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Madam Chair

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  • | 7:38 a.m. October 11, 2013
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Here's something you may not know about Kimberly Leach Johnson: She knows how to use a gun.

But first, the news.

Quarles & Brady, a Milwaukee-based law firm with 430 attorneys, recently named Johnson to be the firm's chair. With that appointment Oct. 1, Johnson joined just 21 women to chair one of the nation's 200 largest law firms. She is also the firm's first woman chair and the first person to chair the firm from outside its headquarters in Wisconsin.

Now, back to the gun.

Johnson didn't move from her native Ohio to Florida in 1977 to practice law. She came to enforce it.

Johnson, who graduated first in her class at the police academy, was a reserve police officer with the Ocala Police Department, running its rape-crisis center and a low-income senior center. She also worked as a rent-a-cop, directing traffic and standing guard at events and stores. “I was armed,” she chuckles.

But police work pays better than being an intern at a law firm. “That helped pay for law school,” she says.

Johnson earned her law degree from the University of Florida and her Master of Laws degree in taxation from the University of Miami. “I took a tax class and I really liked it,” she says. But, she says, “Miami was too much for me.”

So Johnson and her husband, Ken Johnson, a real estate attorney, moved to Naples, where she joined Quarles & Brady in 1993. Like many attorneys in Naples, Kimberly Johnson practices in the area of trusts and estates, but she has always been active on the firm's various committees.

Johnson, 57, says she didn't plan out her path to chair, but had an interest in the way the firm operated. “I wanted to see the underbelly of the machine,” she says.

Johnson started by serving on the firm's diversity committee, then its associates committee. Seven years ago, Johnson was elected to serve on the firm's executive committee. “I never said no,” she says.

Joining the executive committee was the point in Johnson's career when she considered a leadership role in running the firm. Until then, she had not considered the idea.

Inside the firm, the big news was that it was the first time an attorney from outside the Milwaukee headquarters had been selected to be chair. By contrast, Johnson says the press made a bigger deal of the fact that she's the first woman to chair the firm.

The mother of three boys who are now in their 20s, Johnson says parenting and a high-intensity career in law are not mutually exclusive. “I've always had two jobs,” she says. “Some of those skills will help me as chair.”

When her sons were younger, Johnson and her husband would take turns. “We tried to structure our lives so I'd have the morning shift and I'd work late,” she says.

Today, Johnson says having children and working less while you're raising them won't hobble your career. “I see a lot of young women beating themselves up,” says Johnson, who loves to go scuba diving with her family.

Legal Advice
Kimberly Leach Johnson was recently named chair of one of the nation's 200 largest law firms, Quarles & Brady. And she made it to the top of the firm from Naples, outside the firm's headquarters. Here's some advice for young attorneys who may be in similar situations at larger firms headquartered somewhere else.

Ask to be involved. Many firms have opportunities for attorneys from different offices to collaborate on committees.

Meet the attorneys in your practice group and in other offices.

If you have children, consider flex time and job sharing. You have a long career and it's OK to take the slow route to make partner.

Working part-time won't derail your career.


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