Interview with Johanna Kirk
Name: Johanna R. Kirk
Major, minor, and graduation year: Legal Studies, International Peace Studies, 2001
Job Title: Attorney
Organization/ Place of work: Knudson, Torvinen, Jones & Kirk, S.C.
You're a Partner/Shareholder at Knudson, Torvinen, Jones, & Kirk, S.C., what does that entail? What are your duties or responsibilities?
-In addition to the usual daily practice of law and representing clients, being a shareholder means I own the business with my fellow partners. The business requires management and oversight.These tasks include personnel matters, management of finances, supervising payroll, developing marketing strategies, pricing insurance policies, pursuing accounts receivable (a/k/a clients who do not pay their bills). All the day to day operational aspects of a small business exist in a law office too and the partners share those duties and responsibilities.
What are the highlights of your job that you enjoy most?
-I enjoy learning; I always have. I am excited when a client comes to me with a question for which I do not have an answer. In those situations I get to research the answer, solve the problem, and provide the solution to my client. I meet their need for competent legal advice and my desire to learn new things. In many ways I get to be a smart "hero."
What are the challenges that you face with your job that are not enjoyable?
-The least enjoyable part of my job is organizing and prioritizing. Even lawyers end up with work that is less "fun" from time to time. My day is usually divided. Part of it involves the practice of law- legal research, communicating with clients or other attorneys, drafting documents, court appearances, meetings, etc. Part of my day involves business management - billing clients, collections, ensuring our rent and bills are paid, monitoring staff vacation schedules, approving supplies for the break room, working with partners to solve problems and plan for the future, etc. Balancing those two aspects of each day is the most challenging part of what I do.
How do you spend your work days? Do you spend a lot of time office/lab/meetings/outside?
-My time is almost exclusively spent in the office. If I am not here then I am at court or meeting with a client.
How did this type of job/field interest you and how did you get started?
-I decided to become an attorney during a career day in high school. At first the career just seemed really glamorous to me. The more I pursued it, the more I found it is my calling and that I really have a passion for it. I am fascinated by how the law "works."The system is based upon rules that anyone can find and lawyers get to spend their time arguing why a particular rule does or does not apply to their client's situation.
I initially applied to UW-Superior's pre-law program and the Legal Studies program started my second year. I changed my major as soon as I could because the curriculum was such a good fit for my aspirations. I also received the Paralegal Certificate while attending which was very valuable. After graduating from UW-Superior I spent a year working as a paralegal and that experience solidified my desire to become an attorney.
What qualifications did you need to obtain this job?
?Successful score on the Law School Admissions Test
?Acceptance to an American Bar Association accredited Law School
?Graduation from Law School (3 years) with a Juris Doctor degree
?Successful score on the Wisconsin Bar Exam
?Ongoing continuing education requirements
What personal qualities or abilities do you believe contribute most to success in this job/field?
Success in this field requires
?The ability to solve problems by using critical and creative thinking;
?An attention to details (comma placement can win or lose a claim for a client!);
?Communication skills, both written and verbal. Lawyers communicate with clients, other attorneys and courts, using different styles of language and vocabulary. An attorney must be able to effectively communicate complicated legal arguments to a judge but also be able to explain them in simple terms to a client;
?Work ethic. There will be long days. There will be working weekends. There will be clients you do not like. You must be willing to plow through the tough days and get the job done;
?Integrity and character. Lawyers are the butt of countless jokes because we sometimes make ourselves easy targets. An attorney who conducts her practice and life with integrity and ethical behavior will only be respected by her peers and the larger community.
What organizations were you involved in during your college years that helped you towards your career?
-I participated in Mock Trial and Pre-Law Society. Mock Trial developed my ability to form an argument. Often lawyers can get lost in the proverbial forest because we are so focused on one tree. Mock Trial taught me that any single law, witness or piece of evidence is just part of the whole representation of a client. My job as an attorney is to ensure my client's full interest in any situation is being met. Pre Law Society exposed me to different practice areas and options. We occasionally had speakers present to the group. Pre Law Society also helped me with selecting a law school and deciding what priorities I had with my career - money, geography, practice areas, etc.
What degrees are appropriate for this line of work?
-Any undergraduate degree is appropriate. Much of the nuts and bolts law stuff is taught in law school. I know attorneys who came to law school with degrees in music and have been very successful in practice. The key is to have an undergraduate degree that teaches critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Where and/or what do you hope to be in 2-5 years? 5-10 years? What are the keys to this career advancement?
-In 2-5 and 5-10 years I hope to still be practicing law at this firm. I enjoy the work I do and the balance I have between my career and other aspects of my life.My ongoing career goals include learning more about some specific legal areas that interest me so that I can expand my practice. I also am very involved in volunteering with the Wisconsin State Bar and plan to continue and expand that work.
The keys to advancement in this field is smart and hard work. Clients and firms value a person who can do the job effectively and at a reasonable price. If a lawyer provides quality services at a predictable and appropriate rate, she will advance. Her partners will value her contributions to the firm's bottom line. Her clients will be thoroughly satisfied and referrals will result.
What was the best piece of advice you received and from who that helped you towards your career?
-My father told me that I could do anything.
Do you have any advice or "words from experience" for a college student interested in this job/field?
1. Explore your options. The law is such a broad field with so many opportunities. A law degree can get you into solo practice or a clerkship on the Supreme Court and the options between are endless. Talk to attorneys and judges to learn about career options. Most lawyers are more than willing to spend an hour discussing the nature of their work and the good and bad aspects of their career.
2. Remember that your career is going to be only one part of your life. While you are in college and law school, learn about yourself. Where do you want to live? What kind of weather do you enjoy? Do you prefer a city or rural lifestyle? How many hours do you want to work each week? Do you (intend to) have a family and what commitment do you have to them? Do you want to travel with your job? How much money do you want to earn? You need to decide what you want from your career and what you are willing to put into it.While in college it may seem that the paycheck is the most important factor, but it is not. Jobs with big paychecks usually come with similarly big commitments of time and resources. I did not expect to end up co-owner of a small firm in Superior, WI.I had planned for a much flashier life flying around the world practicing international law. But my practice permits me the freedom to be with my family on evenings and weekends and pursue the things I enjoy outside practicing law. A buzz-phrase in our profession is "work-life balance."Lawyers are famous for being generally unhappy because they are overworked and unhappy that they are not fishing on the weekends or pursuing other hobbies.Start thinking now about what you really want your life to look like in ten years' time.
If you knew all this back in college, what would you say were the most important classes? Is there anything you would have paid more attention to? Any additional classes you would have taken?
-The most important classes I took in college were ones that had practical application. Theory-based courses were far more interesting, but practical classes taught me vocabulary, procedures, forms, research skills, and what my career would demand from me. I do wish I had taken some business courses so that I better understand accounting practices, business management, and marketing issues.
In college, people claim that a bachelor's degree isn't enough anymore and that you need a master's or doctorate degree to get your foot in the door. What's your opinion?
-In my profession, that has been the case for a very long time. You cannot sit for a state bar licensing exam without the Juris Doctor degree.However, there are many careers in the legal arena that can be filled with a bachelor's degree. Our office has found that English and Legal Studies majors are excellent office staff/paralegals. Additionally, we have an in-house bookkeeper and a person with an accounting or business degree would certainly be considered for that position.