NAPABA's Best Lawyers Under 40 at its annual conference in Hawaii. Top (L to R): Rachel Puno, Elaine Lu, Albert Tan, Robert Kim, Paul Chan, and Luan Tran. Bottom (L to R): Judy Lam, Amy Lin Meyerson, Chirag Shah, Traci Hong, and Kenzo Kawanabe.
The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) announced its list of "Best Lawyers Under 40" for 2003 last November. This year's list recognizes up and coming Asian-Pacific American lawyers spanning a variety of practices: business litigators, transactional lawyers, in-house counsel, government prosecutors, and attorneys in public service. "Leadership, dedication, and determination — these attorneys have it all, along with a sense of community service," says Wilson Chu, a member of the selection committee and a partner with Haynes and Boone, L.L.P., a Thomas L. Sager award winner.
"NAPABA is excited to give national recognition to these rising stars. The honorees are accomplished attorneys who have demonstrated a strong interest in public service, either as their primary occupation or on their own initiative," says Jim Goh, chair of the List's Selection Committee and a partner with Holland and Hart in Denver. The full list of recipients appears on page 14 of this article.
Selecting this year's honorees, according to Goh, was a painstaking process. "We had a slew of impressive nominees, and we had to narrow our selections down to a group that we felt was truly deserving of the award based on all the criteria we've identified," says Goh.
Honors and Accomplishments
The recipients, however, are no strangers to accolades. As the then-Deputy Chief of the Major Crimes Section for the U.S. Attorneys' Office, Luis Li received the "Director's Award" for murder and RICO prosecutions involving the Mexican mafia. "It was classic organized crime," Li recalls, "a vertically-integrated, extremely well-organized gang that laundered drug proceeds through a number of businesses, profiting hugely in the process." In the end, 26 defendants were convicted.
On the private practice side, Robert C. Kim, partner, Kummer Kaempfer Bonner and Renshaw, was recently named as one of "America's Leading Business Lawyers" in Chambers USA (2003-2004 edition) and cites his work helping to revise Nevada's business entity statutes. "As part of the executive committee of the Nevada State Bar, I've found that drafting amendments to Nevada's business entity statutes is pretty rewarding," says Kim.
Similarly, Albert Tan, a transactional attorney with Haynes and Boone, L.L.P. was recognized by the Dallas Business Journal as one of the "40 Under 40 Rising Stars" and by the Texas Lawyer as one of the "40 Under 40" attorneys who are already making their mark on the Texas legal community. "We do what we can to raise the profile of the legal profession," Tan comments, "not just for the Asian-American community, but for general service to the community as a whole."
Changing America One Community at a Time
While the selection criteria emphasized excellence and achievement in his or her chosen field, the honoree's service to the community is often the more compelling story. In this regard, the work of the honorees often has had farreaching effects. A self-described "community lawyer," Zenobia Lai, managing attorney of Greater Boston Legal Services, dropped her objectivity as a Hong Kong television journalist to go to law school instead. "I wanted to play a role and I wasn't quite able to do that as a news reporter," says Lai. "Now, my work focuses on deepening the political power of the community so they become a voting block for politicians to pay attention." In particular, because many Chinese in Boston's Chinatown do not own their homes, she notes, they only have a limited say in how land is developed in their community. With Lai's assistance, the community now has a greater right to determine how the land is used. Lai also encourages community members to register to vote and educates them on how to independently exercise their voting rights so they are not always beholden to the recommendations of any single community leader. "We're changing America one community at a time," she says.
As the Asian Pacific American Legal Center's (APALC) litigation director, Julie Su, a recipient of the Reebok International "Human Rights Award" as well as the prestigious MacArthur "Genius" Award, targets sweatshops on an industry-wide scale. "Litigation is a very powerful tool to effect social change," says Su. She worked on a case where she represented 80 garment workers from Thailand who were forced to work behind barbed wire and armed guards. She successfully argued for expanding liability beyond the manufacturers who employed the workers to the retailers and designer labels. "We're not just going after garmentindustry contractors," she says, "we're also going after retailers. We're trying to create an ethic of corporate accountability across the industry."
Notably, Su also earned the workers legal immigration status by innovatively arguing that federal statutes intended to protect narcotics informants also applied to undocumented workers who exposed the criminal behavior of their employees. "I do my work because I believe so deeply that what we're doing is right," Su explains. "Ultimately, our goal is not just to win cases, but to build a better community," Su adds. Other honorees effect change in more subtle ways. Currently serving as executive director of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Advisory Committee on the Judiciary, Desirée Kim helps appoint the judges with whom the public interacts. "Because we evaluate judicial candidates based on their background, education, experience, temperament, character, and integrity," says Kim, "I have the privilege of impacting people's lives in the sense that judges may be the part of government that the public sees most often."
Public Service Inspired from Private Experience
The commitment to public service that is so prevalent among this year's honorees often stems from personal experience. Denley Chew, assistant vice president for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, credits the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) for inspiring him to become an attorney.
"As an intern for AALDEF, I saw for the first time that these ridiculous words, ‘law can be a tool for social justice,' could in fact be true," he says, chuckling. Although he has gone on to pioneer the new field of information security law "an area without 100 years of precedent that has made my job very fun," Chew remains dedicated to serving with AALDEF. "I've stayed involved with AALDEF for over 18 years now, which isn't bad for someone under 40," he says. "I want to stay with them, God willing, for at least another 18 years."
The motivation behind the public service of Luan Tran, a litigator with Lee and Tran, L.L.P., is even more intensely personal. As an 11-year-old boy, Tran was a "boat person" rescued by Doctors Without Borders, who took him to a refugee camp in the Philippines. In an emotional moment, Tran recently returned to the same refugee camp where he was once detained, this time to provide legal assistance to the detainees. "I was inspired by the westerners who once rescued me," Tran recounted, "and I believe it is an honor and a privilege to serve one's community. Pro bono service is even more significant for attorneys who are members of underserved and underprivileged communities."
Historical Challenges and Future Change
The significance of public service rings particularly true given the challenges faced by Asian-American attorneys nationwide. "Unfortunately, I don't think we live in a colorblind society. But as the U.S. becomes more diverse, these things ultimately give you strength," says Luis Li. "These problems are nothing that I want to focus on. I just want to focus on what I can do. I believe that if I try hard enough, good things will happen," Li continues.
Encouragingly, stereotypes, while still lingering, are beginning to shift. "Although Asian-American lawyers are stereotyped as smart and hardworking but not particularly good leaders, this is changing," says Paul Chan, a partner at Bird, Marella, Boxer and Wolpert. "We're altering stereotypes," agrees Amrita Dalal, counsel for GAF Materials Corporation, "and an important role will be played by organizations like NAPABA. With more outreach and more members, we can hope for great things to come in the future," Dalal argues.
The future, however, is not yet here. "Although the legal community is doing a better job with diversity," says Kenzo Kawanabe, a litigator with Davis Graham and Stubbs L.L.P., "the number of attorneys of color remains woefully inadequate," says Kawanabe.
Others concur. "If you look at the American landscape," notes Albert Tan, "the very last professions for Asian Americans to become fully integrated in and to have some representation are the areas of law and public service. Hopefully, we'll see more Asian Americans running for office." Lamentably, the paucity of Asian Americans extends to "ranks of judges as well," Amrita Dalal observes, noting the dearth of Asian American judges "east of the Mississippi."
Most recipients, however, remain hopeful about the future. Noted Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, Major Fraud Section Elaine Lu believes that "great strides" have been made. "Twenty-five years ago, you could count on one hand the number of Asian law students at any law school," says Lu. "I was only one of three Asian American law students at Duke," concurs Pauline Lee, a partner with Hale Lane. "It's nice to see there are now so many more," she continues.
These growing numbers provide an encouraging perspective. Stereotypes are "quickly changing," notes Meerie Joung, a partner with Bingham McCutchen, "and I'd love for things to change even faster. We obviously need more Asian-American attorneys in prominent positions, but I think that's going to happen. Organizations like NAPABA are crucial in this regard," Joung concludes.
Opening Doors a Little Wider
Strikingly, there is almost unanimous agreement that the best way to guarantee change is to foster the development of young attorneys. "We highlight deserving attorneys not just to recognize past accomplishments," says Debra Yang, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, and Selection Committee member, "but also because we hope to inspire new attorneys, as well as young men and women who are considering a career in law."
In this light, it is no coincidence that so many honorees emphasize the importance of mentorship. "Mentoring is critically important," notes Julie Su, a sentiment shared by Luis Li. "The toughest thing is to balance your career with your family and public service," agrees Kenzo Kawanabe. "Mentors are a vital guide on how to succeed," says Kawanabe.
The importance of mentorship is underscored by the mentoring that the honorees themselves received from more senior attorneys. Many give a respectful nod to history, acknowledging that they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. "I never realized how many older Asian- American attorneys made so many advances until I attended my first NAPABA conference," says Meerie Joung, citing the mentorship she herself received. "It gave me the sense I could advance within the profession," continues Joung.
Perhaps the best way this debt can be repaid is by looking to the future, suggests Kenzo Kawanabe. "I think it's important to remember that we're able to succeed because of those who have opened doors for us," says Kawanabe, "and we have a responsibility to open those doors a little wider."
Michael Chu practices commercial litigation with Haynes and Boone, LLP in Houston, Texas (www.haynesboone.com). He is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and is a former clerk for the Honorable Kenneth M. Hoyt (S.D. Texas).
From the January/February 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®