How to advance your career in the legal industry – Natural Self Esteem

Ken D. Kumayama, 43, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Palo Alto, California

Practice area: intellectual property and technology; Cyber ​​Security and Privacy.

Law degree and final year: University of Arizona Law School, 2009.

How long have you been at the office? I started as an Associate in January 2011, almost 11 years. In 2020 I was promoted to partner.

How long were you an employee at the law firm? I was an associate for six and a half years before being promoted to counsel and became a partner three years later.

Ken Kumayama / Complimentary Photo

Were you an associate at another law firm before you joined your current law firm? Due to the economic downturn at the time I was hired at Skadden, I pushed back my start date by a year and worked at a Japanese law firm in Osaka called Oh-Ebashi LPC & Partners. Although this schedule was not my original plan when I started law school, it proved to be a unique opportunity to gain valuable experience and insights of working in the legal field in another country.

What criteria did you use to decide to join your current company? When evaluating companies, I focused on a few things. Most of all, I wanted a global company that would offer opportunities to work across offices and continents, and would ideally give me opportunities to work with clients in Asia and especially Japan. With an office in Tokyo and a strong client base across Asia, Skadden seemed like the perfect choice. I was also looking for a law firm that offered opportunities to work on interesting and complex intellectual property matters, while also having the opportunity to work with, learn from, and work with attorneys in multiple areas of law. After meeting with several companies I was confident that Skadden was a good fit for me and a place where I would thrive.

What was the biggest surprise you experienced when you became a partner? My first surprise was that clients (and others) suddenly thought you were more qualified or smarter than they were the day before you became an affiliate! Seriously, I suddenly found it much easier to do business development as clients and potential clients generally view partners as advisors able to fully leverage their past experience to overcome any challenges that may arise.

In your opinion, what was the decisive point for the law firm to win you as a partner? A combination of things contributed to my promotion to partner. For example, an unforeseen opportunity arose and I was fortunate to be considered for a leadership role where I could demonstrate and improve my managerial skills. I have also always sought a good work ethic, a collaborative spirit and a commitment to hone and develop my technical expertise to ensure I bring the latest legal and technical knowledge to any matter. These factors, coupled with my passion for what I do every day, have allowed me to climb the ladder.

What do you think is the key to successful business development and how do you continue to grow professionally while everyone is navigating a hybrid work system? The legal business is very much focused on personal relationships. Clients are looking for the right individual lawyers to advise and support them. I maintain the attitude that every professional interaction with a client or potential client is an opportunity to develop and deepen a relationship.

I don’t think a hybrid work system will change that. In my experience, stressed in-house lawyers are very grateful if you offer high-quality, fast, user-friendly and commercial advice. Whether the advising attorney does so in person, over the phone, or via video call, as long as the advice is timely and accurate, the location and exact mode of communication is usually irrelevant as clients are typically result-oriented and value responsiveness. In fact, I am confident that moving to a hybrid working system will make it even easier and more efficient to provide legal services to clients around the world.

Who was the biggest influence in your career that made you partner? I’ve had many mentors and sponsors over the years, but Ken King is the person who has influenced my career the most. A senior corporate partner at Skadden and the founder and former office manager of the company’s Palo Alto office, Ken is something of a Silicon Valley legend. I started my career at Skadden in the Palo Alto office because of the strength of Ken and his strong connection to Skadden’s Tokyo office. I speak to him frequently to advise on everything from business development and business strategy to mentoring and leadership to legal and industry trends and everything in between.


What advice would you give to an employee who wants to become a partner? In any great law firm, there has to be a business case to be promoted to partner. I would encourage employees to look at their career path from an entrepreneurial perspective – which by the way is a good way to think about things in general if you want to do business successfully.

Employees should think about these questions:

  • How do I balance the firm’s interest in making me a partner with my own?
  • Can I develop new skills or expertise that will give my company (and me) a competitive advantage?
  • Can I develop a reputation internally or externally that will earn me the respect of my peers and see me as an invaluable member of the firm or even the wider legal community?

Moreover, membership in the partnership is the very important element of trust. I would like to encourage employees to look at their decisions and reputation from this perspective as well. Ultimately, the partnership requires many different qualities and skills that employees can think about and develop early in their careers.

What do you think is the most common mistake other attorneys make when it comes to career planning and navigating a law firm? I believe there is no shortcut to learning. It takes dedication and hard work, and I think most people know that when they start a law job.

The mistake I see most often is that employees work very hard at their jobs but don’t work hard to find the right balance between work and the rest of their lives. I want to encourage employees to find the right balance for themselves that promotes workplace sustainability and ensures you get the most out of the experience.

Knowing what you now know about your career path, what advice would you have given your younger self? In hindsight, I would prioritize family time and take more vacation time. One thing I’ve recently learned thanks to our new hybrid work style is that even when I’m busy, I can have dinner with my family and make meaningful connections. Before the pandemic, my default mode was to often work long hours in the office and put my private life on hold.

What lessons, if any, have you learned in 2020/2021 (the COVID years)? Everything is an opportunity to learn, and COVID is no exception. I’ve been reminded how important and fun it is to connect in person and when that’s not possible there are tools to work, collaborate and mentor remotely. Recent years have shown that there are new paths to success in law, and these paths can even help preserve other important aspects of our lives.

What key elements would you like to focus on for 2022? As we ushered in 2022, I became increasingly focused on reconnecting with friends, colleagues and clients. My work also includes innovation and recruitment as well as the promotion of talent. What I enjoy about my job is that there are so many opportunities to constantly help my colleagues and mentees to grow, in addition to helping my clients with their unique business needs.

For more career success stories, see How I Made It Questions and Answers series at Law.com.

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