January 01, 2019 Feature

An Interview with Michael Kim: “Don’t expect clients to praise you for having a clean kitchen.”

The co-founder of Kobre & Kim reveals the reasoning behind the firm’s unorthodox business model.

Ashish Joshi

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Michael Kim is the co-founder of Kobre & Kim, a global law firm—with offices in the United States, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Caribbean—that focuses on disputes and investigations. Before starting the firm, Kim was an assistant U.S. attorney at the Department of Justice for the Southern District of New York, where he worked on white-collar criminal cases. One of his cases—the Sterling Foster scam—is purportedly the inspiration for the Ben Affleck movie The Boiler Room. (Spoiler alert: The FBI comes in at the end of the movie, before the prosecutors get involved. Don’t see it to find out who plays Kim; he is not featured.)

Earlier in his career, Kim practiced at Davis Polk & Wardwell, and before that, he served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army. Kobre & Kim, founded just 15 years ago, made its first appearance on the AmLaw 200 in 2017 and ranked among the largest-grossing firms in the country. See Passarella & Barker, Hot Product, Am. Law., June 2017. Working with his business partner, Steven Kobre, Kim has positioned the firm as one of the top go-to, high-stakes international litigation firms. See Parnell, Steven Kobre and Michael Kim on Technology, Strategy, Luck and Running a Firm Like a Business, Forbes, Oct. 3, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidparnell/2017/10/03/steven-kobre-michael-kim-strategy-luck-running-firm-like-business/#558ada86a189.

The firm’s unorthodox business model focuses on offering end users (Kim doesn’t call them “clients”) service products (not “practice areas”), creating a culture that emphasizes its products over its superstar lawyers while “staying within its lane” and avoiding repeat clients to minimize, if not eliminate, conflicts. Kim views his firm’s services as specialized products that are scalable and that can be commoditized and sold in different parts of the world with uniformity and consistency.

Despite the firm’s professional accolades, soaring revenues, and global success, Kim is worried about the growth, but not in the way we would think. Kim sees growth as a problem. For Kim, maintaining quality control and giving clients consistency in their experience with the firm takes precedence over growth. “Growth happens despite what we’re trying to do,” he says. See Passarella & Barker, supra.

Kim and I met at his firm’s Manhattan offices. He was generous with his time and genuinely enthusiastic about discussing artificial intelligence, “market inefficiencies,” “uniform user experience,” “specialized service products,” “conflict footprint,” “margin discipline,” and other worldly wonders that are at the heart of Kobre & Kim’s business model.

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