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Walking the Talk

When it comes to diversity, Fort Lauderdale firm Kim Vaughan Lerner means business

Published in 2020 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

Listening to the partners at Kim Vaughan Lerner chime in on a freewheeling conference call feels like sitting in with siblings at a family gathering. They finish each other’s sentences, banter playfully, and correct each other’s stories about how they came into the group.

Despite that comfortable dynamic, what they most have in common is how different they are. And that, they all agree, is a cornerstone of their firm’s success.

“Nobody’s going to be able to address a particular audience perfectly,” says Robert Vaughan, the firm’s commercial litigation chair. “But with the diversity that we have, I think that we can increase the opportunities and the likelihood that we can address their particular life experiences and put our clients’ problems in the context of those life experiences.”

Diversity runs throughout the firm. Of the firm’s 10 attorneys, ranging in age from 33 to 53, seven are women and nine are minorities. Some grew up in the U.S.; some elsewhere. 

“You’re getting a diversity of not only color of skin but of gender, of a background in religion, and background in how you were raised,” says Brian Lerner, the firm’s labor and employment chair. “It allows us to really vet something and provide a unique value-add to a client.”

That’s true, they say, in all the firm’s areas of practice—commercial and employment litigation, insurance defense, products liability defense and arbitration.

Firm founder and managing partner Jay Kim took a roundabout path to the law. The son of Korean immigrants living in South Florida, Kim first went into finance, as a bank examiner for the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. He turned to the law after his parents answered a subpoena about a product they sold at their beauty supply store that, unbeknownst to them, turned out to be counterfeit.

“My dad gave probably a 30-minute depo and then they confiscated the product. My father had paid a lot of money for this product,” Kim says. “At that point, I had no idea what was allowed and what their rights were, and I felt very violated.” That helped push him toward the law.

Vaughan planned his path much earlier. Growing up in rural Jamaica, he says, he dreamed of becoming a firefighter. Then a cowboy. Then a pilot. By the time he was 7, he says, “I realized that I could be a lawyer—and pilot part time. But not the other way around.”

Lerner grew up near Miami Beach. He did a lot of acting as a kid, but he liked arguing even more.

“I always wanted to be a lawyer,” he says. “I did debate in high school, and so it just naturally fit in.”

Cherine Smith Valbrun, chair of the firm’s insurance practice group, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, thinks her path began even sooner.

“As far back as I can remember, that’s something I always wanted to do,” she says. “My mom’s explanation was maybe it was in utero, because when she was pregnant with me, she wanted to go to law school. She had a desire to be an attorney, but due to her circumstances she wasn’t able to. So her explanation is, she passed it on to me.”

The four partners’ paths crossed at Steel Hector & Davis (now part of Squire Patton Boggs). The three men were young associates. Valbrun was Vaughan’s summer intern. 

The firm was Kim’s idea, born while he and Vaughan were attending the National Institute for Trial Advocacy in Boulder, Colorado. 

“The big mystery amongst the associates was, ‘How do I try a case?’ And, ‘I can’t do it because I’m not experienced enough,’ or ‘I’m not a partner,’ or whatever this myth was,” Kim says. “So when we went out there, we discovered that we can do a trial. I remember saying to Robert out in Boulder, ‘I think I could do this on my own.’”

In 2005, Kim launched the firm with another friend. Vaughan stayed at Steel Hector for five more years before he called.

“Jay,” Vaughan recalls saying, “it’s time.”

At that moment, Kim and his original partner were in talks with Lerner about coming on board as the third name on the letterhead. “I guess we’re going to be increasing from two to four,” Kim said.

Valbrun, to hear Kim tell it, shoehorned her way in as she was finishing law school. The firm was just months old when she reached out.

“We’re like, ‘Thank you for your interest, Cherine. We’ll be in touch,’” Kim says. “She writes back and says, ‘If you’re available to meet this week, I’m available.’ So we have a quick meeting with her and, then, from that point on, she is a pit bull that will not let go.

“We’re like, ‘Oh, my God!’” Kim says with a laugh. “For the next year, we probably had, I don’t know, four meetings with her, and then the following summer she’s graduating, and of course we have to hire her.”

Almost by default, diversity became part of the firm’s DNA. 

Just as important, they say, is their commitment to community service. They’ve done beach cleanups, visited senior living facilities, organized fundraisers for foster children, and read to children in their classrooms.

 “Every single one of our people is out in the community doing voluntary bar work or pro bono work or community work at some level,” says Kim. “We definitely have a more holistic focus—a ‘let’s solve problems for our clients, but let’s also solve problems for the community.’”

The emphasis has earned them a lengthy list of accolades, individually and as a firm—including the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award and Lawyer of the Year from Broward Lawyers Care.

“Pro bono,” he says, “is about trying to get out there and fill the justice gap.”

They all have served on the boards or as active committee members of legal aid organizations and national, state and county Bar associations. 

“I don’t think there’s really any excuse or explanation not to give back, especially when we’re fortunate enough to be able to,” adds Valbrun. “I think sometimes, as attorneys, we might not recognize what a difference we can really make.”

The rewards for helping others, she says, go both ways. 

“It’s food for the soul.” 

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