Karen Leu is Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Burlington Stores, Inc. We recently spoke with Karen about her journey from a reluctant law student to the helm of a Fortune 500 company, the importance of authenticity, and finding a balance between personal and professional ambitions.
When we first met at the Lawyers Alliance Gala a few months ago, you told us a little bit about your journey – from being a reluctant law student to rising to lead the legal department of a Fortune 500 company. You were refreshingly candid. Tell us more about your journey to law school and beyond.
My path was not a linear one, but sometimes by following the beat of your own drum, you can reap rewards.
I always imagined that I would be in the field of international relations – not a lawyer. I felt the painful impact of the Korean War on my parents, who came to the U.S. as struggling immigrants to build a new life after their lives were torn apart, each bearing the abrupt loss of a parent.
Growing up as a first-generation born Asian American, I straddled Korean traditions and culture at home, while acclimating to U.S. society and a community where I stood out as a minority. I became passionate about using diplomacy to bring countries and cultural understandings closer. This drew me to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and pursuing a career of a Foreign Service Officer. But my dreams were dashed as my application and performance on the foreign service officer test did not succeed.
After some soul searching, I felt that the law would provide another route for me to be an ambassador of sorts – bridging gaps through international cross-border transactions. However, law school did not turn out to be an enriching experience for me, in part because of its focus on litigation, which I knew was not my path. I left law school after my first year to undertake more self-exploration, working various jobs, including waiting tables to help pay my student loans. I ultimately ended up moving from Washington D.C. and transferring to NYU School of Law to complete my law degree.
As a young BigLaw associate in New York City, I had the incredible opportunity to work on cutting-edge transactions for investment banks, but I learned that the work I enjoyed the most was helping young public companies – like a public equity offering for Duane Reade and assisting with their day-to-day corporate needs. This led me in-house, first to Tyco, and then Avon, and now Burlington. Along the way, I’ve learned to listen to my inner voice and let my values be my compass to guide me.
You are among a small group of women of color that have shattered the glass ceiling in the corporate world. Which people and experiences were instrumental to your success?
My mentors have made a difference, helping to guide me along my career path.
For example, during my days at Avon, I specialized in public company securities and governance work. After ten years in this role, a different type of opportunity came up as general counsel for their North America unit, which meant stepping away from my corporate role and taking on an operational role for a division. I was uneasy about leaving behind the expertise that I had worked over a decade to build, and rolling up my sleeves to work on wildly different things that I had less experience in – like signing up celebs to endorse a product, negotiating software and technology agreements to drive the business, and working with management to modernize a door-to-door cosmetics business.
With advice from mentors, I had the courage to take a leap of faith outside of my comfort zone and pivot in a different direction. Unbeknownst to me, that leap paid off – my generalist hat at Avon was a springboard that opened up professional doors of opportunity, including my current general counsel role at Burlington.
It is truly a gift when mentors take the time to share their candid, insightful feedback. Professional development and leadership is a lifelong journey, not a destination. And as a woman of color, some of the encouragement I’ve received along the way has made a difference, helping me to continue to strive to find my voice to use it impactfully as a trusted advisor and thought partner.
What muscles do you flex most as an in-house lawyer, and how did they vary from your work as a BigLaw associate?
There are definitely different muscles that support you in an in-house vs. BigLaw associate role.
I quickly learned to roll up my sleeves and partner with business colleagues to collaborate and drive consensus-building. No decision is risk-free and there always needs to be a balancing of competing interests – my north star has been to focus on how we can bring value to our shareholders, employees, and broader community. My position enables me to bring my own unique perspectives as a diverse lawyer to creatively address the business and legal problems we face.
A recent Debevoise Women’s Review article on Strategies to Spark Networking Success highlights the importance of building relationships, not contacts. We noticed very early into our conversation at the Lawyers Alliance Gala that you have a very authentic and open way of connecting with people. What are some of your practical tips for building sustainable long-term professional relationships?
Authenticity and compassion toward people’s full selves. I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors who have set great examples – they’ve cared about me as a person and not just as a lawyer. And that has made all the difference.
I pay it forward by taking time to establish that human connection. And where I can, I try to consider what is best for the person, not just what’s best for their career or the company, and to provide candid feedback.
I unexpectedly received one of my biggest compliments as a leader, when an associate decided to leave the legal department. I had not always seen eye-to-eye with the associate, including with respect to career path at the company. I shared my candid feedback on what would be best for the person in a lifelong journey. I still remember the moment when the associate thanked me and called me a “mensch” – a term that I was not familiar with and erroneously assumed may be negative. Rather, the associate explained that it’s a good term – to refer to a person of integrity and honor.
What are you passionate about outside of work? What are some of the hacks you’ve collected over the years to juggle all these interests and responsibilities?
I’m passionate about spending time with family and friends, while also focusing on my own holistic wellbeing. I’ve learned as we grow older, our time becomes more precious and more sought after by others. I embrace those precious moments especially with my three children (in elementary, middle and high school!) – whether it is cooking together, running around on errands or watching a television show together.
I am a firm believer in holistic wellbeing, including physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual health! I know that if I cannot nourish and take care of my whole self, I cannot take care of others well. With that in mind, I always squeeze in some time for myself every day, even if it is only 15 minutes – whether it is exercising and staying fit, reading a book on my bucket list, meditating and saying a prayer, or journaling and reflecting on what I am grateful for that day.
With the benefit of hindsight, what are three nuggets of career wisdom you would share with your younger self? And what advice would you give to other women lawyers who are inspired by your path?
To start with, be true to yourself and your purpose and passion. With purpose and passion, success will often follow. I came close to walking away from law school, but what kept me going was my passion for international relations, and the knowledge that I would be able to engage in this area through international transactions as a practicing corporate lawyer. That spark helped me persevere through uncertain times. In the long run, it reaped rewards.
Next, don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone – this will help broaden your knowledge and skillsets and position you to thrive in new situations as you evolve your career forward.
Finally, keep building your support systems as you navigate your career path. You may come across uncharted territory, but undoubtedly your mentors have navigated similar road bumps in their careers. They can support and guide, and can give you the confidence to take that leap.
Sue Meng is a partner and Julu Katticaran is an associate in Debevoise’s New York Office.
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