Women in Business Q&A: Kimberly Leach Johnson, Firm Chair, Quarles & Brady

04/18/2015 07:10 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2015

Kimberly Leach Johnson presides over the firm's executive committee and is Firm Chair of Quarles & Brady. As an attorney, she has been practicing trusts & estates law for more than 30 years. She built her practice from the ground up by building personal and professional relationships across Southern Florida until she accumulated not only an impressive client base but a network of referral sources. Kimberly's clients include individuals and institutions alike. Her command of the tax code, coupled with her comprehensive knowledge of both the laws and the personal considerations that affect the transfer of wealth, make her a reliable source of advice and legal representation for high-net-worth persons and families, including those owning private companies.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
We are all a product of our circumstances; this, however, does not mean we are victims of--or can't change--our circumstances. My mother raised me to be very involved, very present in the present--to give everything I could every day, to not let others limit my life, and to always strive for excellence. She must have told me at least 100 times to go out and make a difference in the world. Besides her cookies, my mother pushing me to make an impact on the world around me is my biggest takeaway from my childhood.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Quarles & Brady?
I worked for a number of years at a much smaller firm, where I learned the business side of the law--the importance of timely billing, making sure the time descriptions accurately reflected the value to the client, and tackling the more unpleasant tasks, like collecting your receivables. For a number of years, I served as the managing partner of that firm and learned pretty early in my tenure to confront issues head-on with various attorneys. Many of the finance skills I used when I served Quarles & Brady as the Finance Chair were learned at the smaller firm. At a larger firm, you don't count on the daily revenue from one attorney to pay the bills. "Out of sight and out of mind," as the saying goes, and it becomes convenient to believe the responsibility to bill and collect to keep things running belongs to others, so long as you get your own in before the proverbial stroke of midnight at year's end, just before the carriage becomes a pumpkin. Given my past experience, I was able to change the culture, so that many more partners at Quarles & Brady bill and collect on a regular basis. In fact, that is very much my role as Firm Chair; I serve as captain of the ship, guiding a 500-attorney firm so that it is in the best position to help our clients succeed.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Quarles & Brady?
I've only been in this specific position for a little over a year, but it has been a jam-packed year to say the least! One of my priorities has been to sit down with clients, and I've enjoyed spending time with them to learn about their business and how we can help them more effectively. It's an interesting time to chair an AmLaw 200 firm, as the industry has changed so dramatically since the economic turmoil of 2008. The demand for legal services across the country is down and will probably never return to pre-2008 levels. Business law is nothing if not Darwinian, and our attorneys--all attorneys--need to learn how to deliver services more efficiently. This requires a change in the way we do business, and change is never easy. We now bill a little less than 20 percent of our fees on a non-hourly basis, and we are trying to work with our clients to bill more on a flat fee basis. The clients like the predictability of flat fees for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is being able to budget more effectively. To bill on a flat fee requires managing the case differently, staffing differently, and providing more transparent accountability. The legal business is more competitive than it has ever been, and we are trying to find ways to serve our clients in a manner that not just satisfies their business requirements, but exceeds them. Excellence bears reputation, not the other way around.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in law?
Young attorneys today will need to be very astute in business development starting at an early age. Women attorneys have not prospered in the profession in the same proportions as men. In the late 1970s, when I started law school, about 30 percent of my class were women. Today, we don't have 30 percent of any segment of the legal industry leadership that is made up of women (e.g., deans of accredited law schools, equity partners in major firms, judges, etc). A recent study I read indicated that one reason women have not succeeded is they don't have a robust book of business. Cultural differences impact a woman attorney's inclination to ask for the business. I would advise a young attorney starting out to aggressively take advantage of any in-roads their firm supplies on this front. Quarles & Brady, for instance, has a variety of training programs intended to help women feel comfortable promoting themselves in the marketplace, so they can enjoy their earned share of the pie.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
If there were a simple, magic-bullet answer, you wouldn't be asking the question. Work/life balance is very difficult. There is always a trade-off; no one has yet invented a means to make time stop or add hours to the day. When my sons were younger, I made a concerted effort to try to create balance, and the extent I was able to do so was a direct result of my husband's active participation in our home life. Today, now that my sons are living on their own, I don't have any balance in my life. The Chair role demands too much.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issue facing women in the legal business is finding their place. It can be difficult in the early years if you chose to have a family and want to spend time with them. As I noted, women also need to gain the confidence to ask for the business. Then, of course, there is always the elephant in the room--equality of pay is still an issue. At Quarles & Brady, we do blind testing based upon gender, race, and office location to try to ensure the process is not biased against any particular group of attorneys.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've had several mentors in my career. I think, on some level, we are all influenced by the full menagerie of characters that cross our paths over the course of this journey. Some I've learned from by observing their negative behavior and some from their positive behavior; some I try to emulate, but I've honestly learned as much from seeing what I don't want to do--the kind of person I don't want to be--as I have from the positive influences in my life. Teachers come in all shapes and sizes, and each brings a different lesson to learn. At Quarles & Brady, though, we have a very successful formal program to ensure all attorneys have mentors to guide them through the system--and we vet mentors, to make sure the right kind of people are in those positions.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I have great fondness and admiration for the Honorable Sandra Day O'Connor. Look what she accomplished--reaching the absolute and unquestioned pinnacle of her field--and then what she gave up, so she could be with her partner, the person she loved. She seems to always have had her priorities in the right place; there is a way to get to the top without losing sight of who you are.

What do you want Quarles & Brady to accomplish in the next year?
We need to continue to execute our strategic plan, which we designed last April. The plan is built on the conceit that, to survive in this competitive environment, we have to serve our clients in the manner they want to be served--this includes everything from our communication style, our responsiveness, and our understanding of their business. We've identified several key strategic areas to hone in on, as well as some new ones we'd like to bring to the marketplace. We are trying to ensure we provide a consistent client experience no matter in which location or practice field you need assistance. Quarles & Brady is a wonderful law firm with terrific people, from our staff to our attorneys, and we want to score a "10" every time, in everything we do. We value inclusion and diversity to a greater extent than anyone else in our industry. Our prior Chair was the first African-American to chair an AmLaw 200 firm, and I--his immediate successor--am one of only a handful of women to chair such a firm.