Career Corner: ’81 grad first female chief of Quarles & Brady

Published: January 27th, 2014

Category: News

KLJphotoBy Kelcee Griffis (4JM)

Kimberly Leach Johnson (JD 81) comes from a long line of engineers. Ironically, she says, she never thought about being an engineer, and she never considered going into the law.

And yet the Ohio native and Naples resident has recently found herself stepping up as chair of national firm giant Quarles & Brady. She is the first female and first non-Milwaukee-resident to ascend to the top of the 500-lawyer firm and one of about seven women leading major U.S. law firms.

Johnson’s path to the top was somewhat unconventional. She graduated from Anderson College in Indiana at age 20. She recalled her line of thought when she was planning her next move: “I loved summer, and we used to vacation in Florida a lot, so I … talked to my family, got in the car and drove down and said,  ‘I’m going to spend a year in Florida.’”

She landed in Ocala, where she held a variety of jobs. She worked as a reserve police officer, and she helped run rape crisis center and a senior citizen center for low-income minorities. She kept telling her family she was coming back to Ohio, but she didn’t.

I “decided this is heaven – why would I want to go anywhere else?” she said.

While she was working at the rape crisis center, a man personally told Johnson that he was guilty of rape. Then, in the myriad of legal proceedings, he was plea-bargained out. That’s when Johnson realized the system was overcrowded and lacked the ability to see every case to its rightful end.

“It seemed like it was a broken system to me,” she said, “and I decided at that point that I didn’t want to spend my life in it.”

So, she turned to law school at UF. Johnson wanted to see if there was an area other than criminal law that she would like. She found her place when she took a tax class. She also found her husband, Ken Johnson (JD 81).

They met because of alphabetized class assignments in their 1L year.

“I was the last ‘L’, and his name was Johnson, so we were in class together,” said Kimberly Johnson, whose maiden name was Leach at the time. They became friends but didn’t start dating until February of their 3L year.

Johnson can relate to the struggles of student life. During law school, Johnson rented a room in her landlady’s house, but didn’t have kitchen privileges — just a hot plate to cook on.

“It was pathetic,” she said, laughing. But enduring the living situation was worth it for the training she received.

She grew to love the tax sector because it’s “high touch and high tech.”

“You have to understand the law, but you also have to be very in tune with people’s feelings and what they’re really trying to accomplish,” Johnson said.

In that way, it’s akin to counseling.

In her years of working with tax cases at smaller firms and later at Quarles & Brady, she said she’s run across her share of emotional clients. She’s had people in her office cry about death. That’s a place where the law and counseling intersect, she said. Discussing how to plan for difficult events can take its toll on clients.

“Some people really love their children, some people have regrets. There’s a huge emotional side,” she said. “People talk about planning their estates, trying to minimize the tax, but also trying to set up their children and grandchildren and sometimes future generations in a manner that is positive for everyone.”

That ability to put people at ease is why Christy Fisher (JD 80), Johnson’s law school classmate and now colleague at Quarles & Brady, said Johnson has been successful. She said Johnson hasn’t changed since law school.

“She’s a person people – her clients and colleagues – naturally trust,” Fisher said. “She gives you the feeling that she’s going to treat you fairly, that she hears you.”