We recently caught up with former Stroock lawyer Thomas Ko, now senior vice-president and general counsel at Columbia Bank. Tom discussed lessons learned in transitioning between law firm and in-house roles, challenges and benefits of working in-house and how outside counsel can do a better job advising corporate clients. He also offered practical career advice for newer lawyers.
Q: Tell me about your time at Stroock. What did you like most about working at the firm?
TK: I liked the people most. The culture is cooperative and caring and you can see that in how Stroock prioritizes its people. People really respect one another as professionals and as humans. I really enjoyed the combination of legal excellence and the familial cohesiveness.
Q: I heard that you were involved in some very impressive pro bono work helping Afghan refugees. Could you tell me about that work and how you get involved?
TK: I originally got involved because of our own pro bono program at Stroock. Stroock partners with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), and at the time, then-new Director of Pro Bono Services Kerry Cooperman reached out firm-wide to find volunteers to do immigration work for Afghan refugees. Originally, I started working through the partnership between IRAP and Stroock. But because I have a lot of friends who are veterans, many of whom served in Afghanistan, I worked with Kerry to expand the scope of Afghan people we were assisting to include people who my veteran friends had served with. They then reached out to their network of veterans, and we ended up getting a huge number of requests for assistance from U.S. veterans of the war in Afghanistan to assist friends of theirs who they had worked with in Afghanistan.
Q: Have you been able to stay in touch with any of the people you’ve helped?
TK: Many will never know about the work our volunteers at Stroock did to assist them. But I have managed to keep in contact with some. Although we haven't kept close contact, we've kept in touch, on and off, as they go through processing and resettlement. However, the project is still ongoing. Although not at the forefront of the news, there are still many people trapped in Afghanistan, including permanent residents, visa holders and others. There are many other Afghan families trapped in other countries as well. We’ve been able to help get many to the U.S.
Q: You worked at a couple of Am Law 200 law firms before going in-house. What got you to go in-house?
TK: I wasn't actually looking to leave Stroock. I really enjoyed the people and my job at the firm, but there aren’t many times in your career when an opportunity comes up to head a legal department at a financial institution. Columbia Bank presented a great opportunity to work for an institution undergoing a significant period of growth with a culture very similar to Stroock’s — a very people-first culture. So, I jumped at the opportunity, but I certainly do miss Stroock and its people.
Q: What “Big Law” lessons did you find helped you the most when you went in-house?
TK: I think the maintaining high standards for our work, managing a team and providing business practical solutions were all helpful. Law firms taught me how a deal works, how to manage various stakeholders in a transaction and how to balance business needs and legal needs.
Now that I’m in-house, I know what information and resources law firms need to do their best work and how I need to delegate matters to them. I also bring an understanding of what's reasonable. One thing I didn't learn as much about in law firm practice, however, is the operational side of a business, i.e., how a business actually runs day to day. You get a different perspective once you're inside and you gain an understanding of the various moving pieces of a business and how things work the way they do.
Q: It’s unusual to see someone go back and forth between law firm and in-house positions. Was the transition difficult? What was most challenging?
TK: The most challenging things for me were really learning the business side and business considerations and adapting to a very different level of support and perspective. At a firm, the lawyers are the business generators and client advisors. Support functions are geared to supporting the lawyers in their work. In-house, the lawyers are members of the support team. I had to learn to operate as a member of a team where legal is a business support function and to manage and mitigate legal risk of the institution.
Even though you're practicing the same law, the role is fundamentally different in a lot of ways and requires different mindsets.
Q: Looking back, did you have a career plan in mind?
TK: I did have a plan. My moves back and forth were because of opportunities that I received to make a significant change in my career, learn a new skill set and get the chance to contribute to organizations. My move to Columbia Bank gave me the opportunity to lead the legal function of a growing bank. It was an opportunity to learn a new skill set within law. I'm hoping that this is my last position. I’ve had an incredibly interesting career and have always made changes because of growth opportunities.
Q: Tell me about your current role.
TK: I am a senior vice president and general counsel at Columbia Bank, a regional bank based in New Jersey. I lead the bank’s legal function and am responsible for all legal matters related to the bank. My role is to advise management and to manage and mitigate legal risk for the institution. As the bank grows, so do the level and degree of legal risks. As a result, our in-house team needs to be that much more sophisticated about how we manage those legal risks. An important part of my job is helping to create a legal function that enables us to grow and expand our business while mitigating the legal risks that arise.
Q: What do you like best about your job?
TK: I really like the people, and the bank is a place where people stay for a long time. We have exceptionally low turnover. It’s a family-oriented culture.
Q: What career advice do you have for newer lawyers?
It’s hard to give direct career advice. But generally, newer lawyers should learn everything they can. It’s very easy for newer associates to get caught up in just getting their work done, but it’s important to learn whatever they can about the deal, the business and legal aspects and how to manage people and negotiate transactions. Reach out and ask for feedback. It’s important to not be defensive. With feedback, you can learn how to improve and advance your career. Learn what you can from the people who are mentoring you. Pay attention to how the people you respect conduct themselves, how they manage their workload, how they manage their relationships with their clients and how they interact with clients and peers.
Q: What can outside counsel do to make the job of in-house counsel and other corporate leaders easier?
TK: Good communication is essential. Anticipating our needs and advising about the next step in a deal or litigation make my job easier. Good communication is key because I need to report to my own management and stakeholders on what's going on. The less I know about what's going on, the harder my job becomes. I know everybody is guilty of getting bogged down on deals, transactions, or litigation, but it's really key to touch base with clients and give them updates about what's going on. An attorney who can anticipate my need makes my life a million times easier.
Q: Finally, what do you like to do for fun?
TK: I spend a lot of time with Brazilian jujitsu and I train out of Renzo Gracie Academy. It’s an incredible, tough physical activity. It’s like a physical game of Chess. It keeps me focused and grounded. I'm also very involved with my kids’ ski racing including as a trustee at Mountain Creek Ski Racing Club.