Some attorneys might put the scales of justice on the back of their business cards. Some, maybe a gavel or an architectural column. Donald H. Kiolbassa put a photo of himself wielding two katanas in a three-piece suit against the Chicago skyline.
It’s a fitting image for the real estate attorney and certified public accountant who moonlights as video game characters like undead ninja Scorpion in the “Mortal Kombat” franchise and Batman in the “Injustice” series.
Kiolbassa, of Donald Hyun Kiolbassa Attorney At Law Ltd., is a martial arts champion, an author and a video game motion-capture artist.
Kiolbassa started studying martial arts at the age of 4, as he needed something to keep him busy after kindergarten. He got serious about it as a teenager when he wanted to discourage bullies in Chicago Public Schools from picking on him or beating him up on the bus.
He graduated from The John Marshall Law School in 2006 and, as he was waiting for the bar exam, entered a martial arts tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. He won his adult division using rare weapons and sparring.
One of the tournament’s sponsors, a media division of martial arts supplies company Tiger Claw, was so impressed by his skills that it offered Kiolbassa an instructional martial arts DVD deal. In “Rope Dart,” Kiolbassa goes step-by-step through the basics of spinning a metal dart attached to 15 feet of rope.
Kiolbassa explains his moves in English, which he said helped the DVD’s popularity in China where many people are interested in rope dart and also wanted to practice English with a native speaker.
The video caught the attention of one of China’s biggest martial arts superstars, who shared it with one of the oldest martial arts institutions in the world.
Donnie Yen is known in the United States for the “Ip Man” movies and his role in the upcoming film “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Kiolbassa said Yen’s team showed the video to the martial arts monks at the Shaolin Temple, and the monks invited him to study with them in 2007.
At the time, Kiolbassa had recently started working at a law firm, but he said the invitation would make him one of few foreigners to enter the inner part of the Shaolin Temple.
“I went to go talk to my managing partner about it, and he was like, ‘You have to go,’” Kiolbassa said.
He described the training as “brutal,” “excruciating” and “incredible.” The monks woke him up at 4:30 a.m. every day. He burned between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day and ate the monks’ vegan diet. In his book, Kiolbassa describes carrying buckets of water up a mountain to water a tree, breaking a brick with his bare hand and making beds.
Now 36, he still attributes his martial arts skill level to those 40 days at the Shaolin Temple.
Kiolbassa developed a popular following in China and starred in a prime time Thursday night television show that included a dance competition. The show generated 375 million views and advertised his face on bus stops, subways and billboards.
In 2008, Kiolbassa won gold for the United States at the third World Traditional Wushu Championships at Wudang Mountain, China. That sport’s championship and its contemporary counterpart are the most elite wushu competitions, as the exhibition and full-contact sport is not part of the Olympic Games.
Shortly after the tournament, someone at Warner Bros. Entertainment saw a video of Kiolbassa fighting.
That’s how Kiolbassa added video game fighter to his growing list of titles.
“Did you ever see ‘Mortal Kombat’(s’) Scorpion?” Kiolbassa asked. “‘Get over here!’ That’s me who does that.”
For eight hours a day, Kiolbassa and other athletes put on motion-capture suits — all-black suits with white balls that track movements — and threw down. Kiolbassa started with “Mortal Kombat IX” and has since worked on the “Mortal Kombat” series and the superhero-themed “Injustice” series.
Everyone on the set knew Kiolbassa was an attorney and CPA when not training with wrestlers and boxers to perfect his Batman-style attacks, so he took calls during breaks from the eight-hour days and worked on his laptop in the back. In fact, he said he did some budgeting work for “Injustice: Gods Among Us” in addition to choreography.
Kiolbassa developed a following of video game fans. However, looking at the line of people waiting to buy his autograph at video games stores, he said he was shocked to see some kids who he thought shouldn’t be playing extremely violent video games. He wanted to provide some moral guidance, and so he set out to write a book on martial arts principles for character development.
In “Discover Your Dragon,” a fifth- or sixth-grade level book that published in 2012, Kiolbassa describes lessons learned from his work at the Shaolin Temple. He published under the pen name KungFu-Cious — as in “kung fu consciousness” — and writes about getting disciplined, holding himself accountable, persisting in the face of failure and building confidence.
He priced the book at $9.99, cheaper than the $20 video gamers would otherwise have to pay to get his head shot autograph, and gave away head shot autographs along with the book to incentivize kids into reading it.
He’s since visited more than 200 schools to talk about the book, showing off some moves and teaching kids some martial arts while he’s there and been on European and American book tours.
The book has helped him focus on his goal to give opportunities to motivated people. He said he got interested in the law as a way to level the playing field despite growing up poor.
He also said he was concerned with gender inequity issues and, since he himself struggled so much to land a law job after graduating law school, fostering young lawyers.
“If you’re a friend of his or you’re a good guy in his family, he will do everything in his power to help you,” said Joe Bachewicz, a real estate developer in Chicago who works with Walgreen Co. to create new stores. He’s also Kiolbassa’s cousin.
When Bachewicz had a lot of legal work and forensic accounting piling up, Kiolbassa took care of everything.
“He’s the best,” Bachewicz said.
Kiolbassa struck out as a sole practitioner with a laptop and a printer in 2014 and has since hired a staff and two full-time attorneys.
He said he runs the practice like a martial arts studio with a transparent road map of how to advance up the hierarchy. The training is hard, but everyone knows what benefits it gives. He considers himself an anchor coach for his attorneys and encourages them to seek additional mentors who can offer other expertise. Like how he has martial arts apprentices and is careful to avoid getting injured, he invests in coaching his team to get them better and better.
“Whether you’re a part of my martial arts team or my law team, you have to beat me at something,” he said.
He promotes a work/life balance, which he said helps him connect with younger generation clients and potential employees. While maybe baby boomers would have kept martial arts separate from the legal practice, Kiolbassa said his clients who know about him generally say it’s awesome.
“I want other younger attorneys to know that it is possible to be very happy in law and have an incredible career and to do things outside of your career to promote your own happiness,” he said.