to recruit from a wider range of schools. Connie was impressed with students she had met at Southern University Law Center, so our firm decided to partner with that school. Our commitment to hiring a 1L summer intern from Southern was one of the first steps in what ultimately become today’s CLI.


This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.