The 2008 election cycle will be long remembered for a number of notable events, and Asian Pacific American (APA) attorneys found themselves playing key roles in some of the dramas that unfolded in the past year. For Karin Wang, vice president of programs at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a civil rights and legal services organization in Southern California, last November’s election represented the culmination of three years of fighting to achieve marriage equality in California. “Although we narrowly lost that battle on Election Day, our work against passage of Proposition 8 has been incredible because of the opportunity to work across issues of both race and sexual orientation, and to help shift Asian Pacific Americans toward greater acceptance of gay and lesbian issues.” She continues, “As a lawyer at a traditional civil rights group that works mainly on issues of race, immigration, and poverty, the opportunity to work as an ally to the gay and lesbian community has taught me a great deal about both leading and working in coalition.”
James Chou, senior counsel at Akin Gump Strauss, Hauer and Feld LLP, also is no stranger to election-related litigation. Primarily practicing as a commercial litigator, Chou was a principal attorney representing the New York County Democratic Committee in Lopez Torres v. New York State Board of Elections, a case involving the constitutionality of New York’s convention system for nominating judicial candidates. Ultimately, the case reached the U. S. Supreme Court, which rendered a 9-0 decision in favor of his client.
Wang and Chou are two of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s (NAPABA’s) Best Lawyers Under 40 for 2008. NAPABA released the Best Under 40 list at its national convention in Seattle last November. The group includes public servants, in-house counsel, and law firm attorneys.
“NAPABA’s Best Lawyers Under 40 list recognizes young attorneys from across the country of the highest caliber,” proclaims Andrew T. Hahn Sr., a partner with Seyfarth Shaw LLP and president of NAPABA. Jim Goh, a partner at Holland and Hart LLP and chair of NAPABA’s selection committee, agrees. “These individuals are prominent in their chosen field of legal endeavor. They have tried and won major cases; they have handled complex deals; they have received coveted judicial appointments; and they have also shown a clear commitment to community and public service, particularly for the APA community—and they have done all of this at a relatively early stage in their careers.”
This year’s honorees have made substantial contributions of their time and considerable talents to the APA community. Robert Yap, chief legal officer of Total Call International, Inc. (TCI), has been deeply involved in APA community organizations, and currently serves as a board member and vice chairman of the Asian Pacific Community Fund. This nonprofit organization raises close to $250,000 a year through workplace-giving programs and individual donations for distribution to approximately thirty APA nonprofit organizations in the Los Angeles area.
Ajay Raju, vice chair of Reed Smith’s Business and Finance Department, founded the Global Indian Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and facilitating investments in India, in 1999. Nine years later, the organization serves more than 20,000 members worldwide, and has been responsible for more than $320 million in direct foreign investments into India.
Kim Tran, a shareholder of Stafford Frey Cooper, is president of the Asian Counseling Referral Service, the largest nonprofit agency serving the APA community in the state of Washington, where she has volunteered as a naturalization teacher for ten years. She also serves as president of the Asian Bar Association of Washington, in which capacity she co-founded Washington’s Statewide Diversity Conference, a collaboration of ten minority bar associations in the state.
Members of 2008’s Best Under 40 group did not limit themselves to serving the APA community. A number of this year’s honorees have impressive records of serving the community at large.
Nimesh Patel is a senior associate at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. Prior to that, while at the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Nimesh led an investigation of the Detroit Police Department regarding allegations of excessive use of force. In addition, notes Patel, “I achieved a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court which upheld a new policy and regulation that I largely designed regarding the classification of federal offenses. The policy is used to assist in security classification of federal inmates and to determine eligibility for various programs.”
Amul R. Thapar, a United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky, is the youngest judge on the federal bench, as well as the first South Asian Article III judge. Prior to his appointment to the bench, Judge Thapar served as a United States Attorney, serving on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and a Presidential Task Force on identify theft. According to Judge Thapar, “What I enjoy most about being on the bench is working hard to make the courtroom understandable for the general public, and fun and enjoyable for the lawyers that practice there.”
Sam Yee is a career prosecutor. His practice currently focuses on fighting Medicaid fraud for the Office of the Attorney General in New York. Before that, Sam tried more than 30 homicide cases in Baltimore, Maryland, over a five-year period. Sam’s farewell party from Baltimore was a moment of pride and reflection for him about the impact he had on that community. “When I came to Baltimore, I expected it to be a short stop on the way to D.C. or New York. Instead, I stayed more than seven years. At times I wondered why I was there, and whether I was making a difference. At my farewell party, more than 100 people showed up. I saw my colleagues, members of the bench, other courthouse officials, and many police officers, both active and retired. It was then that I realized that I, and my work, had made a great difference recognized by all of these people.”
Attaining Superior Results
Each of this year’s honorees can point to significant responsibilities, cases, and deals that have shaped their practices and careers. For Linda Lu of Allstate Insurance Company, “Managing any putative nationwide class action challenging the company’s practices can be a ‘bet the company’ type case, so most of my cases are very interesting and engaging. What I like most about being a member of the law department at Allstate are the people I work with and the daily mental stimulus. I am never bored, and I learn something new every day.”
Susan Kim, a partner in Bingham McCutchen’s litigation group, enjoys cases “that present the most challenging legal or factual hurdles. Those cases force me to ‘think outside of the box’ and come up with creative solutions. I take great satisfaction in turning the tables in my client’s favor.”
Terri Motosue is one of three managing partners of Carlsmith Ball LLP, Hawaii’s largest law firm with seven offices stretching across the Pacific region. Terri currently represents a premier international resort developer in the construction of the largest condominium project in Kaanapali, Maui, in 20 years. “I’ve been involved with almost every legal aspect to this condo project,” explains Motosue, “and have had the opportunity to coordinate our firm’s team of more than ten lawyers. Working on this complex $1 billion project, and dealing with the client’s legal matters in the context of business and strategic concerns, has been immensely rewarding.”
Camilla Eng is legal counsel to the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power. Prior to that, she served as legal counsel to the city’s Department of Airports. In that role, she negotiated a global settlement of state and federal litigation filed against Los Angeles with respect to its proposed implementation of the LAX Master Plan, a $12 billion modernization plan for the fifth-busiest airport in the nation. “For nearly a year, I negotiated with numerous petitioners, including other public agencies, and had to maneuver through many obstacles,” recalls Eng. “The unprecedented global settlement was historic, and has been hailed as a significant accomplishment towards deep collaboration among significant LAX stakeholders.”
Fred Chung, a partner at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher LLP in Palo Alto, has been working on a series of patent trials in the International Trade Commission on behalf of Tessera, Inc., against a number of major semiconductor companies. “I have never been involved in such complex, multifaceted, and intense cases as these,” notes Chung. “The parties had more than 75 lawyers in the courtroom on the first day of trial. We generated thousands of pages of work product in the space of just a couple of weeks, and we ended up litigating virtually every patent-related doctrine or defense under the sun. The outcome of these cases remains uncertain, but no matter what, I feel ready to take on any patent trial after this.”
Sophia Lee, senior litigation counsel at Sunoco, Inc., in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recounts a pro bono case where she helped a woman with limited English proficiency secure a protection from abuse order. “She had suffered decades of physical and emotional abuse by her husband,” recalls Lee. “With the support and encouragement of her grown daughters, who had witnessed the acts of abuse over the years, my client finally found the courage to break away from her husband. After we secured the protection from abuse order, my client informed me that she was going to seek a permanent end to the abuse and file for divorce.”
Douglas Chia, senior counsel and assistant corporate secretary at Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey, says his most interesting case involved obtaining a grant of political asylum for a Chinese political dissident who was involved in the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. “He was granted asylum right before Thanksgiving in 1996,” recounts Chia. “Since then, I talk with him every year around Thanksgiving. He lives in Virginia now, and recently became a U.S. citizen.”
Some of the proudest moments experienced by members of this year’s Best Under 40 have come far away from the courtroom and the office. Monty Agarwal, a partner in Arnold & Porter LLP’s San Francisco office, recalls being a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote mountain village in Southern Africa in 1993: “The area was suffering from a 100-year drought. After eight months of digging ditches; cracking gravel; hauling pipe and cement across a river [and] up mountains; and quarrying stone, the village I was working with finally turned on a tap and watched the water flow from a spring nearly a mile away. The sweet taste of the mountain spring water from that tap is something I will never forget.”
Others in this year’s group count physical accomplishments among their proudest moments. Camilla Eng has climbed to the top of Machu Picchu in Peru. Fred Chung ran two half-marathons within several months “after spending most of my life being a couch potato,” he jokes.
Advancing the Concerns of the APA Community
Each honoree in this year’s group has a keen awareness of issues of concern to the APA community, and ideas of how to address them. Nearly all cite the lack of Asian Pacific Americans at the highest levels of leadership in the public and private sectors as a top concern. James Chou believes that the key to boosting the presence of Asian Pacific Americans in these positions lay in “more active mentoring, more education for the public at large about APA issues and the obstacles our community faces, as well as more advocacy on behalf of APA candidates.” Linda Lu agrees: “We need to build a pipeline towards leadership, and promote networking both within and outside of the APA community.”
Sophia Lee believes that the community is overlooked, to the point of being invisible. “It’s apparent in the lack of media coverage of APA issues and concerns, and reflected in our disproportionately small numbers on the federal bench, in key positions in government, as partners in law firms, and as general counsel in the corporate ranks.” Catherine Than, a commercial litigator with Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta, LLP, echoes Lee’s sentiments. “Unless Asian Pacific Americans become more involved in politics, our voices will not be heard and we will not have a seat at the table when laws affecting Asian Pacific Americans are crafted and enacted,” proclaims Than. “The APA community needs more get-out-the-vote initiatives and other mobilization tactics to get our views heard.”
For Judge Thapar, one of only three active Asian Pacific American Article III judges on the federal bench outside of the states of California and Hawaii, these issues call for “a more concerted effort to resolve the fracturing of the APA community both by issue and by place of origin.” He implores, “We have to keep trying harder to work together.”
James Toma, a deputy attorney general in the Consumer Law Section of the California Department of Justice, says that “Community organizations, like NAPABA, are essential to ensuring that Asian Pacific Americans have leadership opportunities, and are not held back by racial- and ethnic-based bias.”
Karin Wang of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center cautions, however, that Asian Pacific Americans must work on issues beyond those affecting their own community. “Asian Pacific Americans, like other communities of color, tend to be narrowly focused on our own issues, yet we expect other communities to help defend our rights,” she points out. “As a community, Asian Pacific Americans need to stand up for the rights of other groups, like African Americans, gays and lesbians, and others, and see how our own struggles with immigration, language, and so on are inextricably linked to the challenges facing other communities.”
Advice from This Year’s Best
When asked what advice they’d give to law students and young attorneys, Susan Kim offered that “being a great lawyer isn’t just about great work. A truly great lawyer contributes to the well-being of her colleagues and her community.”
Kim Tran suggests that young attorneys should “talk to more practicing attorneys about their work, what they like about being an attorney, and what they wish they could change about their careers. I did not realize early on how open practicing attorneys would be to giving advice to law students and young lawyers, and what I might have been able to glean from their experiences.” Douglas Chia adds, “Never feel locked into a career path. Make a conscious effort to acknowledge and shore up your weaknesses and, most importantly, always be protective of your personal and professional ‘brand.’” To sum up, concludes Judge Thapar, “Work harder and always do what you enjoy, because life isn’t long enough to be miserable.”
For those worried about how to balance career and family demands, Allstate’s Linda Lu shares her wisdom: “While it’s important to be the best you can be in both your career and family life, the most important way to achieving goals in both arenas is to not lose yourself in the process. Make sure to create time on a regular basis to feed your own passions and interests, whether that means playing a sport or reading a book. Nurturing yourself is what ultimately allows you to be the best lawyer and parent you can be." DB
Ben Lumicao is counsel at Allstate Insurance Company. He was recognized as one of NAPABA’s Best Lawyers Under 40 honorees in 2006.
From the January/February 2009 issue of Diversity & The Bar®