One Attorney’s First Year in Finance

How a background in managing bankruptcy benefited a global business consultant

Kathryn Koorenny wasn’t given a soft start when she joined AlixPartners—there was no time.

Immediately after stepping in as the international advisory firm’s general counsel and managing director, Koorenny attended a two-day orientation in Michigan. From there, she traveled to the firm’s North American retreat in Orlando, Florida. Then she headed to Italy for another regional meeting.

The company was preparing to refinance debt, and Koorenny needed to learn all aspects of the deal. Additionally, the board of directors had just introduced Simon Freakley as AlixPartners’ new chief executive officer. It was a high-pressure situation, but Koorenny is accustomed to them.

In her previous role at American Airlines, she managed chapter 11 affairs for the biggest bankruptcy case in American history.

The experience continued a theme in Koorenny’s career. She discovered a passion for bankruptcy law at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, where a bankruptcy course she took by chance sparked an unexpected passion for the field. Upon graduation, she completed a clerkship before continuing on to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as a restructuring lawyer.

In 1995, Koorenny left firm life to go in-house with American Airlines. She stayed for nearly two decades and became the iconic carrier’s associate general counsel. During her tenure, Koorenny helped the airline navigate the legal challenges associated with plane crashes, the September 11th attacks, allegations against senior leaders, layoffs, economic downturns, and other emergencies.

Though Koorenny had assumed she was leaving bankruptcy law behind, her experience became critical when American Airlines filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York on November 29, 2011.

Working her way through those challenges taught Koorenny to think calmly in chaotic situations. “I learned how to see my role and prioritize actions that will protect the interests of the company,” she says. “It’s important to identify those things and always remember that it takes a team effort to drive the best results.” She demonstrated that approach on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001, when hijackers took control of an American Airlines plane en route from Boston, Massachusetts, to Los Angeles, California, and crashed it into the World Trade Center.

Every experience, even a difficult one, is an opportunity to grow and learn new insights about your industry and about yourself.”

While she and her shocked colleagues watched the terrible images on CNN, Koorenny knew it was time to act. American’s legal team worked in overdrive to develop a strategy in a time of deep crisis and national tragedy. In the days, weeks, and months following the attacks, Koorenny—with American’s general counsel and other key players—became instrumental in developing a strategy that limited liability to the insurance in place at the time of the attacks.

In many ways, Koorenny’s two decades at American Airlines prepared her for her current role at AlixPartners. Navigating the twists and turns of litigation related to 9/11 and the company’s chapter 11 case only added to her expertise. “Every experience, even a difficult one, is an opportunity to grow and learn new insights about the world and about yourself,” she says. “You can’t always control everything in legal matters, but focusing on those aspects that you can control ensures that you add value and contribute to a better outcome.”

Earlier in her career, Koorenny mostly represented chapter 11 debtors. With the American Airlines bankruptcy, she orchestrated a successful restructuring in which creditors received 100 cents on the dollar.

Many of those creditors received interest, most employees kept their jobs, and the company was transformed. American Airlines merged with US Airways, and after negotiations with vendors, partners, labor unions, and airports, the new company emerged as the largest carrier in the world—one with a better balance sheet and new opportunities to compete.

Two years after the merger—which was made official in 2013—and soon after the full integration, Koorenny was ready for a new challenge.

AlixPartners was looking for an attorney with restructuring experience to take over as general counsel, and Koorenny saw a potential match.

Koorenny met with leaders and discovered kindred spirits. “I loved their energy and saw that AlixPartners was, and is, a dynamic, growing firm with smart and experienced people,” she says.

Koorenny became part of AlixPartners’ senior leadership team as the company welcomed a new chief executive officer. She set out to establish a strong relationship with him and simultaneously learn as much as possible about her new organization and his vision for it. “A new general counsel should take stock and understand how a team functions,” she says. “My goal in the first sixty days was to analyze what we had and figure out how we could be better for our consultants.” Koorenny added a few key members in different locations and hired one of four direct reports.

In hiring, Koorenny looks for smart and creative lawyers who can help AlixPartners move forward while minimizing risk to the firm. “I also like good lawyers who are nice people,” she says.

Koorenny believes in giving each lawyer the autonomy to do his or her job, adding “I can’t do my job if I’m trying to do their job, and their job won’t be fun if I’m micromanaging them.”

A year after joining AlixPartners, Koorenny is on solid ground. Legal is strengthening its compliance programs and helping senior leaders roll out the firm’s strategic plans.

With these changes in place, the firm is set up to find new ways to assist clients as it eyes continued growth worldwide. Koorenny and her leadership style—forged during high-profile, difficult, and emotional cases—will be a critical part of it.

with Kathryn Koorenny

Modern Counsel: Which words describe you?

Kathryn Koorenny: Tenacious and energetic.

MC: What do you believe is possible that others don’t?

KK: I believe the impossible can happen because I’ve seen so many incredible things come true that people said would never come true. It just takes hard work.

MC: What is your favorite legal term and why?

KK: It’s not exactly a Latin legal term, but I think of, “No good deed goes unpunished.” That’s one they don’t exactly teach you in law school, but you learn it quickly after graduation.

MC: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

KK: I’ve had great mentors in my career, and many of them have stressed the need to always prepare and to always bring your A-game.