By Kimberly Reed, Esq.
Reed International Law & Consulting, LLC
As a first-generation college student at Duke University, coming from a tiny town in the western Virginia mountains, I wanted to see the world, and law school was a means for me to do that. My plan was to go to law school, work for a big international firm, move abroad and get work experience, and become politically connected so I could earn an appointment to the State Department. All went according to plan, until, at the appointment stage, I ironically lost out by supporting the winning candidate. While it took many years to get over that disappointment, I have managed to create an international career on my own terms, representing clients in over 70 countries and traveling to six continents, while being a very present mom to my kids. With six years in academia, six Presidential campaigns, and numerous nonprofit boards, I have had an unusual career.
A Start with BigLaw
After a fun and challenging three years at UVA Law, I took a five-month around-the-world trip alone, mostly in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and its central Asian republics. I was hooked on traveling abroad and learning about different cultures, and I joined the huge multinational law firm in Los Angeles at which I had clerked for two summers. I unwisely chose the litigation department because I’d been good at moot court and enjoyed trial advocacy. However, I learned in that firm and especially at another large firm in DC that I hated the hostile attitude that often accompanied big-time litigation. But being in DC allowed me to dive deeply into politics, working in a low-level position at the White House for a year and learning how party politics worked.
Working in Academia
Weary of constant conflict, I thought of giving up law altogether, but my volunteer position as Chair of the Career Development Committee at the Bar Association of DC led to my first academic position, Assistant Dean of Career Development at the University of North Carolina School of Law, where I eventually taught classes in nonprofit law and nonprofit management. For the first time, I loved what I was doing—teaching and counseling students on their unique career paths, guiding them to avoid my mistake of choosing a specialty totally unsuited to my personality. The schmoozing with law firms, bar associations, and judges fit my outgoing personality well. But after six years, the urge to get back on the path to foreign relations was too strong to resist, and when I got engaged to my college sweetheart after many years apart, I moved to Warsaw, Poland, where he was heading the Eastern European operations of a Fortune 50 company. I saw this as the start to my international career.
Creating Capitalist Systems Abroad
Because my Polish language skills were not sufficiently fluent to get a teaching position, I fell back on law, taking a position with the Warsaw office of a DC-based AmLaw 100 firm, which took me on with the caveat that I would essentially be starting over as a corporate associate but they would promote me to partner faster if my progress warranted it. I figured (a) I could learn the transactional work that dominates international practice, (b) if a firm had a Warsaw office, they probably had several other international offices where I could potentially work, and (c) I could eventually transfer back to the United States, preferably to DC.
Business was booming in the Eastern European countries seeking EU membership. It was a steep learning curve, being thrown into huge project finance and corporate deals while learning “on the fly” and struggling with a new language. But it was fascinating to basically invent the law as new situations arose that were not addressed by the old Soviet-era legal system. Statutes and regulations simply did not exist in many areas, so lawyers were making it up, looking to U.S., U.K., and German law for guidance. I worked until the morning that I gave birth in early 2002 and was back seven weeks later with a very colicky baby and so little sleep that I sometimes walked straight into walls or dozed off while standing at my secretary’s desk. A second colicky baby quickly followed in 2003. I was exhausted all the time but afraid to be seen as working any less than my male peers, all of whom had wives staying home with their children or working only part-time.
Facing Corruption in Russia
In 2004, the opportunity arose to transfer to the Moscow, Russia office. We packed up and moved to a suburb of Moscow that, unbeknownst to us, was an oligarch neighborhood. My job grew to a new level of intensity: routine 16-hour days, with frequent over-nighters in the office; intermittent travel, especially to Helsinki, London, Cyprus, and Germany; and working mostly for a notoriously difficult senior partner, one of the top three money makers in the firm, whose behavior was, in retrospect, abusive and sometimes cruel. While billing the required number of hours, I also did about 300 hours of pro bono work a year, and the firm promoted me early.
Living and working in Moscow was exciting, fascinating, grueling, and very difficult. Rampant corruption rendered the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act incomprehensible to a Russian—how could you possibly get a deal done without giving bribes?! I had children aged one and two years old but was expected to work seven days a week. Thanks to our live-in nanny and housekeeper, my young children were learning Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian, but I rarely saw them. Adding another twist, my regular firm work involved the very largest Russian companies and their various oligarch owners (with their ties to Putin), but the pro bono cases I chose (and to the firm’s credit, they let me take) were largely for democratization NGOs that were targeted by the Russian government. This resulted in frequent issues with the FSB (formerly the KGB), including having my house and cars bugged, being followed by FSB agents, and several of my clients having to leave the country after serious threats on their lives (or in some cases, their children’s lives). A few of my NGO clients have been arrested or assassinated since then, and several of my firm colleagues have left Russia altogether.
Life in Moscow was a mixture of the familiar, such going to the office, being stuck in traffic, eating at my desk, and the surreal, such as my baby daughter never sleeping in her own room because it faced the home of the Russian Minister of Defense, whose bodyguards got drunk every night and shot Kalashnikovs into the air toward our house. As we neared our fourth year there and it became important for us to raise our children in a more diverse place, we decided it was time to move again. We considered Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, but when the right opportunity came from my political activity, we moved back to the United States, settling in the DC area.
I was president of Democrats Abroad in Russia, the U.S. Democratic Party’s arm for American expats. Through friends in the early Obama ’08 campaign, I was hired in a senior position, based in the campaign’s DC and Chicago offices, to organize the millions of Americans who vote from abroad and to represent the candidate in foreign countries. Although the firm granted me a leave of absence, I saw this as my opportunity to parlay my campaign work into the long-awaited State Department appointment, so I decided to take my chances.
The Highs and Lows of Politics
The 2008 Obama campaign was lightning in a bottle—every day was exciting. I represented then-Senator Obama at events and with foreign leaders in Hong Kong, India, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Belgium, Canada, Mexico, and other countries, and was in charge of grassroots organizing to register American expats to vote and motivate them to register others. On election night, I was on top of the world, thinking that not only had the U.S. elected a superlative candidate, but I was also close to my career goal.
However, my perfectly-followed plan went off the rails in an unexpected way. President Obama gave complete control of State Department hiring to new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose presidential campaign had offered me a position that I had turned down to work on the Obama campaign. Despite all of my efforts to call in favors and make the right connections, I was shut out by the Clinton folks at State, USAID, and the NSC. I knew that this was how politics was played, and many of my campaign friends also didn’t get positions they had worked for, but it was completely devastating nonetheless.
Changing Course: Solo Practice with an International Focus
I had followed a plan for my entire professional life, and when I could literally see the prize, it was snatched away. Bereft and lost, I went back to the firm briefly, but was told in no uncertain terms that I could not stay in the DC office (I was welcome to move back to Moscow, of course). Feeling like I had no oxygen to breathe, no life plan, and no identity remaining, I left the firm and decided to take six months to re-acquaint myself with my kids (then four and six years old) and figure out my life. It was the lowest point I have ever experienced, and I am still not completely recovered from it 15 years later. But during that time off, a few people approached me to do legal work for them—they could suddenly afford me at my non-big firm rates—and a few former firm clients brought me smaller transactions that were not cost effective to give to a large firm. Before I knew it, I unintentionally had a small solo practice.
Then the calls started coming from foreign presidential campaigns wanting advice on organizing diaspora campaigns. I consulted with candidates from DRC, Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia, and Senegal, traveling widely through Africa for the first time and also advising countries on, among other things, strengthening their ability to draw multinational businesses. Because this wasn’t within the purview of my law practice, I started a small consulting company with an old Obama campaign friend in 2010 (he is now a candidate for President of Senegal). Eventually I cut back on this work as my children became teenagers and needed more of my time, but it was a very interesting side note to my law practice.
In the decade-plus since then, apart from a brief stint as a partner at a mid-sized regional firm just before COVID, I have maintained a solo practice focusing on international business law. I have had transactions in over 70 countries for both U.S. and foreign clients, and I have a long list of local counsel around the world. Dealing with time zones can be trying, but working with different cultures and legal systems is interesting and constantly changing due to political and governmental shifts around the world. Best of all, having my own practice allowed me to be a present mother to my kids, who are now at Duke and Tufts Universities.
I don’t know what is next for me in this homestretch of my career. It has been true for me personally that I couldn’t have everything all at once, but I have done some of what I’ve wanted to do by not being afraid to jump out of a bad or unfavorable situation into the unknown. The biggest lesson I have learned is that as long as you have a base level of intelligence, a great deal of success is based on luck—working for the right partner, being present at the right meeting, not being dragged unintentionally into other people’s issues or blamed for something you did not do, and having mentors willing and able to push you forward to the right audience. Some of this is controllable, but much of it is not.
I’m often asked if I think my career would have been different if I were a man, and the answer is undoubtedly yes. I doubt that a man has ever been told by a senior partner that there was doubt about him being both a good law partner and a good parent, nor would a state court judge ever ask a man to “please wear that red dress again on Monday, I liked that red dress.” I was recently berated on a conference call with a Saudi businessman to “be quiet like a woman so the men can handle the deal properly.” (At least my client promptly terminated discussions with that company.)
There are still far too many highly capable women who leave law practice to be present for their families and then never are given a chance to get back “on track” in their careers because “it’s been too long since they practiced,” as if their intelligence and experiences have somehow eroded during their motherhoods. While I never left law practice, I definitely feel the loss of reputation that comes from no longer being at a large, well-known firm, as if that somehow reflected on my ability as a lawyer. But I, like all other professional women, have to keep going to try to make it easier for our daughters and nieces and younger female friends, especially those in minority groups, to move forward.