KESTAN Community is a series where our creative director, Stephanie, sits down with inspirational women to talk about careers, motivation, and how they're making it.
Lawyer, mother, philanthropist, and so much more - Gloria Lee is a woman of many facets. She’s a prime example that you can forge your own path while maintaining authenticity. In a field where individuality may not always be celebrated, she has become of force of positivity and change as she spearheads initiatives that celebrate diversity, uplift women, and champion for human rights. I sat down with Gloria and discussed business, motherhood, building relationships, giving back to the community, and the importance of self-confidence.
Name: Gloria Lee
Occupation: Client Relations Partner at Rutan and Tucker, LLP
Let’s talk about your role as a Client Relations Partner. What does that entail? I’m the business development partner at my law firm, Rutan & Tucker, LLP, which is the largest full service law firm in Orange County, CA. My role is to be the face of the firm, innovate and create value for our clients, and originate new clients and business opportunities for our attorneys. I also serve as a liaison within the community and am involved with philanthropy, alumni relations, and diversity initiatives. My legal work is limited now, but much of my time is still devoted to client management, including billing, conflicts, and connecting our clients with the right attorneys as well as client relationships, such as helping them with job placements, awards and other business opportunities.
How did you come to fill this role? For the first ten years of my practice, I was helping clients with real estate projects and financing. During the course of my career, I found that I had a proclivity for growing client relationships. My firm believed in my unique skill set, and created a role where I could focus on business development for the firm. It was a highly customized position, and almost unheard of for a law firm at the time. I don’t think people envision an Asian American woman with kids in this type of role and I don’t drink or play golf but I got very creative and have originated over 100 new institutional clients for the firm, including large consumer brands, banks, large restaurant chains and tech companies.
It sounds like you’ve had quite the professional journey. What challenges have you faced in your career, and how have you overcome them? There were seasons in my life that were really tough and I think it gave me an edge to deal with the stressful nature of the practice of law. For example, I remember being a junior lawyer in the middle of the recession at my previous firm. All my colleagues and friends were being laid off and I just had my second son. I felt fortunate to still have a job but was asked to learn a new area of law and work out of another office requiring a two hour commute. I would leave for work at 5am and come back home really late on most nights. I was constantly stressed out about how I would take care of work as well as my family. I was also on so little sleep from taking care of a newborn. It was such a difficult time but enduring that season of my life, I realized that I could pretty much handle anything life threw at me.
There are other related challenges I faced. At my previous firm, I was told by some of the partners that they did not want to invest too much time training me because they didn’t think I would come back to work after having kids. Sometimes I was excluded from outings with the men who are gatekeepers of work and business opportunities. But I was able to find great mentors and formed my own personal network to get guidance and share advice – those peer groups really helped me advance in my career.
Something that is subtle but used to bother me is when people ask: “who takes care of your kids?”. It is not something we usually ask men at networking events. It doesn’t bother me as much now because although my job is time intensive, it provides me a lot of flexibility to be there for my family when I need to be. Plus, one of the favorite aspects of my job is challenging people’s perspectives about Asian American women in the law. I’m not just the diligent attorney drafting documents for a deal, but I’m also the relationship partner that brings in new clients, distributes the work among the lawyers and grows business opportunities for the firm.
How do you find this confidence within yourself? I’m not sure if it is confidence, so much as fearlessness – similar to the ways entrepreneurs cannot fear failure when they are starting a new business. A few years ago I had this aha moment when I realized, even if I did not have my job, I had enough skills and experience to do something on my own. Once I was not afraid of being unemployed, I started taking more risks and advocating for myself and I’ve been much more confident and happier ever since.
And speaking of confidence, was there a moment in your career that you’re most proud of? There are many moments I’m proud of but last year, I was really moved when a group of 10 general counsel from various companies surprised me and nominated me for the Marci Rubin Emerging Diversity Leader Award. The award is given by the California Minority Counsel Program to an attorney still early in their legal career that most advances diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. When I read their nomination letters I realized how much impact every small act could make. They said that in building powerful networks of successful women and minority attorneys, I was creating a pipeline of new business leaders and by successfully placing top talent for general counsel positions at a variety of companies, I was help changing the face of leadership. They also cited that through personal mentorship and by connecting people to one another, I was help building bridges with a variety of different groups and help shaping law firm culture. It meant a lot to me to be recognized not only for my personal accomplishment but for my contribution in elevating others.
It sounds like you manage a lot of relationships in your life, whether they be professional or personal. How do you manage your time while juggling so many responsibilities? I believe in work/life integration as opposed to work/life balance. When I meet with clients or colleagues, in addition to discussing work, I always inquire about their parenting techniques, health and cooking tips, and other dimensions of their lives. I’m constantly learning life hacks from some of the most successful and productive people in business. Most of my clients become my personal friends and I am able to spend time with them in a variety of ways – we eat lunch together, work out together, get involved with charities, go to concerts, and do family activities with our children. Instead of completely compartmentalizing every aspect of my life, I see it all as a whole that interconnects.
In terms of household work, I know outsourcing is a favored concept, but I do most of the laundry, dishes, cooking and kids’ scheduling. Fortunately I also have an amazing community of family and friends who help me manage life’s daily emergencies.
Relationships are clearly very important to you. How can people build authentic relationships? First, I love to learn from others by being a good listener and taking the opportunity to relate to people who are different from me. I’m currently involved with some very conservative business groups as well as very liberal social causes. I’m thankful for growing up as a daughter of immigrants with modest means and then having the opportunity to attend prestigious universities and interfacing with some of the most fascinating and successful business people in the country – I feel like I can relate to all types of people from all walks of life. If people can share who they really are without being judged and feel like they are being listened to, it goes a long way in building trust and authentic relationships. I’m not interested in discussing only the good things that are going on in our lives but prefer being vulnerable and discuss how we can help each other through the difficult times.
I also think about how I can bring value to someone’s life. It may be as simple as providing them with the best legal service to protect their companies. It may be connecting them to potential business partners, investors, employees or employers. Or it may be creating a special social experience and celebrating important moments in people’s lives.
The key is to invest in people without expecting something in return. Once someone knows that you have their back, it makes for a strong relationship. Even if a deal goes bad or trouble percolates, you have the right foundation to have an honest conversation and bounce back from it.
As someone who builds so many of these authentic relationships, how do you suggest women support one another? I’m so proud to have so many amazing friends and colleagues who are trailblazers in their line of work. Even when I’m not feeling like I’m accomplishing much, when I’m supporting my friends who are doing extraordinary things, I truly feel like their success is my success.
Some women want to be the queen bee but I’ve found that the more women there are the top, the more room she can make for others to join her. At work meetings, we can validate each other’s opinions, make sure we are given credit for contributions and ensure that we are given access to the best work opportunities and mentors. But honestly, I think the best way we can help each other is by empathizing with the struggle, and not judging each other for the different choices and mistakes we are all bound to make.
You’re also deeply involved in philanthropy. Why is giving back important to you? Growing up with a single-mom in a difficult environment, I could not have gone to Stanford and enjoyed much of what I have today without the opportunities and support of so many people and organizations. I want to pay it forward and create a culture of giving, particularly within the Asian American community. I’m currently serving on four non-profit boards including Liberty in North Korea, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the Council of Korean Americans and it has been amazing working with like-minded people to create a larger framework of support for human rights and advocacy.
Do you have any recommendations for those looking to be more engaged in their community and have a positive impact on the world around them? We all have different talents, resources, experiences, and passions. The key is to discover what you love to do and decide how you want to give. I love that Kestan was built on the desire to provide women with beautiful eco-friendly clothing. Based on my personal experiences growing up, I have a heart for child welfare and API advocacy. The way I like to give back is by serving on boards of non-profs and connecting my business and personal contacts to charities. For example, I may serve on a charity gala and nominate the honorees that will help elevate the organization. I may connect an organization with in-kind services, ask a celebrity friend to participate in an event, solicit donors, or ask the CEO of a company to donate exclusive access for a company tour for the silent auction. My friend Sylvia Kim and I have also hosted holiday trunk shows to showcase emerging brands and have a portion of proceeds go to charity. It’s the element of fun and connecting different people in your lives that makes it especially fulfilling, especially since it amplifies the impact.Interested in Gloria's looks? She's wearing our Holly tank dress in black (here), Maple layered dress in black (here), and Agnes wrap dress in blush (here).