We continue our monthly feature, Upfront & Personal, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.
Thomas Kim, Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary at Thomson Reuters, spoke with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about the value of open-mindedness, being passionate about people, and why in-house counsel need to push law firms on diversity and inclusion.
Rose Ors: Who is one person who has played a significant role in your life?
Tom Kim: There have been many people who have shaped who I am today. But there is one person who, because of his leadership and role-modeling, made everything possible — Reverend John Elliot. If not for Rev. Elliot and his congregation, I would never have come to this country and my life would have been completely different.
Our family is from South Korea. Shortly after I was born, my father came to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in theology at Southern Methodist University in Texas. He was sponsored by and lived with Rev. Elliott, the pastor at Hamilton Park United Methodist Church, a Black church in Dallas. My mother stayed in South Korea with the equivalent of $100, a 50-pound bag of rice, and three children to raise. Needless to say, she faced a monumental challenge and, when I got very ill with pneumonia, she asked my father to come home.
My father told Rev. Elliot he intended to drop out of the master’s program and return permanently to South Korea. The pastor then went to his congregation — a community of working class and middle class Black families — and asked for their financial help. They said yes. This congregation raised enough money to bring my mother, my two sisters, and me to the U.S.
Rose Ors: How did Rev. Elliot and his congregation’s generosity and compassion influence you?
Tom Kim: Their open-mindedness and generosity had a profound impact on me and my family. They reached across ethnic and racial boundaries to help total strangers. Their example has always helped me remain hopeful that we have the ability to embrace people who appear different from us.
This hope is so very important right now as we ask ourselves: How do we give everyone fair access to opportunities? How do we help those who are less fortunate than us? How do we find a way where people of diverse backgrounds, characteristics and identities live together in harmony?
Rose Ors: What made you want to become a lawyer?
Tom Kim: My parents raised me to care about others. They encouraged me to think about how I could be a voice for those who otherwise may be silent. And, living in the South, as an immigrant in a working class community, I witnessed the difficulties people of color and poor folks face when interacting with our legal system.
So, from a very early age, I had an interest in the law and believed that lawyers could be the voice of the voiceless. I still believe it.
Rose Ors: In another life, what would be a career?
Tom Kim: I would be a fiction writer. There was a time that I weighed becoming a writer or a lawyer. I still enjoy writing. It is a hobby now and one I plan to dedicate more to in retirement. It is also an interest I share with my teenage daughter, Noelani.
Rose Ors: Tell me more.
Tom Kim: Noe is a wonderful writer and I feel very fortunate that she shares some of what she writes with me. Her poems, stories, and essays usually come from a very deeply personal place and reading them allows me to see a part of her that may get lost in our normal parent-child conversation. When she shares a piece, I learn a different part of who she is, and I’m moved to tears and so proud.
Rose Ors: What have been the most significant moments in your career?
Tom Kim: The most significant moment was deciding to leave a law firm. I realized early in my career that what I truly enjoyed about practicing law was establishing a deep connection with a client and gaining a thorough understanding of that client’s legal and business needs. I knew I could only build that kind of relationship working in-house.
Rose Ors: You’ve been with Thomson Reuters for more than 20 years. Why has the company been your professional home for so long?
Tom Kim: I have had the opportunity to work with an amazing group of people. I have worked abroad. I have worked in different industry sectors within the company, including media, tech, financial services, and tax & accounting. I am part of the company’s executive team.
I have led not only the legal department — the position I hold today — but also ran a business. And in each and every role, the company has given me room to be creative, to learn, and to explore.
Rose Ors: Mentors and sponsors are so critical to career success. Is there someone who has played those roles for you?
Tom Kim: My mentor, sponsor and great friend is Deirdre Stanley, my predecessor and now the general counsel at Estée Lauder. Deidre is an amazing role model. She is a superb lawyer, and a powerful leader. She is warm and generous, and she has always challenged me.
She took the time to know me well and push me to be better while offering advice and support.
Rose Ors: What are three things you are passionate about?
Tom Kim: People is number one. I love this phase of my career as a general counsel because I devote a tremendous amount of time to helping people in the legal department and across the company realize their full potential.
My second passion is purpose. I am a staunch believer that purpose drives people and people drive profit. To that end, I have always sought to understand what motivates people. To ask: Why do people chose to do what they do? Why are they behaving the way that they are behaving? What truly matters to them? Money, of course, matters. But what I have learned by asking these questions is that what makes people get up every day and do great work is a sense of purpose — that what they are doing aligns with who they are.
My third passion is learning new things. I actively seek people who can provide me with a different perspective or can show me a different way of looking at things. It is what makes working in a diverse team incredibly rewarding.
Rose Ors: In choosing outside counsel how important is their track record on diversity and inclusion?
Tom Kim: It is very important. I am one of an increasingly larger number of general counsel who are looking closely at a firm’s diversity and inclusion progress beyond a firm’s overall statistics. To that end, I want to know the number of minority associates and partners that will work on my matters.
Additionally, I want to know if associates and junior partners from underrepresented groups work on matters with important institutional clients. Why? Because I want to know whether these lawyers are being given a fair shot at making partner and building their book of business.
This is how in-house counsel can help change how the partnership ranks look in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.