There’s room in the legal profession for everyone

A Conversation On Leadership & Life In The Law With Attorney Katherine Kao

Katherine Kao is a director who works in our Business Litigation and Real Estate practice groups. She is an experienced trial attorney with a focus on partnership and LLC “divorces,” business torts, and title and mortgage disputes.

We recently had the pleasure of talking with Katherine about lessons learned and her life in the legal profession. 

As the month of April comes to a close, in this week’s leadership profile we head to Portland in the Pacific Northwest to visit with attorney Katherine Kao! You’re the Chair of our firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Council – talk a little bit about why this work is so important to you.

I want to drive home the message that there’s room in the legal profession for everyone, regardless of their backgrounds, genders, personality traits, etc. As a litigator, I’ve found that there are certain expectations about what I “should” be in order to be an effective advocate – I “should” be a man, older, louder, more imposing, more hardnosed, and probably a bunch of other things.  

After doing this work for over thirteen years, I’ve realized that trying to meet these expectations is an impossible, unsustainable, and unnecessary performance. There are clients out there from diverse backgrounds with their own unique personal histories, and they’re not all looking for the same things in a lawyer to help them resolve their issues. 

Without naming clients, are there any intriguing matters that you’re currently working on?

Lately, I’ve been working on a few mortgage fraud cases, where fraudsters have taken out mortgages on other people’s homes. It’s been both fascinating and terrifying to learn about how the perpetrators are able to get away with schemes like this.

What would you tell your younger self, or a 1L, (especially a woman) at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco currently contemplating a career in the legal profession?

So many things. “I know these loans seem like free money right now, but you’ll be paying those back for years to come.” 

“Don’t worry if you’re bad at law school. The practice of law is nothing like school.” 

Who is your hero – or the person who has had the greatest impact on your life and career?

Does this have to be a real person? I was an avid reader of the Nancy Drew books growing up and developed a taste for investigation, interrogation, and intrigue.

Talk about your biggest failure. What did you learn? And how did you pick up the pieces and move forward?

I was not a good law school student. I was a model student from K-12 through college, where my focus had always been on writing thoughtfully and extensively about a single subject.

Law school was a completely different animal, where nobody cared about the quality of my writing (except in legal writing class), and what mattered was how many issues I could identify in a complex fact pattern. After the shock of doing so poorly my first year, I adjusted the way I studied for exams, joined a regular study group, and pulled up my grades to a more acceptable level.

What’s the best – and worst – piece of career advice that you’ve ever received?

The worst advice I’ve gotten, early in my career is, “You need to be more _____” (e.g. “aggressive”), and the best advice I’ve gotten is the exact opposite, “Be yourself.”

It sounds cliché, but early in my career, it was important for me to receive validation from someone who had been in the profession for a long time, telling me that I could do this job just as I am, without having to fundamentally change anything about myself.

What are you currently listening to (podcast or music); reading; and watching/streaming – and what’s your go-to take-out order?

Listening: SZA, Cocteau Twins, Wet Leg

Reading: The Trees, by Percival Everett

Watching: Succession, Mrs. Davis, too many others

Food: Can’t go wrong with pizza, unless it has pineapple on it.

Okay, you’re hosting a lavish dinner party at your home. Name the three people – from any time in human history – who would you invite.

First of all, I would never throw a lavish dinner party because it sounds extremely stressful, especially if I’m inviting famous celebrities, chefs, or historical figures over.  If I had to pick three for this hypothetical, I guess Bea Arthur, Jordan Peele, and Anthony Bourdain would make for a lively and entertaining evening.

Many thanks to Katherine for her provocative insights!

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