December 31, 2011

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: Kathleen Hopkins: Thoughts on Keys to the Courthouse

BLT: How you think the legal field has changed over the course of your career?

Kathleen: I still consider myself a new lawyer. I've only been practicing for 20 years, but the field has changed a bit in that time. When interviewing with law firms as a 2L, I asked whether I would have computer access or dictate everything and have to rely on my secretary to transcribe. I'd asked because my professional career began as a secretary, I typed quickly and found it frustrating to not have computer access. Today, everyone has at least one, if not two or three devices. When I started, the turnaround time included lawyers complaining about how going from telex to fax meant their clients expected them to turn things around a lot quicker-as in the same day. Now, if I don't answer an e-mail in an hour, that's considered inappropriate.

The other big change is how we research. I don't know if a lot of firms bother with libraries anymore because everything is done electronically. Our turnaround time is quicker, but timing doesn't change our malpractice liability, so we have to be just as careful and complete in our research.

BLT: Your combined business and legal experience complement one another. How do the two skill sets compare?

Kathleen: I earned a B.S. in Business Administration and worked in business for 10 years. My last job before law school was assistant director of HR at a university. I'd also worked at a bank and a manufacturing company. When I do transactions, I think I understand what the client wants and can draw from my litigation experience (the first seven or eight years of my career). I understand that clients need to find a business solution-it may not always match the legal solution-but I need to let them know the possible fallout and risks and that they have to make the decisions because it's their business, not mine. Another benefit is that I'm in a firm with my three best friends. Having a business background, getting the opportunity to run a small business and apply those skill sets to real life has been quite pleasurable.

BLT: Why did you decide to pursue law?

Kathleen: I had worked in university HR for several years, enjoying the business and legal mix and union negotiations. I liked working with professors who'd been arbitrators, especially in the union negotiation area, and being able to talk with the lawyers. So, after I earned my degree, I contemplated getting an MBA. In the 1980s, there was still a lot of talk about the glass ceiling. My professors suggested going to law school, which would give me built-in expertise I could use to open my own business. I liked this combination. I went to law school thinking I'd become a labor lawyer, and here I am a real estate transactions attorney.

BLT: Did you ever practice labor law?

Kathleen: As a summer associate, I worked with a great labor lawyer and dabbled in labor law. But I wanted to do litigation at the onset; the attorneys in my firm who went to court the most were bankruptcy litigators. Everybody else was stuck in the morass of discovery and document review but, in bankruptcy, there's no time for that. You go to motions and trials, usually within a couple months. So I ended up jumping over and doing a lot of bankruptcies. The many real estate bankruptcies piqued my interest. When I transferred to transactional practice, it made sense to segue into the area where I'd already done litigation.

BLT: Who or what inspires you, and how have your passions guided your career?

Kathleen: My husband inspires me the most. We've been married 30 years. We inspire each other to do our best, and we're both very goal-oriented. At the ABA, I work with people on the Standing Committee on Pro Bono, and from them to the Publications Board, to the Sections and Divisions and Foreign staff, and even in Policy, the staffers inspire me because they've committed themselves to advancing our profession's growth.

Also, I work with my three best friends. I can't ask for anything better than to practice with people you implicitly trust. I enjoy their company, and we all have separate lives. We enjoy outside activities that define us in addition to working with each other. Seeing their ability to not only practice law but also enjoy different aspects of their lives keeps me focused and balanced.

BLT: You've been involved with and contributed to many different programs within the ABA such as Pro Bono, Diversity, and the Board. How has this involvement helped shape your career?

Kathleen: I was given a very special opportunity, kind of like the precious keys to the courthouse. We have a profession and a long history and, if we want to retain our independence, it's important to hone and develop our profession for excellence.

More important than making gobs of money is professional integrity. I'm always honing my skill set so I'm intellectually the best I can be at what I do. Another big part of that is making sure the profession is the best it can be. It's not the best unless we give back to the community and ensure everyone has access to justice. Projects such as the Pipeline Project and opportunities within our Section (i.e., the Ambassadors Program) make sure we reflect society. We can't give everyone access to justice unless we understand where people are coming from, and we have cultural competency.

ABA involvement has helped shaped my career because it makes me a better lawyer to have participated in the Association, generally, and in this Section, specifically; both for my intellect to become a good lawyer and to better understand clients' situations.

BLT: What is the most rewarding aspect of your pro bono work? What guidance can you offer to young attorneys who wish to give back to their communities?

Kathleen: Pro bono is very personal. People need to feel comfortable in their environments. I feel comfortable when I can use my expertise to help an individual, small business, non-profit that otherwise would go without. There's always going to be some niche and, even if it's complex tax issues, there's a non-profit that probably needs your assistance.

Young lawyers need to weave giving back into the fabric of their jobs from day one. If it's part of who you are and what you expect to do, it becomes natural and part of your expectations. You can find opportunities, including a geographic search tool, on the ABA's Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service site. According to an ABA survey, over 70 percent of lawyers do some pro bono work all the time. It's part of who we are and, for the ones who don't do it, realize that you can. Business Law Today's column-"Focusing on Pro Bono"-describes how a business lawyer folds pro bono work into their practice.

BLT: You've obviously demonstrated a dedication to the Business Law Section and the ABA. Why did you decide to get and stay involved?

Kathleen: As a young lawyer in local bar association activities, I was asked to join the state Young Lawyers Board of Trustees because they needed someone from my county. From there, I worked through the ABA Young Lawyers Division, the state Young Lawyers and county Young Lawyers Divisions, and was the Washington Young Lawyers president. Serendipitously, at the same time, the Business Law Section decided it needed to help develop future Business Law Section leaders.

The Section initiated a new program-Business Law Fellows-offering two-year fellowships to five leaders from the Young Lawyers Division. With that fellowship, I was assigned a mentor, committee (the Commercial Financial Services Committee), and a project. So there was a way to integrate me and a reason to attend meetings-where the programming caliber, people, and their openness to working with me-floored me. The ABA asked me to become the Commercial Financial Services editor, during which I met committee leaders.

I became the Pro Bono Committee vice chair. In this administrative role, I found more opportunity to move up the leadership ranks. Both the Administrative and the Substantive Law Committees were important places for me and furthered my personal and professional development.

BLT: How are you involved in developing opportunities for young lawyers in the Section and profession?

Kathleen: I was given a special and unique opportunity. Only five young lawyers got the opportunity to be Fellows each year, and it was important when finishing my term on the Board of Governors that I give back. Now I chair the committee supervising that group. We have Fellows, Ambassadors, and Diplomats who participate in two-year fellowship programs. At any given time there are approximately 20 people we're trying to groom to become future leaders to help develop the Section.

My co-chair, Carolyn Hahn, recently finished her fellowship and works at the FTC. One co-chair has more experience and contacts to help the mentee; the other is younger, has more recently experienced the program and understands recent barriers. I do my best to get young lawyers out there, set up coffee dates and lunches, bring people together, and act as a sounding board.

BLT: Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?

Kathleen: I take the practice of law in five-year bites. Our law firm just celebrated our tenth anniversary, and we're renewing our lease, so I plan to practice with the same friends for at least the next five years. This summer, my husband and I loved vacationing in Ireland and Germany. We're new empty nesters enjoying being able to travel off-season. I have a nice balance of work, Bar Association activities, and travel. In 10 years, I'd like to scale back the work portion and bump up the travel.

BLT: How do you think the real estate collapse in the past few years has tested the laws and lawyers who work in real estate, and what are the main lessons learned from living and working through this tumultuous time?

Kathleen: People need to put this in perspective. In 20 years practicing law, I've seen three up-and-down real estate cycles. This time is the worst, but it's just another cycle. The problem is that because of different financing vehicles available, it permeated more aspects of our economy and impacted more people than before. During the bubble, regardless of the technology and dollars at issue, you still had to take time to do the job correctly, be very careful, and not cut corners even if it meant you'd lose the project. It's so important to stand by your integrity. We see fallout where lawyers got pulled into the mess because some opinions they gave may or may not have been 100 percent accurate. If the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, trust your instincts.

BLT: How do you see the real estate law profession and the legal profession, in general, morphing in the next few years?

Kathleen: With everything going online, our profession has changed. On the east coast, people still do closings, getting together and signing documents in a room. On the west coast, they deposit documents in escrow or go the escrow's office when they have time and sign documents. With an online filing process, the practice of law and real estate transactions accelerates.

Financing vehicles will also morph. We saw the mortgage-backed securities market collapse, and the commercial mortgage-backed securities market is much bigger than the residential one. Many of those loans are coming due. There will be interest in how we'll replace those loans as they come due and the type of financing vehicles created or how we rework the mortgage-backed securities so they're more secure and a less volatile element in the financial market. I also see more federal regulation, especially in financing vehicles. Real estate is inherently a local practice, and it's essential for me to get counsel that's practiced in the state where I have a transaction. With individual investors buying pieces of commercial debt, I think we'll see more residential market regulation.

BLT: What three essentials does every business lawyer need to know?

Kathleen: (1) Act ethically. (2) Know the limits of your knowledge. Develop a network of people with skill sets beyond your areas of expertise. (3) Distinguish between business and legal decisions. I provide legal advice and risk assessment but leave the business decisions to the business person.

BLT: How do you recharge?

Kathleen: My husband and I love to travel and experience new places. A favorite vacation is the beach. From Seattle the closest hot, sunny guaranteed beach is in Hawaii. In May we rent a condo there where we don't even have to leave to eat. I sit on the beach with my Kindle loaded with about 20 books. Now I'm reading All the President's Men. My other avocation is Bar Association work-like a hobby. I also like to bike and spend time with my two grown sons, Neil and Ian.

BLT: Finally, what's on your bucket list?

Kathleen: I'm finishing a book on real estate for the GP Solo Division. In addition to teaching CLE classes, I'd like to teach a business law course to undergraduate business or MBA students or work in a law school environment. My family is very athletic-some relatives run marathons; they all do triathlons. I've been trying to hike and bike more, and, hopefully, I'll be able to do more of that.

BLT: Kathleen, this has been such a pleasure. Thank you, and have a wonderful day in Seattle.