Profile: Kim Johnson Takes the Lead
The accomplished lawyer runs a national law firm from Naples and never stops mentoring others to reach their potential.
Kimberly Leach Johnson was an undergrad at Anderson College (now Anderson University), a small Christian school in Indiana, when a professor challenged her academic choices.
You should go into law, he told her. He thought she was too smart to pursue the careers associated with her major. At the time, Johnson was studying in social work and criminology and had varying notions about her future. “I had all kinds of different ideas. Who knows? I was young.”
The professor’s advice, back in the 1970s, must have been pretty radical—women comprised just 8 percent of law students at the start of that decade. Nevertheless, Johnson took her adviser’s words to heart, went on to study law at the University of Florida and the University of Miami, and set up shop in Naples, first as a tax attorney and then as a trust and estates specialist.
That professor had steered her well. In October, Johnson, 57, became chair of Quarles & Brady, a 450-attorney, nine-office practice that’s among the nation’s 200 largest. She is the first woman and the first attorney outside of Quarles’ Milwaukee headquarters to hold the position in the firm’s 121- year history.
“I was really kind of surprised. I never really aspired to be chair,” Johnson admits one morning in her Naples office, where she’s practiced since 1993. She says she set out simply to build a good practice for her clients, characterizes her role in firm initia- tives as “team efforts” and expresses surprise that her new job has attracted so much fuss.
“I’m kind of a behind-the-stage, quiet person, so all this attention is new to me.”
Her firm is so committed to diversity—its last chair was African-American—that she didn’t consider her ceiling-shattering appointment as anything out of the ordinary. Johnson was part of a 10-person executive committee from which the chair is elected. She had headed the firm’s finance committee for four years.
“The only person who thought it would be a big deal to the press was our director of marketing,” she writes in Inside Counsel, an industry publication.
But to observers, her appointment is a big deal.
“We were thrilled. We’re making progress. Any time we see a woman reach the pinnacle of power, it’s something to applaud. We are still woefully underrepresented in those kinds of roles, so every small step helps,” says Debra Froling, president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. That group surveyed the nation’s 200 biggest firms in 2012 and found that women account for 26 percent of a typical firm’s partners and just 15 per- cent of a typical firm’s equity partners, the highest position. A mere 4 percent of firms had a female firm-wide managing partner. At Quarles & Brady, top leadership duties are split between chair and managing partner.
Johnson, a mother of three sons, puts her ability to rise above gender barriers in simple terms: She wanted to be a tax attorney, and she had one year to pull together a practice.
A tax attorney had recruited her to work with him in 1982 at a Naples firm. She believes she was the ninth female attorney in Collier County. That lawyer left the firm following a dispute and took his clients with him. Johnson decided to stay with the practice, and the managing partner gave her a year to develop her own client list.
“I was a young lawyer. I didn’t know much at all,” Johnson recalls. She launched a marketing campaign, seeking out referral sources and potential clients. She likes to say she “ate her way” through the process, using lunchtimes as opportunities to win over new business associates.
Johnson knew she had to differentiate herself. She spent a lot of time listening to would-be clients explain their issues and then helping craft solutions. She found ways to show people she cared.
“Some attorneys get bogged down in the law. She gets bogged down in how she can help you,” says Steve Pruchansky, a longtime client and friend who owns Greenscapes, a Naples-based landscaping company. Her compassion echoes throughout her professional and personal lives.
“I think she has a great ability to make you feel special,” says Shelly Church, a friend and certified financial planner who frequently refers clients to Johnson. The two women serve on the board of Camp Boggy Creek, a camp in Eustis for children with serious health problems. Church’s late son, who had heart disease, had gone there as a child.
“I know how busy she is, but she will take two minutes to pick up the phone and call me,” Church says. “She’ll call me at the anniversary of my son’s death, and I think, ‘How does she remember that?’”
Johnson joined Quarles & Brady in 1993 to head the Naples office’s trust and estates practice. Her natural empathy served her well. She broke the emotional process of estate planning into manageable pieces, helped families broach uncomfortable questions, coached parents into establishing trusts that ensured heirs would be well cared for—but still productive.
“She is very good at reading people and exceptionally talented at diffusing situations,” says T. Robert Bulloch, Johnson’s former mentee, who succeeded her as managing partner in Naples. “I like to say there’s earth, wind, fire and Kim Johnson. She is a force of nature. She is nonstop and tirelessly devoted to her clients.”
Johnson would have been considered a successful attorney had she just stopped there. Instead, the firm tapped her for leadership roles. Shortly after joining Quarles & Brady, she was appointed to a newly formed diversity committee. That group created a flextime policy, allowing attorneys to condense their hours while still working toward partner and equity partner positions—a trailblazing concept in the legal world. The policy has helped the firm be named one of the 50 best law firms for women by the National Association of Female Executives.
“Twenty years ago, it was a big deal not to have somebody committed full time,” Johnson says. “A lot of people have really benefited from that.” She would have, too, had such policies existed when her boys were young.
“It was just nuts,” she says. Her husband, Ken Johnson, also an attorney, was as progressive as a spouse as her firm grew to be as an employer. The couple would split schedules—one starting work early, one starting later—to manage both household and business duties.
Kim Johnson learned to maximize every minute. She set up systems and policies to streamline the workflow. She used lunch hours to market her practice or meet with clients. Later, she’d draw from those personal habits to establish local and national procedures to manage billing, turnaround times, client relations and the like.
“Lawyers are not inherently process-driven. I didn’t have a lot of time to chitchat, and I didn’t want to market at night,” she says.
The firm’s brass took note.
“She has outstanding interpersonal skills that have served her well in developing a very successful trust and estates practice through both creative and time-tested approaches to new business development,” says John Peterburs, the firm’s executive director. “As it happens, her approach and practices as an individual attorney translate extremely well to organization-wide operations and strategies.” Meanwhile, other women learned from—and leaned on—her.
“One piece of advice she gave me when I was having my first son was to stay in the game,” says Kelly Davis, 35, a mother of three. “The thing she thought set women back was exiting the workforce (entirely). Scale back, work less, do what makes sense for your family ... but if you can stay in the game, that is what is important for your career.”
Davis did, taking advantage of flex- time but still developing her practice. Likewise, attorney Jennifer Nackley looked to Johnson as she learned to divide time between her clients and her daughter, who is now a teenager. She says moving to Quarles & Brady 12 years ago was a “relief.” Her previ- ous firm did not include other female attorneys with children.
“Just to have someone who under- stood what my situation was and who would empathize with me was wonderful. It was such a relief to be here with someone in a leadership position who understood,” Nackley says. “She helped me become a better attorney and helped me see that I could balance a career life and a family life.”
These days, her own sons grown, Johnson advises parenting attorneys to take a deep breath and slow down.
People are working longer these days, she says. A career need not be built in a couple of years.
“It seems like it’s overwhelming and it’ll last forever,” she says of childrearing. “But it’s a very short period ... a very wonderful period.”
Johnson says she never intended to seek leadership positions. But her colleagues consider her a natural leader—one who is as concerned about shaping other people’s careers as she is her own.
Throughout the firm, Johnson became known as a quiet leader—one who worked as “both soldier and general,” according to Bulloch, and one who empowered but also expected accountability.
“You won’t find her pounding on a table and issuing orders or painting the strategic picture and demanding that management staff build a plan around it; rather, she will open each discussion to all stakeholders and reserve the executive call for when there are multiple options on the table and we must pursue just one,” Peterburs says.
It’s a critical time in the legal industry, with demand for legal services down since the economic collapse in 2008, and Johnson will use her considerable people skills and leadership acumen to move Quarles & Brady forward during her five-year term.
Today, clients are seeking more flat-fee services and personalized attention. Lawyers are discovering they have to market themselves in ways they never had to in the past. Firms are realizing they have to differentiate themselves to stay competitive.
Johnson’s impact has already been felt. She’s part of the team that crafted a new senior counsel position, designed for attorneys who want to focus solely on billable legal work and for clients who want more predictable invoices. She helped establish Quarles & Brady in the Tampa market, and improved the firm’s inventory management and net-income performance.
The next five years will prove challenging. Johnson will maintain her estates and trust practice even as she leads the firm—a testament, colleagues say, to her passion for and commitment to serving her clients. “It’s a huge honor to be the first chair outside of Milwaukee and the first female,” she says. “The firm has given me a lot, a lot of training, a lot of exposure. Hopefully I can give back.”