Kim Koopersmith is as surprised as anyone by the path her career has taken. On April 1, Koopersmith, 53, assumed the chairmanship of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, an 850-lawyer global law firm with strong roots in Washington, D.C., and Dallas, Texas. Koopersmith, a litigator, is the fourth chair in the firm’s 68-year history and the first woman to hold that position. It's not exactly what she had in mind back in law school: “I assumed I would be working in some public interest capacity,” she says. “It was a surprise to me that I was at a law firm at all.”
After joining Akin Gump in 1994 on a four-day-a-week schedule so she could spend more time raising her daughters, then 7 and 2, Koopersmith worked her way up to the leadership table. Before her election as chairperson last October, she spent five years as the firm’s U.S. managing partner. Now, she's one of fewer than two dozen women leading the 100 biggest, most profitable firms in the U.S. We asked Koopersmith about her new role.
You’re on day 7 as chair of the firm. How were days 1 through 6?
I feel the weight of the world even more than I was feeling it before. I have no regrets. It’s funny, I did start on April Fool's Day so I thought about sending around an announcement saying, “I was only kidding.”
What’s most surprising to you about the fact that you’re now in this position?
Well, I’d been in the U.S. managing partner role for 5 years, so there's no kind of moment of surprise. To the contrary, I certainly knew what I was getting into and had a pretty good sense of the role. I do continue to look at my career, and what’s interesting to me are the series of career paths that all led to me getting to this point.
You spent a couple of years as a part-time partner. Maybe you embody the best argument for why law firms should offer flexible work schedules.
I love that theory! As I think about this, over the course of my career I found ways to distinguish my value and I think even when I was working part time, that had its own attribute of distinguishing value because the firm was anxious to see a reduced work arrangement that was successful. The fact that I wasn't full-time but was working for and representing one of the firm’s most successful clients -- a media company that was facing many Department of Labor issues -- helped.
Was there a point when you realized something like the chairmanship of a firm was a possibility?
There was a moment, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, when the senior person that I came over to this firm with said to me, “You know Kim, you could end up running this law firm.” I thought that was the craziest thing I'd ever heard, and a crazy thing to say, but it was a statement that I didn't forget.
And then, probably six or seven years ago, the chair of the firm, [R. Bruce McLean], said to me that he was looking at the future and starting to think about what the succession process would look like, and I was one of the people who could end up in a leadership position. Again, I was taken aback but that two people said it to me made me think about it…I think I have always had some natural leadership qualities. I have a pretty good ability to get along well with others, I’m at heart a consensus-builder, and I try not to make it about my ego.
Are you a middle child?
I have an older brother and then I’m a twin. I’m technically the middle because I'm five minutes older than my sister. I always was trying to make sure that we were all getting along and there was no friction. If you asked anybody in my family that is probably the number one thing they'd describe me as, a consensus builder.
How much does your success stem from your parents and what they taught you?
My mom died when I was 12 years old in a car accident. She was a school librarian. She was a great mom. In the late ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘70s, I think she herself was coming to her own sense of what there was in life, of what you wanted to achieve as a woman. I was probably too young to recognize that at the time, but looking back at it, she was a role model. She was a school librarian getting her masters at night and working during the day. She had a sense of purpose in life.
My father is a lawyer, and still practicing at 81. From him I get what it is to be a lawyer. But also, from raising twin daughters from age 12 on, he did a really good job of making it clear to us that we could do whatever we wanted to do, that we could expect to achieve things, just as my brother would strive to achieve.
Dimitra Kessenides is an editor and blogger with the multimedia team at Bloomberg Law.