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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Meet Irene Kao: ‘I find value in helping people who help others’

IRENE KAO is the intergovernmental relations counsel at the League of Minnesota Cities, where she advocates on behalf of cities at the state Legislature and serves as legal counsel for the lobbying department. The League of Minnesota Cities is a membership organization serving over 830 cities through advocacy, education, and risk management. For more information, see www.lmc.org.

 

Why did you go to law school?

As a high school student and the first in my family to go to college, I said I wanted to go to law school. At that time, I said it because I was involved in mock trial and speech, but I didn’t really know why I wanted to go to law school. In college, I changed my mind and ended up going to graduate school and working at colleges and universities. It was great working to help students at an individual level, but I didn’t feel like I was able to help at a larger organizational or societal level. So I went to law school.

Tell us a little about your job with the League of Minnesota Cities, and what you find appealing about government relations work.

The League of Minnesota Cities, as a membership organization, provides education, risk management, and advocacy for all cities throughout every corner of the state. I work with small cities—such as Funkley, population 10—to our largest members of Minneapolis and St. Paul. No matter the size or where they are located in Minnesota, I have learned that cities want to serve their communities the best they can. 

When people think of lobbyists, they may think of political fundraisers and favor-swapping. One of the many things I enjoy about lobbying for the League is that we don’t have a PAC. It isn’t money that we rely on; instead, our political capital is in the expertise of our members. City officials, elected and appointed, are intimately familiar with their local communities. It’s my job to help legislators understand how their bills impact the local communities in their districts. 

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“Say what you mean and mean what you say.” I first heard this piece of wisdom when I was a teenager. It means even more now, given my line of work. I want cities to be the best they can be. That means when cities want to serve their residents and communities in better way, I attempt to smooth the way through new laws and advocacy at the state capitol. But it also means that if cities do something wrong or need to change, I need to acknowledge that as well. 

Reputation and credibility are cornerstones of being an effective lobbyist and lawyer. Heeding these wise words from my teenage years helps me be steadfast with these cornerstones. 

You have been a devoted volunteer at bar groups like the MSBA and the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association. What have you found most valuable about your involvement in bar groups?

Helping where I can. We are fortunate to be lawyers. The law affords us a lot of knowledge, and therefore power. We use that knowledge and power to help our clients and society on a daily basis. But how do we help one another? 

Be it providing a different perspective when I served on the MSBA Council, facilitating comprehensive board policy review with MN CLE in service as board chair, or helping diverse candidates with the judicial appointment process through the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association or the Infinity Project, I find value in helping people who help others every day. 

It’s a bonus that I get to meet great people along the way, some of whom have become my closest friends. 

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?

Outside of work, my bar activities, and being a supportive parent, I like to unwind by watching great television series, such as Killing Eve, Sherlock, and Luther. These shows are a good reminder that you don’t have to be perfect to be great at what you do. Being flawed is what makes the main characters so endearing.

 

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