Kimberly Hall Barlow’s Long Road to Success

As a child, Kimberly Hall Barlow’s dream was to become a veterinarian. It was a natural ambition for the child of a championship collie breeder. Ms. Barlow helped her mother look after new litters of puppies, which gave her plenty of time to devour books. She’d grab whatever was close at hand, keeping one eye on the page and the other on the pups.

Her dreams took a turn when she picked her mother’s copy of F. Lee Bailey’s classic, The Defense Never Rests. She remembers thinking, “This makes sense to me. This sounds like it would be a cool thing to do.”

She knew she wanted to become a lawyer, but she didn’t know how winding the road would be.

Keeping her eye on the prize

As a freshman at UCLA, she didn’t qualify for a dorm room, so she commuted to school each day from Fullerton. She was working, too, and after two quarters she had to drop out. 

To make ends meet she took two jobs: between opening and closing a restaurant, she put in four-hour stints as a secretary for a small firm where a friend was clerking. 

The firm offered her a full-time job, then it split apart, and at 19 she was back to looking for work. It turned out to be a lucky break.

Ms. Barlow landed at a small general practice called Shay, Stirling, Jones & Jones, where Richard Jones was a partner. In 1980, she became his secretary. In time, she’d become his first associate hire. But there was still a good deal of road to travel.

Before heading to law school, Ms. Barlow worked for two other small practices in Orange County. Despite enjoying her work as a legal secretary, Ms. Barlow still had her sights fixed on becoming an attorney. “They called me ‘Kimberly Hall, Secretary at Law’ because I was really good at what I did,” she says.

Big fish, big pond

She still needed to earn her bachelor’s degree, which she completed at Cal State Fullerton while working full time. She was seven months pregnant when she graduated and deferred her law school dream another year to have time for her baby. 

After ranking in the top one percent on the LSAT, Ms. Barlow had options, with offers of scholarships and even a full ride on the table. But her dream was to go back to UCLA, where she’d been admitted from the waiting list. 

She asked one of the partners she worked with for some advice. “I don’t know if he meant it to provoke me, but he asked me, ‘Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond?’ My reaction, at least to myself, was, ‘What makes you think I’d be a nobody at UCLA?’”

She decided to forego the money and show what kind of a fish she could be at UCLA.

Big pond, big fish

With a baby at home and working full time, Ms. Barlow had to knuckle down. “The drive from Fullerton was ghastly,” she recalls. “The other students would go play tennis or go running between classes. I had to spend my time on campus studying.”

While her classmates were finding high-paying gigs around Los Angeles, Ms. Barlow kept working for the two-person firm in Fullerton. “Working for a huge firm for a lot of money hadn’t occurred to me,” she says. 

“I remember thinking I just wanted to get by. I was expecting to be somewhere in the middle of the pack at graduation.”

She graduated third in her class.

The road was straightening out, but there were still some bumps ahead.

Clerking from the nursery

Ms. Barlow was selected to clerk for Judge Ferdinand Fernandez of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But she was also six weeks pregnant when she graduated from law school, and a few weeks after that she learned she was having twins.

“My morning sickness was terrible,” she recalls. “Chicken cacciatore was something I wanted every day.” To get through the bar exam she had to take breaks every half hour or so to leave the room to grab a snack from a cooler she’d brought along. “Everyone was saying, ‘This is never going to work. How is she going to do this?’”

With her clerkship about to begin, Ms. Barlow had to get creative to make it work. Judge Fernandez was incredibly gracious and accommodating. “He absolutely refused to consider postponing my start for a year,” Ms. Barlow says. “He wanted to make it work.”

She was in the hospital with her newborn twins when the call came from home that mail had arrived from the bar. “I asked them how much postage was on the envelope,” she says. “When they told me, I knew I had passed.”

At the courthouse they turned an office space for visiting judges into a nursery. Kim brought her babies with her to work. They became a centerpiece of life at the courthouse.

The thrill of victory

In 1991 Ms. Barlow took her first case as a litigator. Her clients were foster parents who were facing a false accusation of child abuse. “I got a judge to say out loud the words, ‘arbitrary and capricious,’” she remembers. She had to navigate the delicate work of cross-examining a child. During the break that followed the court reporter told her, “That was the best cross examination I’ve ever seen.” 

“Really?” she said. “That was my first one.”

Trying a case was exhilarating. That excitement was something she knew she would rarely get at a big law firm. 

She’d worked on a couple really big cases when she was reconnected to Richard Jones, who hired her to start the litigation practice at his firm. 

Mr. Jones reflects on Ms. Barlow joining the firm as a pivotal moment. “She was exceptionally smart and talented, and had a drive and ambition that made us all proud,” he says. “Her abilities and integrity and talents set the standard.”

The rewards of service

As Jones & Mayer has grown, Ms. Barlow’s practice has continued to evolve. She doesn’t do jury trial work anymore. “I get too wrapped up in them. I don’t eat or sleep,” she says. Instead, she focuses on what she loves most: solving problems for her clients.

“I love my city clients,” she says. “Working for public agencies brings enormous rewards, enormous challenges. We’re at the forefront of creating new law.”

“From my perspective, the satisfaction of solving a puzzle that is not of your own making, and doing it all for the public good, is more satisfying than anything.” 

The dynamism of the work is part of the appeal. “It’s something different every single day,” Ms. Barlow says. “It’s almost a happy moment when I encounter something I have done before.” As Ms. Barlow puts it, she’s a specialized generalist, and a generalized specialist. “I have to know a lot of things about a lot of topics,” she says.

The people who work in public service are a key factor in Ms. Barlow’s passion for the job. “You’d be amazed at the quality, the drive, the goodness of the people who work for the public,” she says. 

Giving back to great causes

Over the course of her career, Ms. Barlow has lent her expertise to a number of important causes beyond her day-to-day work. She has served as a board member of WTLC, a nonprofit that helps individuals and families escape domestic violence. She’s the current president of the board of Ophelia’s Jump Productions, a regional theatre company dedicated to opening access to fine art theatre to all members of the community. 

Keeping a theatre company running during the pandemic has been tough, especially with California’s AB 5 law imposing big changes to how theatre companies staff their productions. “I’ve leveraged my experience to write draft legislation and lobby for change,” Ms. Barlow says. It’s all part of making the community a better place for everyone. 

She’ll even take to the stage to support charitable causes. She’s been in a rock band since 1999. “We’re on the circuit to help organizations raise money,” she says. It’s a great way to take a break from her day-to-day work.

“I’ve been really lucky,” Ms. Barlow says. Coming from a family of strong women and hardworking, blue collar people set her on the road to where she is today. Her whole life she’s been encouraged and taught that she could be whatever she wanted to be. “That’s what makes me the luckiest,” she says.