When Jackie Kim Park was named the nextco-U.S. managing partner of DLA Piper with her counterpart Richard Chesley, she never imagined her first few months in the role would be amidst a global pandemic. But thanks to the leadership and guidance of outgoing Managing Partner Stasia Kelly—who was also the first female in the position—Jackie has had a role model to help make her transition seamless.
STASIA KELLY’S STORY
Stasia, you joined DLA Piper after 15 years in-house. What brought you back to law firm life? And how did you become the first female managing partner of the firm?
Stasia: I had been GC in four different companies in four different industries. I really loved my time as a GC, but I really didn’t have an appetite to do a fifth.Still, I wasn’t ready to hang up my spurs. So, I talked to a number of law firms, and DLA Piper was the only one that basically said, “Even though we are not sure exactly what role you should play, we will help you figure it out.” It was an invitation for creativity.
I did spend a couple of years reinventing myself, and I loved it. It was during that time that firm leadership decided to designate managing partners. They saw that I had a wealth of management experience as a general counsel, and I was fortunate to be chosen for that role. I wasn’t very well known in the firm, so I had to navigate a bit on my own to figure out what the role was and what I was going to be doing. But DLA is very entrepreneurial, and the mindset is very much “let’s try something we haven’t tried before, and we’ll support you.”
What did being named the first female in this role mean to you? Was this a goal of yours?
Stasia: I was absolutely thrilled. I certainly never anticipated this role. People often say to me, “You’ve had such a great career path.” I actually never had a discernable path, but I was very fortunate to have different opportunities in my career. DLA was a new path, and it’s really exciting when you get to do something different and are able to apply the talent, skill and experience that you have and translate it into a different setting.
And I was fortunate that leadership gave me an opportunity to work with the women of DLA.
I’ve always mentored women in my career. My mentors were all men because there weren’t any women, so I wanted to become that mentor to as many DLA lawyers as I could.
Jackie: I’ve been at the firm since 2004, and the group I was with opened the downtown LA office. When Stasia came in, she was the first female I had seen who had traveled a different path to BigLaw leadership. Since she didn’t come from a traditional law background, she was able to “think outside the box” and used that vantage point to start certain initiatives and programs that we had not seen before. It was a breath of fresh air just for us to watch her—and that’s been the value that Stasia has had in DLA Piper’s growth. Our firm is a new firm; we don’t have a hallway with oil paintings of leaders from the past century. A lot of the things that Stasia has done, the viewpoints that she’s brought to us, and the initiatives and programs, are all a testimony to how innovative the firm is and have set us up for our continued growth.
What were some of the goals you had for the firm?
Stasia: There were the goals I had to contribute to the success of the firm, and there were the goals I had as a woman leader. For example, in the years that I was managing partner, the practice of law went through a huge shift. Ten years ago, law firms didn’t always operate as businesses. One of the things I knew I could contribute was to understand what clients expect from their outside counsel, other than excellent legal work, and translate that to the firm.
Also, during the years when in-house departments were consolidating and setting up operation centers, I tried to be the translator between our big clients and the firm when it came to interacting with the GCs.
Another goal was D&I related. The focus on diversity and inclusion, including the Mansfield Rule, has completely changed the face of what law firms are going to look like. I’m very proud that we started several D&I programs a long time before many firms did this. We have very exciting efforts going on in this area, from the Mansfield Rule, to our relationship with NYU’s Kenji Yoshino.
And we continued our relationship with organizations like DirectWomen and the Leadership Council for Legal Diversity. So, bringing the firm into those organizations and making them a real part of the fabric of what we do and then taking the lessons from there and spreading them across the firm with the help of male and female partners was a particular goal of mine.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Stasia: Honestly, the accomplishment I’m really the proudest of is that Jackie Park is now in that chair. The fact that the firm acknowledged that the first one worked and has now said “we’re going to improve on the model” with Jackie is great. I’m very proud of that.
What did the transition process look like?
Jackie: I have spent my entire career in BigLaw. I’ve been a practicing real estate attorney and that’s what I’ve focused on for the past 30-plus years. Along the way, I have also held a number of leadership positions. So, I not only had a high level of knowledge about the firm but also had a strong grasp of the challenges facing the firm. But of course, nothing could have prepared us for the pandemic. In fact, when Rick and I officially took on our roles on April 2, 2020, we had just transitioned our 27 U.S. offices to mandatory telework two weeks before.
So, the first six months were really a trial by fire. There were issues that I never expected to deal with, including how to get 27 offices, 1,600 attorneys, and 2,700 business professionals from brick-and-mortar operations to working from home. We had to quickly pivot and take decisive and strategic actions during the transition. And then when people left the office, we thought it was only going to be for two weeks. Though it quickly became clear that it was going to be much longer—and then we had other issues to consider. What about the mail that comes in? What are we going to do with office supplies? Can I go back into the office and grab something? It created a plethora of issues that we attacked one by one and tried the best that we could. There was no playbook, but there was an amazing amount of coordination by all of our leaders and support by our people. Everyone quickly realized that we all had to be on the same page and push in the same direction.
Personally, it’s been amazing to be part of this. I’ve seen the collaboration and the hard work; it was putting the firm first. It really made me realize how strongly positioned we are and how we have grown and developed through Stasia’s leadership so that we can navigate a crisis like this. I am confident that this institutional focus and collaboration has been one of the primary reasons why we have been able to put the health and safety of our workforce first, while also continuing to meet and exceed the needs of our clients.
I think that this transition has really served to strengthen our resolve, and it has me even more excited than I was when I was initially tapped for the role, because I got both a bird’s-eye view and a boots-on-the-ground view of what this firm is all about. So that has been my journey.
JACKIE KIM PARK’S STORY
How has your upbringing and your experiences as the “only only” influenced your career and leadership style?
Jackie: My background has driven a lot of the decisions that I’ve made in my life, and my background has been the foundation of my leadership style.
When I immigrated to the U.S. from Korea, we moved from Seoul to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the mid-1960s. When we came, we were the only Asian Americans the local community had ever seen. We weren’t white. We weren’t black. We essentially didn’t fit in anywhere, so it was a difficult period.
When I joined a big law firm in Chicago in the mid-1980s, I was informed that I was the first Asian-American associate, which really was quite stunning. It was like being back in Alabama. From my standpoint, when you are the only one, or when you are only one of a few, there is an immense amount of pressure not only to perform but also to be perfect because you’re representing all the others. That pressure comes in many forms, feeling like you have to work harder, better and faster than your peers. While that pressure can be debilitating, it can also be an incredible motivating
force to be the best you can be.
What I’m hoping for is that instead of attorneys feeling like they have to be perfect and spending all the extraneous energy on trying to fit in, it really should be an even playing field so that everyone can focus on what they need to do for their career. I’m hopeful that having a diverse female partner in a leadership position is evidence that we can have an even playing field and alleviate all of those extraneous pressures. When you’re the only one in the room, it’s a lot of pressure because you know it, they know it, everyone knows it.
When I was a young attorney, I knew I could stay safe in my little world, but when I built bridges and got to know, collaborate with and learn from people, I realized that ultimately allowed me to create a platform and community where I could thrive.
I want to make sure that this workplace community we have at DLA Piper is a village for everyone so that they can feel safe, hone their craft, collaborate with others, and learn and thrive.
Was becoming a managing partner a goal of yours?
Jackie: No, my short-term goal was extremely simple—survive BigLaw, learn as much as I can and pay off my student loans. I did not see myself as becoming part of the institutional law firm world.
I didn’t have an articulated vision of what I was going to do; my evolution to firm leadership was really more organic. I knew that sitting in an office and just working for 12 to 15 hours a day was not for me. I wanted to get involved in communities at the firm that interested me and that would allow me to connect with people. So, as an associate, I became involved in the summer associate program. I also became involved in the diversity and inclusion activities in my office, the pro bono program and anything where I could get involved with people. I love connecting with people; that feeds my soul.
When I became a partner and found my voice, I then joined regional and national committees. This process of doing something that I liked and believed in gave me an understanding of all the fundamental pillars of a law firm. So, when they did ask me to take on this role, I felt that it was something that I was very well prepared for because I had lived my life and I had been involved in all the different facets of a law firm.
Stasia: I would tell all young attorneys that you make your way. Figure out what you’re good at and what makes you happy and follow that path. That’s the kind of path that leads to leadership and culminates in what just happened to Jackie.
What are some of your top priorities as managing partner?
Jackie: I like to put my priorities in three buckets. The first bucket is that we have to develop and drive a culture of honoring and caring for each other because it is the culture that’s going to help us rise to the challenges. It’s also the culture that is the glue that holds all of us together. If we are committed to the firm, if we feel like we are a part of the firm “village,” then that is going to inure to the benefit of the entire firm.
Second, the new management team needs to execute on a strategic plan that is going to help drive our brand. That brand and the strategic plan will then differentiate us from our competitors in the marketplace. We want to make sure that people understand who we are.
The third one is the most important and will help drive the strategic plan and drive our culture. When Stasia came, people really didn’t know who she was because she hadn’t lived in DLA Piper. And because of that, she had this ability to go around the country and listen and learn from people. When she did that, she realized how invaluable and needed it was. I want to continue her tradition of listening and learning because you really can’t be an effective leader without listening to people, their issues, their concerns as well as their successes, achievements and joys and learning from them. All of this will then help us drive the initiatives and decisions that will provide our people and the firm with a platform for success.
A FOCUS ON DIVERSITY & MENTORSHIP
What are you and DLA Piper doing to advance diverse talent?
Stasia: We’ve been focused on this for a long time. When I went to law school, 55 percent of the graduates were women. Everyone said that when looking ahead, 55 percent of equity partners in law firms were going to be women in the next 10 years. Well, that didn’t happen.
So, we wanted to focus on what is keeping women and other diverse lawyers from becoming integrated in the fabric of the firm. It’s a very difficult question, and there’s no easy answer. I think law firms, and particularly DLA, really want to attack this head-on and try to figure out what levers we can move and what actions we can take. That led us to signing up for the Mansfield Rule and creating diversity and inclusion groups. We also hold our partners accountable for diversity and inclusion metrics.
The magic of all of this is having a diverse culture. Diversity of thought, diversity of skill, diversity of experience enriches the culture and relationships with clients. That’s one of the reasons why I think we’ve become successful. Last year when we made our new partners, the incoming class was 42 percent diverse. We’re tracking it; we’re celebrating it. And we talk about it as a really meaningful part of the firm. When we do that, it becomes real. And then when we live it, we realize the richness that diversity and inclusion bring to an organization and to clients.
Our clients not only want their departments to be diverse, they want their law firms to be diverse. So, when clients tell you they want to know what your diversity statistics are, to see it in the pitch and proposal team, they don’t want to see that you’ve got 10 diverse lawyers on a piece of paper. They want to see diverse lawyers working on their matters. I think the client and the law firm perspective on diversity have come together in a way that shows real commitment to D&I goals. And the experience is positive coming out of that commitment.
Jackie: Stasia mentioned the newly minted partner class that we had in the U.S. and the high percentage of that group that was diverse. It wasn’t by accident. It was years and years of intentionality, focus and diligence—developing all of our associates and giving them opportunities to learn and hone their skill set and providing them with the tools to succeed.
We have also tried to think outside the box. One of the things that we did was develop a great partnership with NYU Law School. Professor Kenji Yoshino leads the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at NYU Law School. He has these groundbreaking techniques to teach people how to identify certain situations when they may not even know that they’re being discriminatory or they’re being less than true to our authenticity. Working with him, we have trained more than 2,000 lawyers and staff globally in areas such as in the workplace, critical conversations and effective allyship. With all of the work that we’ve done, we were really proud when we were recognized by the Financial Times as the most innovative law firm in North America for diversity last year.
Why is it important to both of you to mentor and help advance women in the legal industry?
Stasia: Among other reasons, it is important to me to mentor because I never had a woman mentor. I realized how hard that road is without a person in leadership to watch. I just had all the guys—and they were great—but they didn’t identify with me in a lot of different areas.
I follow the people whom I’ve mentored over the years and I continue to help them. When they get new, bigger GC jobs, I’ll get on the phone with them every couple of weeks and just walk through what their issues are. That’s been successful for me personally and for my mentees, and it’s also brought business to the firm.
Jackie: It’s a duty that we have. I am a big fan of the saying “if you can see it, you can be it.” And for me, seeing Stasia in this role made me believe that was possible for other women, including me. Also, we have to break the cycle of Stasia being the first or me being the only. We need to support other women lawyers so that we can not only advance our firm but advance our profession.
Like Stasia, when I graduated from law school in the mid-’80s, more than half of the graduates from my class were women. And then in my first year at a law firm, half of them were women. But then with each passing few years, you see more and more women falling by the wayside. This isn’t the path for everyone, but if we are seated at the table, mentoring and sponsoring other women, we can then focus on helping other women through.
Also, as a working parent, there are two things I learned along the way: the first one is that your kids are watching. My daughters are now pursuing their own career paths. They often tell me that the reason for their independence and their sense of self was that they were forced to be independent thinkers and decision-makers. The example that working parents set each day by going to work is a powerful and unspoken message. No lecture, no words, just by doing. The second one is to keep your foot in the game. You have to do what works for you and your family, but if you can hone your skill set and stay relevant, keep your foot in the game so that when your kids do go off on their own paths, then you will have the power to decide what your career will look like. If you leave the game altogether, your options will be significantly reduced.
What advice do you have for women who want to become a leader in the legal industry?
Jackie: Once you develop your legal specialty and expertise, you have to take risks. You have your comfort zone of working in your specific field with your group, but to become a leader, you have to develop career competencies of being able to work with others, navigating and influencing multiple sources of views and getting them to come together. You have to understand how all the pieces work together and how to get everyone under the umbrella.
Stasia: I would also say that when you are thinking about becoming a leader, you need to learn to not take things personally. Everyone has their own agendas and their own issues, so you just have to keep an eye on the bigger picture and what is good for the firm. And you have to be willing to take some difficult steps. There will be times when people you are leading are not taking your advice. Making difficult decisions and shaping your teams are all part of being a good leader. Doing this along the way makes it much easier to gain that skill set.