The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Joon H. Kim, Partner—White Collar Defense & Internal Investigations
Joon H. Kim is a partner in Cleary’s New York office. His practice focuses on white collar criminal defense, internal corporate investigations, regulatory enforcement, and crisis management, as well as complex commercial litigation and arbitration. Joon has enjoyed a distinguished career at high levels of government and in private practice and has received numerous awards recognizing his contributions to the greater legal community, including the NAPABA Trailblazer Award, the Korean American Story Trailblazer Award, and the KALAGNY Trailblazer Award.
Joon joined the firm in 1997 as an associate. Later, he became an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York and rejoined the firm’s enforcement and litigation group in 2006, becoming partner in 2009. He returned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2013 and held leadership positions, including Deputy U.S. Attorney, chief of the Criminal Division, and chief counsel to the U.S. Attorney.
From March 2017 to January 2018, Joon served as the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Joon oversaw all criminal and civil litigation conducted on behalf the United States and supervised about 220 Assistant U.S. Attorneys handling a wide range of cases. Joon oversaw high-profile prosecutions and investigations of corruption, money laundering, and terrorism, including the investigations and subsequent convictions of Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the New York Assembly; Dean Skelos, the former New York State Senate majority leader; the Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla; and the Times Square Bomber, Akayed Ullah.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
I practice white collar criminal defense, internal investigations, and regulatory enforcement, as well as commercial litigation, arbitration, and crisis management. My broad practice area involves representing companies, financial institutions, and individuals in all kinds of disputes and investigations, including criminal or regulatory investigations brought by federal and state agencies, as well as litigation and arbitration. My practice also includes guiding corporations and financial institutions and their boards of directors as they face some of their largest legal challenges.
What types of clients do you represent?
I represent primarily multinational corporations and financial institutions in various industries. I also represent certain individuals, mostly corporate officers and financial industry executives, in criminal and regulatory investigations.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
I work on cases that involve companies that are subject to investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice, the SEC, the CFTC, and other prosecutors and regulators in the U.S. and abroad, as well as litigation and international arbitration.
Most of those investigations are not public, but some that are include financial institutions that were the subject of investigations arising out of the LIBOR and rates manipulation cases, companies involved in cross-border M&A deals that need regulatory approval, and international bribery investigations. I also worked on the securities litigation arising out of the Brazilian corruption scandal, which involved representing Petrobras in its securities litigation in the Southern District of New York. Another aspect of my practice is to help companies address internal compliance issues and to assist them in investigating potential issues raised by whistleblowers, as well as proactively strengthening their compliance programs and culture.
How did you choose this practice area?
I’ve always been interested in criminal law and dispute resolution. During more than two decades of practice, I spent 10 years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, first as a line prosecutor and then as a member of its leadership, and more than 10 years in private practice. With my experience as a federal prosecutor, it was natural for me to have a practice in white collar criminal defense and enforcement.
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
One of the great things I’ve found about my practice is that there is no typical day. On any given day, I can be interviewing witnesses in connection with an investigation, dealing with government prosecutors and regulators, drafting or revising submissions for courts or arbitrators, working with companies and boards to provide advice in connection with major legal challenges, or reviewing and analyzing evidence in a case to prepare for a hearing or a government presentation. No two days are the same, and there is a wide variety in the work that my practice involves. This ensures that the work is always interesting, challenging, and fun.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
The best training in this area is to get involved, observe others doing the work, and then, do it yourself. For young lawyers, it is important to work with experienced practitioners to see what they do and how they handle different situations. That being said, what is great about this practice of enforcement and dispute resolution is that a lot of the work is really a matter of common sense, which is something that young lawyers have just as much of as experienced lawyers (and sometimes more). I would recommend that anyone interested in the area of enforcement and litigation try to observe and learn from those who have been doing this work for a while.
At Cleary, we are also fortunate to have a lot of training opportunities to support litigation attorneys of all levels, ranging from our New Litigation Associate Training program to our ongoing Litigation Fundamentals Curriculum and Discovery Workshop series. We also support attorneys who wish to participate in external training programs. While a lot of this practice area is common sense, there are always opportunities available to support the development of new skills and the honing of one’s practice.
What is the most challenging aspect of practicing in this area?
One of the most challenging and interesting aspects of practicing in the area of enforcement and litigation is that every matter involves a completely new set of facts and often a new, unfamiliar area of law. The practice involves providing advice and advocacy in connection with whatever criminal, regulatory, or disputes-related legal challenge a client is facing at that time. No two disputes are ever exactly the same. It therefore requires being a quick study and being comfortable with new areas of law and new, often complex sets of factual circumstances.
What is unique about your practice area at your firm?
Because Cleary Gottlieb is such a global firm and one that is collaborative and collegial in nature, our work offers a healthy variety of purely domestic matters and fascinating pro bono opportunities, along with complex cross-border and international work. That means we have clients who are based overseas, we have U.S. clients facing problems here and around the world, and we have multi-jurisdictional matters that require coordination with lawyers at the firm’s other offices. The degree to which the work is international and cross border is quite unique to a firm like Cleary, and both the content of the work and the opportunities to collaborate with my colleagues certainly make the practice here more interesting.
How do you see this practice area evolving in the future?
It is hard to predict how this practice area will evolve, but I can say with certainty that it will continue to evolve. While we can’t say specifically what the next series of crises will be, whether criminal or regulatory, our practice will adapt to focus on the new crimes and forms of misconduct that present themselves in the future. For example, a big part of the practice now involves cybercrime and intrusions, as well as other misconduct and investigations that involve electronic communications and technology. These were essentially nonexistent a decade ago.
How important is prior criminal law experience (e.g., working for the prosecutor’s office or DA) in paving a successful career in white collar defense?
Experience as a prosecutor can be very valuable for a white collar defense lawyer. Knowing how prosecutors think and how prosecutors’ offices are organized, as well as the types of things that they will be looking for and the types of arguments that they are likely to find persuasive is very helpful to clients who are the subjects of investigations. That being said, there are many incredibly successful white collar defense lawyers who have never been prosecutors, and on the flip side, there can be a danger to thinking too much like a prosecutor. Overall, I would say it’s a helpful credential and experience to have, although certainly not critical to success.