Profiles in Practice: Irene Kao

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Irene Kao has always been fascinated by people and personalities. According to StrengthsFinder, her own personality strength is an “includer,” which is certainly evident throughout her many achievements. Kao is a first-generation college student and the daughter of immigrant parents. She was born and raised in Fergus Falls, where her parents settled and opened a family restaurant. Kao dreamed of moving to a large city after high school. She attended the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, where she earned dual bachelor’s degrees in psychology and English literature. Kao later earned a master’s degree at the University of Maryland, where the program focused on diversity and social justice, and counseling. She uses these skills in her current position as she counsels her clients. 

After achieving her master’s degree and working her first professional job, Kao and her son returned to Minnesota to be near her family. She served as the assistant dean of students at Macalester College, before attending law school at Hamline University School of Law. When Kao started law school, she was confident that it would open doors to new opportunities for her to serve the public. Kao did not sit back and wait for doors to open though. She became a summer associate with a large Twin Cities law firm, where she worked closely with the managing partner on cases involving higher education issues.

In that position she was able to use her past experiences working in higher education to excel. Kao also sought out externship opportunities with judges in federal and state courts. As an extern, Kao had the rare opportunity to contribute to a state district court written opinion in which she enjoyed figuring out the complexities of the case. Kao has fond memories of each of these incredible experiences.

In her third year of law school, Kao began clerking for the League of Minnesota Cities, where she currently serves as intergovernmental relations counsel.  Kao recalls particularly disliking her political science courses in college, but now, ironically, finds herself working hand in hand with politicians. When asked how she can reconcile disliking political science and enjoying political work, Kao shared that she appreciates that in order to create meaningful change, it is important to engage in policy making and develop good relationships with legislators and stakeholders. 

She serves as an in-house lobbyist and legal counsel for the lobbying department at the League of Minnesota Cities, where she educates and provides information to the Legislature. Every year, legislators have thousands of bills in front of them and no one can be an expert on all of them. Kao acknowledges that she does not have control over the Legislature’s decisions, but she prides herself on helping legislators understand how these bills impact cities. She stated, “At the end of the day, for me the job is about helping cities fully think through issues as they develop legislative policies that drive my work at the Capitol, but it also is about relationship building with legislators and legislative staff so that they can make the most informed decisions possible.” 

Kao loves working for the League of Minnesota Cities for many reasons, although it is not always easy. She particularly appreciates the organization’s reputation and credibility. Kao’s colleagues have worked for the League of Minnesota Cities for a long time and they have developed respect around the Capitol because of what they represent. It took years of being reasonable and working with integrity to earn the reputation they have. Kao hopes that she contributes to this good reputation and earned credibility.

As a lobbyist, Kao is an advocate. She is constantly thinking many steps ahead to help shape good policy and predicting potential issues. She is not afraid to ask tough questions, and she is not shy about saying “no.” She believes that a good lobbyist is reasonable and provides his or her own perspective, but also allows other perspectives. Much of Kao’s work is people centric and relationship building. When presented with a new issue area or area of the law, she consults with the city experts and stakeholders, establishes relationships, or relies on existing relationships to achieve satisfactory results for everyone involved. Kao understands that organizations will each have unique perspectives, and her goal is to make sure all the relevant perspectives have a spot at the table. Kao believes that the process matters as much as the result.

In addition to being a full-time lobbyist, Kao serves as the president for the Infinity Project, an organization that strives for greater gender and racial diversity in the Eighth Circuit judiciary. She believes that women are not always the best at promoting themselves, so she encourages candidates to be a judge. She has also served on the board of the Minnesota State Bar Association, the board chair of Minnesota Continuing Legal Education, the president of the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and the Deputy General Counsel of the National Asian Pacific Bar Association. She loves serving such worthwhile organizations, and these organizations have recognized Kao’s contributions through numerous awards, including a national Best Under 40 Award and Minnesota Lawyer’s Diversity & Inclusion Award. 

Kao’s achievements came from hard work. As a first-generation college student and daughter to immigrant parents, as well as a single mother, Kao earned her achievements by figuring out who she is, surrounding herself with good people, and being strong and resilient through many challenges. Kao’s purpose is to continue building meaningful relationships and giving back to the communities she serves.  

by Chelsea Barr

chelseab@hllawfirm.com

Chelsea Barr is a family law and estate planning attorney at Heimerl & Lammers. She is passionate about helping families navigate some of the most stressful and sensitive times of their lives. Barr earned her J.D. from the University of St. Thomas School of Law where she developed her passion for service and giving back to the community.