Fireside Chat with Joon Kim, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York

By:  Albert W. Suh, Esq.
Co-Chair, Young Lawyers Committee

Tucked away between the Beaux-Arts grandeur of the Manhattan Municipal Building and the imposing brutalist cube of One Police Plaza is a neat and unassuming gray office building. Yet within that building sit some of the brightest legal minds and one of the most powerful law enforcement offices in the United States – the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York – and at the top sits a man who, similarly, betrays little of his expansive influence and accomplishments behind his clean lines and unassuming demeanor. 

He may be one of the most powerful attorneys in America, leading an office of more than 200 federal prosecutors, but Joon Kim, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York doesn’t let that faze him. With humility, grace, and candor, Joon continues the outstanding work and tradition of the federal prosecution office of the Southern District of New York.

Joon Kim has served in various capacities at the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York for roughly a decade. He began his legal journey at Harvard Law where he first took interest in the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices during a Federal Criminal Prosecution class. From there, he went on to clerk for the Honorable Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum in the Southern District of New York. It was there, as a law clerk, that Joon solidified his decision to become an Assistant U.S. Attorney (“AUSA”), after observing the high levels of skill and excellence that the AUSAs demonstrated.  As an AUSA, Joon rose through the ranks for six years to become a prosecutor in the Organized Crime and Terrorism Unit, successfully working on prosecutions against numerous violent criminal organizations and leaders, such as John Gotti and Sui Min “Frank” Ma.

Joon left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2006 to pursue a career at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP as a partner in white-collar criminal defense and regulatory enforcement. When asked about the transition from prosecution to defense and back, Joon says easily that there was no difficulty for him in transitioning because of his firm belief in the justice system and a central tenet of that system is, in his words, a “good, fair, robust, and vigilant defense.” However, even while at Cleary Gottlieb, Joon longed to return to public service, his lifelong passion.

Joon is driven and inspired by the example of his father, who served as a diplomat for the Republic of Korea. Joon always knew that he wanted to emulate his father in dedicating his life to serving his nation—South Korea, for the father, and the United States for the son. Joon’s young life overseas, with years spent in Korea, Jordan, and the UK as he followed his father’s diplomatic missions, also provided him with a greater sense of perspective, he says. In engaging such varying cultures, Joon learned to embrace perspectives not his own. As a prosecutor, he says that this has helped him pursue justice more effectively by allowing him to place himself in the shoes of witnesses, jurors, and even defendants. It’s an approach that has won him not just his cases but also the admiration and respect of colleagues, victims, and even adversaries.

In 2013 Joon returned to the SDNY at the behest of then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. In announcing Joon’s return to the office, Mr. Bharara said in an email to his staff: “For those of you who don’t know Joon, you will find him to be smart, thoughtful, and funny, in addition to being an exacting lawyer with unerring judgment.” It’s a sentiment that has held firm over the years. As Mr. Bharara left the office and later at his first public appearance, at the Cooper Union, he reiterated that he felt that the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York was in good hands with Joon.

From his position as Chief Counsel, Joon went on to become the Chief of the Criminal Division, then the Deputy U.S. Attorney, and finally to the position of Acting U.S. Attorney. Yet through it all, when asked about his greatest achievements, Joon humbly hearkens back to his days as a line-prosecutor in the Organized Crime Unit. For Joon, taking down violent gangs was a fulfillment of his promise to serve the public – to hold accountable those who preyed upon the innocent, those who hurt people with impunity and without remorse. Of course, he is also very proud of the more recent directions that both he and the office have taken, in aggressively and successfully pursuing white-collar criminals, terrorism, and public corruption.

When asked about the future of the office, Joon expressed his faith in the 227 year-old institution of the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York in fiercely and independently seeking justice. He fully intends to continue that tradition, applying the width and breadth of his experience to making sure that the office continues its proud tradition of “doing the right thing,” as they say.

As for himself, Joon simply says that he’ll see what happens next. In the meantime, Joon hopes to see and to inspire more vibrant Asian American participation in public life, whether through public service and public interest work or through more engagement in public discourse. In his dedication to justice and his excellence in service to the public, Joon Kim continues to set the example – and the bar – for Asian American attorneys throughout New York and beyond.

This article was originally published in the 2017 Spring edition of The AABANY Advocate, which can be found on our website here.