Karen Kim grew up a middle child, despite having been born only one minute before her identical twin sister. That sixty seconds of time made her the second of three children with an older brother by five years. Born in Evanston, Illinois in 1978, Karen lived in Chicago until she was eight years old. Her twin sister was very much the youngest of the family which may have affected Karen taking on the unofficial role of caretaker. Today she has been a practicing attorney for over nine years and is the recently elected President of the Korean American Lawyers Association of Greater New York (KALAGNY).
Her family beginnings in the United States echo many other Korean immigrant stories. Her parents and brother, who was around three at the time, immigrated to Chicago with the hope of a better life. Karen’s aunt had already settled in Chicago and helped the family make the move providing initial housing and jobs for her parents at the aunt’s store. A few years later, Karen and her twin sister were born growing their family of three into a family of five. As was normal for the time, her mother was completely unaware she was pregnant with twins. The addition of an unexpected third child came as quite a surprise.
Her parents, getting very little sleep, took shifts caring for their family and working. Karen recalls her father working during the day while her mother was home with the children, then the switch when her father returned home. Karen’s maternal grandmother came to live with the family when Karen’s mom was pregnant with her and her sister. Karen shared, “…when my grandmother was pregnant with my mom, it was during the Korean war and they had kidnapped her father (Karen’s grandfather). So my mother never met her father and my grandmother was left to raise six kids on her own, never knowing what happened to her husband.” Because of this tragic experience, and the fact that Karen’s mom never got to meet her father, Karen’s grandmother held a special place in her heart for Karen’s mother.
Growing up an identical twin had some advantages for Karen. “It was an added bonus to take away from the fact that I was not white. Instead of focusing on the fact that I was not like everyone else, (i.e. being Asian in a white world) people would remark on being a twin – ‘Oh my gosh! You’re a twin!” This shift in focus may have helped Karen to be secure in her identity, as she “…never felt any identity crisis around me not being white. I was just me.”
With memories of 4th of July celebrations honoring confederate soldiers, being secure in her identity was particularly significant once her family moved to Lilburn, Georgia when she was eight years old. Needing a change of scenery from Chicago, Georgia’s weather won out over rainy Seattle for Karen’s father.
In Georgia, Karen’s parents eventually opened a beauty supply store that catered to Black customers. Similar to other regions, the beauty supply industry was dominated by Korean business owners. While the store provided more economic stability for the family, Karen and her siblings continued to receive subsidized lunch at school. “I was aware that our family did not have a lot of excess funds because we got food stamps for school lunch. My parents would actually complain because I never asked for anything.” Somewhat remarkable for a child. “I think I subconsciously knew (that we struggled financially) and I didn’t want to ask. I had no problem going to school and asking for the school lunch stamps because I knew it helped my parents.” Similarly, Karen would not tell her parents when she was offered opportunities that cost money. “Once I got this opportunity to attend a leadership conference that was in Scotland and I never told my parents because I knew they couldn’t afford it.”
Karen’s father would tell his children, a message that resonates with other marginalized groups in America, that as Koreans they would need to do better and work harder than the typical person (read – white person) in order to succeed. Karen accepted her father’s statement as truth. Luckily for her, it was easy. She was a shy girl who focused on her studies and excelled in school. Though thoughts of becoming a lawyer were still a ways off. Initially she wanted to be a translator.
When she was in tenth grade, Karen’s parents were in a car accident. They were represented by an attorney whose wife was Korean and advertised in the Korean newspapers. Karen recalled that, “He wasn’t the best attorney and I don’t think they got the best representation. Growing up I would translate all of my parents mail and hear all of their stories. So initially I just wanted to be a translator. Then I thought, I might as well do something else to help further and that was when I knew I wanted to go to law school. It wasn’t to the point where I felt like I had to go but it became an option. I thought it would be nice to help people.”
After majoring in English at the University of Chicago, Karen intentionally took time off before going to law school. Following a less than one year detour in New York City, Karen went to live in Korea to study Korean language at Seoul National. True to form, Karen finished the program early in eight months. She then earned the honor of being the longest term intern at Bae, Kim & Lee, one of the biggest law firms in Korea. While working at the firm, Karen re-took the LSAT, the Law School entrance exam. After working at the firm for over a year, Karen returned to New York City to attend Brooklyn Law School.
While in law school, most of her classmates were younger than her since she took the four year break after undergrad. Unlike her undergrad years, Karen was not very active other than focusing closely on her studies. Since graduating, Karen has been an associate at Menaker & Hermann LLP.
Karen and her husband, Sam, met while Karen was in law school. They dated for six years before getting married, partly due to the bar exam and partly because Karen’s mother was diagnosed with late stage colon cancer. Fulfilling her unofficial role of second caretaker in her family, Karen agreed to go to Korea to be with her mom while she underwent surgery and received treatment. What was supposed to be a four week trip turned into six months which turned into one year. Reflecting on the experience of taking care of her mom when she was sick Karen said, “I’m similar to my mom where I compartmentalize and get things done. The only way to do it is to just look at the task at hand and what needs to get done. You can’t think about the big picture and what could or might happen so I just went into the mode of just getting things done. And I was very optimistic because you have to be.”
All the while, Sam waited patiently for Karen’s return. Before meeting Sam, Karen never wanted to get married and never wanted to have kids. And Karen’s past experiences had sworn her off dating Korean American men. “I’m pretty laid back and not super emotional so I don’t like drama. But then when I met Sam, I thought well he seems cool, he knows some of my friends, so I had no expectations and decided to give it a go. It was the best first date of both of our lives. It was very comfortable, we have a similar sense of humor, no drama…he’s very calm and laid back.” Karen and Sam have now been married six years and have two young boys.
This past July, Karen was elected President of KALAGNY. In her short time in the position, Karen has already brought a renewed energy and vision to the over 30 year old association. When asked about her vision for the organization, she exclaimed “I want to shake everything up!” Under Karen’s leadership, there has been an event a week and she is reaching out to other bar associations and non-legal community organizations, as well. She is working to build bigger, stronger networks and to bring more benefits to the members. “The more people we know, the more we can help.”
The compartmentalizing tactic that Karen used to help her get through taking care of her mother when she had cancer, is the same tactic Karen uses generally. As a mom, wife, lawyer and President of KALAGNY, she seems to have an admirable grasp on her many responsibilities. Asked whether she thought there might be some sort of genetic makeup within her that gives her the driving force to be a task master, she responded, “I tell everyone if you focus on the overall picture and all these things you have on your plate, you’ll never get it done. You’ll get overwhelmed. I don’t dwell. I don’t know if it’s smart or that I just don’t have the time to be overwhelmed! But I also know, life is very short. Everything here is just stuff. In the end stuff doesn’t matter… Take every opportunity and make the best of it.” Sage advice from a woman who walks the walk.