by Jerri Hemsworth | June 1, 2017 11:39 am
When you have a conversation with Yi Sun Kim, you quickly get the idea of what she is truly passionate about: her family, her pro-bono work, helping people, and the law. People who don’t know her would be mistaken to think she is a shy, demure, easily-swayed attorney that just sits at her desk pushing transactions and settling cases. Once you know her, she is anything but. She is outspoken, has a wicked sense of humor, works extremely hard at maintaining her relationships with friends, colleagues and family, and has just made partner at one of the San Fernando Valley’s premier law firms, Greenberg & Bass. She specializes in bankruptcy, business litigation, business formations and transactions.
In case her law practice is not keeping her busy enough, she volunteers at the Self Help Desk at the San Fernando Valley Bankruptcy Court. She helps individuals who need to file Chapter 7 by giving them free assistance on what the procedure is like and how to fill out their paperwork. This particular Self Help Desk is coordinated by Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles. In 2015, she was the recipient of Public Counsel’s prestigious Lasarow Award for this pro bono service.
Her current involvement as Secretary on the Board of Directors for the San Fernando Valley Bar Association has her on track for what could be the first Asian American President of the SFVBA.
On the eve of her partnership celebration at the firm, we asked her some questions about her path to becoming partner.
You got out of law school just at the beginning of the great recession. Did this have any impact on your choosing bankruptcy as a primary practice area?
Absolutely. While I was awaiting my bar results, Greenberg & Bass hired me as a law clerk to assist with a new, large case in the litigation department. It required reviewing something like 50 boxes of documents, so it initially took up all of my time. Then the economy turned so quickly that the firm’s existing robust bankruptcy department suddenly needed even more assistance. Although I continued to work on business litigation matters, I spent an increasing amount of time focusing on bankruptcy matters, both from the debtor and creditor perspectives. Although the firm handled many business related filings, it was the individual or personal bankruptcy cases that really pulled me in. Helping people go through such a scary process, and seeing how relieved they are afterwards knowing they can move forward with a fresh start for themselves and their families, made me feel like I was actually doing something worthwhile. Therefore, although it started out by necessity, I found that I really enjoyed bankruptcy law and proactively inserted myself into more bankruptcy cases as they came in.
You have been recognized as a Rising Star by several organizations and publications. What do you attribute your success?
The number of people who have helped me and continue to mentor and support me. My family has been my biggest inspiration when it comes to hard work and integrity, which keeps me on the right path. And since Day One, fellow partners James Felton and David Adelman along with everyone at Greenberg & Bass, staff and attorneys, have taught, mentored and pushed me. Law school taught me about the written laws and procedures, but G&B is where I was trained on the practice of law, as well as how to communicate with people. They are also generous when it comes to highlighting me and my practice, making sure that I am seen, so much so that it is hard for people not to notice.
How are the bankruptcy cases you deal with today different from those during the worst of the recession years?
The bulk of the bankruptcy cases I handled during the recession was, understandably, related to real estate: Individuals who could not pay their mortgage, investors whose collateral rapidly depreciated, or vendors in related industries who suddenly lost their client base. There are significantly fewer bankruptcy filings today. The personal filings are usually persons who have experienced an unfortunate change in circumstances, such as a sudden injury or illness resulting in loss of employment and substantial medical bills. The trend in business filings is with retail stores, especially in the apparel industry.
You do business litigation, primarily in the areas of disputes arising from bankruptcy actions. What are some of the typical cases like that go to litigation in this area?
When an individual files for bankruptcy relief, his or her intention in doing so is to eliminate their liability or obligation to pay their existing debts (i.e. have their debts “discharged”). Not all debts can be discharged, and the individual will remain liable to pay those debts even after the bankruptcy case is completed. For example, if the debt was incurred by fraud (e.g. knowingly providing a false financial statement to obtain a loan), then the creditor can file a litigation case within the bankruptcy case to obtain judgment saying the debt cannot be discharged. Therefore, many of the bankruptcy litigation cases I have handled center on fraud.
In addition, if the debtor transfers money or property to a third party just before the debtor filed the bankruptcy case, the debtor or trustee may try to get that money or property back from the third party. In some circumstances, the trustee can lawfully unwind those transfers of money or property by filing a litigation action in the bankruptcy case.
You also work at the opposite end of the business spectrum from bankruptcy. You work on formations and startups. What words of advice do you have for today’s startup companies?
Today there are numerous lenders and investors who are willing to help fund exciting new ventures, especially in the technology field. However, having seen the downturn of the economy before, I would caution against being too overzealous with borrowing and to pay special attention to the penalties or personal exposure that can result if the business proves unsuccessful. One should always have an attorney draft or review an agreement before it is signed—even if (or actually, especially if) the agreement or business venture is amongst friends. There are many deficiencies in the form agreements that are floating around online. If the agreement is not complete, then formerly friendly business parties can face protracted and expensive litigation fighting over what the parties intended the contract to mean or say. If a contract is complete, then the parties cannot dispute what is written there and they can come to a quicker, less costly resolution. And even if a person is handed a well written agreement by a lender or investor, he or she should have an attorney review it since it may have provisions that put the person or his or her personal assets at more risk than the person realizes.
As someone who has risen quickly in the legal ranks, now as a partner of your firm and a trustee of the Bar Association, what advice do you have law school students and young attorneys just beginning their careers?
Generally I find that in your first couple of years, you make mistakes or take a long time trying to figure out what you are even doing. As frustrating as it may be, you remind yourself that you are a brand new attorney so it is expected. But in your third year, and forever after, you will continue to make mistakes or face issues or fact patterns that you do not know how to resolve. You no longer have the “excuse” that you are brand new, and it can be a humbling and stressful experience. You have to remind yourself that it’s okay, you’re going to make mistakes or come across challenging issues throughout your career. What makes you a good lawyer is knowing what to do next—how to fix the problem, or what resources to access to get the solution. You’re not meant to be perfect, let alone a walking encyclopedia. You’re expected to be resourceful and a problem solver.
I would encourage new lawyers to be social and open minded. Meet as many lawyers as they can in different fields. For years, I had no idea how many types of law or practices were available, or that each firm has its own unique culture and way of functioning. You may discover a field that you can be passionate about, or a type of firm that is compatible with your working style and particular skills. And even if you are already exactly where you want to be, you can find great mentors who will help you grow that practice or adjust as you progress. The San Fernando Valley Bar Association offers a number of opportunities for new lawyers, including sections that highlight different areas of law, networking and social activities with attorneys of various backgrounds and expertise, and community outreach programs where you can test out your skills while helping people in the community. •
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