A college internship with his hometown congressman set the course for John Kim’s early career. The internship, with Fred Upton of Michigan, landed Kim a job offer that took him across the country almost as soon as he had his diploma in hand.
“I hopped in my car two weeks after graduation and drove to DC to start that job,” Kim remembers. “It was an entry-level staff assistant job on Capitol Hill. I ended up staying there for a couple of years and holding a bunch of different roles, from managing the congressman’s schedule to giving tours of the Capitol to handling constituent mail.”
Beyond aligning with his interest in government and politics, Kim’s time on the Hill cemented his desire to become a lawyer. “I got to know the staff attorneys who supported various Congressional committees and realized that they were the subject matter experts—the ones really getting into the nitty-gritty of drafting and understand legislation,” he says. “That influenced my decision to go to law school. I wanted to have some real expertise.”
Kim has come a long way since then. He now serves as assistant corporate secretary and lead counsel of corporate governance, finance, and securities at General Motors (GM), where he prioritizes relationship-building to help the business achieve its strategic goals. Joining the storied auto manufacturer also brought him back to Michigan—a move that inspired him to deepen his connections to the community he hopes to call home for the foreseeable future.
He remained involved in the national political landscape throughout his time in law school. While studying at Georgetown Law, Kim worked on both the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. His experience on the committees made him consider staying on the Hill in the long-run, but, at the urging of his mentors, he first tested the waters at a law firm—and he never looked back.
Kim entered private practice at Latham & Watkins while the US was in the throes of the 2008 financial crisis. “Perhaps counterintuitively, I was super interested in finance and capital markets because that was the topic of the day,” he says. “Latham has a strong private equity and capital markets and M&A practice in DC, and I had a really great experience there.”
After over six years honing his finance expertise on high-profile capital markets projects, Kim was ready for his next challenge. “GM was looking for a securities lawyer at a time when I was really thinking about moving in-house,” he recalls. “It was 2016, so the electric vehicle push was just starting to ramp up, and it was a role where I would have an opportunity to leverage the capital markets work that I’d done while learning a lot more on the public company reporting and governance front.”
Kim joined GM during a period of change in the legal function. The internal shifts that occurred over the first few years of his tenure allowed him to take on progressively greater responsibility and broaden his scope to encompass corporate governance matters as well as securities and finance.
Along the way, Kim had a chance to contribute to a range of projects of significant importance to the company, such as a proxy contest that got underway shortly after he came on board. He points to efforts to revamp GM’s proxy statement and bolster its virtual annual meeting as other major successes for him and his team. “We’ve really put some rigor around our shareholder engagement, and that’s helped drive strong results at our annual meeting, where our shareholders by and large overwhelmingly support the management team on our various proposals and initiatives,” he adds.
Kim’s grasp of GM’s business is apparent to his external partners, as well. “GM is lucky to have John,” says Keith Townsend, partner at King & Spalding LLP. “His exceptional grasp of corporate governance, capital markets and securities issues coupled with his deep knowledge of the business makes him an invaluable asset to the company. John also has an ‘x factor.’ He is gifted with incredible judgment and charisma. His clients seek his input knowing the end result will be better because of it.”
Since much of his role revolves around supporting GM’s board of directors, Kim has made sure to establish close ties to those individuals and to colleagues throughout the business. “I try to prioritize and emphasize my—and my whole team’s—role as a connector point across the business, across the management team, and with the board of directors,” he says. “I focus on building strong personal relationships so my clients and the board know that I’m dedicated to doing everything I can to help them achieve their goals.”
In facilitating those goals, Kim has played a part in initiatives that will touch not just GM, but the world at large. “I’m proud to lead a team that’s done some really strong work around financing our electric future. We supported a two-billion-dollar US Department of Energy loan with our joint venture, Ultium Cells LLC, which makes cells for our batteries and helped develop GM’s Sustainable Financing Framework and launch its first ever green bond,” he says. “Both were a large undertakings and important projects for the company.”
“John is fantastic to work with,” adds Jean M. McLoughlin, partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. “He is a very talented attorney with strong technical skills and brings a valued commercial approach. He is deeply committed to helping GM realize its most important goals and always has his eye on the big picture.”
Kim has made a point of giving back to the community in other ways as well. He is a member of the board of trustees for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, an organization as committed to local outreach as it is to world-class classical music. “One of the things I can lend to these sorts of civic organizations is my corporate governance experience,” he says. “I hope that I can leverage my connections at GM and in the legal profession for fundraising and awareness and that I can get more people in my cohort to come down to Detroit and learn about the organization.”
For the accomplished attorney, engagement has been key to finding meaning in his work, inside and outside of GM. “The more you can get invested in the mission of your internal clients, the more you’ll find the purpose behind the work that you do,” he emphasizes. “My advice to aspiring in-house attorneys is to dive into the industry, follow your company in the news, and ask thoughtful questions of your clients. There will be times when you’ll be thrown into the deep end, but if you take those opportunities and really knock them out of the park, it’ll lead to more and more interesting work.”
Kim speaks from experience and from the perspective of someone who is exactly where he is meant to be. “For better or worse,” he says, “this is what I was born to do.”