NAPABA named its “Best Lawyers Under 40” for 2007 at its annual convention last November in Las Vegas, Nev. Awardees included (left to right): Jennifer Choe Groves, Khin Mai Aung, Harmeet Dhillon, Vincent A. Eng, Theodore Cheng, Tung Chan, Shirish Gupta, Minh-Duc (“Ducie”) T. Le, Patricia Lin, Marty Lorenzo, Emily Kuo, Judith Kim, Thuy Thi Nguyen, Garner Weng, and William Yu. Not pictured: Christine Chi, Sharon Hwang, Colin Owyang.
As an assistant U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, Colin Owyang prosecuted both Al Qaeda-trained shoe bomber Richard Reid and mobster Stephen Flemmi (aka “the Rifleman”). The efforts of Owyang and his colleagues in the Flemmi case were recognized by Attorney General John Ashcroft, who presented them with the Attorney General’s Award.
Now assistant general counsel for commercial litigation at National Grid, Owyang says that handling the high-profile prosecution of a terrorist like Richard Reid “brought me into close interaction with government servants at a variety of law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies who are vastly underappreciated yet still work to ensure our safety and freedom every day.”
Theo Cheng, a litigator who recently joined Proskauer Rose LLP, represented songwriters and music publishers in MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. “It was a copyright infringement action alleging secondary liability against peer-to-peer unlicensed Internet file-sharing companies,” Cheng explains. “On behalf of songwriters and music publishers, I managed all aspects of the litigation, including proceedings before the Supreme Court of the United States.” Cheng says, “The Court ultimately issued a landmark 9-0 ruling setting forth standards for inducement liability under the Copyright Act.”
Owyang and Cheng are just two of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) Best Lawyers Under 40. NAPABA released the Best Under 40 list at its national convention in Las Vegas in November—the group includes public servants, in-house counsel, and law firm attorneys. “NAPABA’s Best Lawyers Under 40 list recognizes the best young attorneys throughout the country,” says Jim Goh, chair of the Selection Committee and a partner with Holland and Hart, LLP. Les Jin, executive director of NAPABA, concurs: “These individuals have not only attained prominence in their respective legal endeavors, they have also exhibited steadfast commitment to community and public service, particularly in the Asian Pacific American community. They have climbed high up the ladder of success; they have tried and won major trials; they have handled complicated deals; they have been entrusted with the responsibility of heading national practice groups; they have made significant contributions to the public sector—and they have done it all at a relatively early stage of their careers.”
This year’s honorees are noted especially for their accomplishments and dedication to serving the needs of the Asian Pacific American (APA) community. Khin Mai Aung is an attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), where she directs the Educational Equity and Youth Rights Project. When three veteran Cambodian and Latino teachers in Lowell, Mass., were fired after discriminatory English fluency testing, Aung sought and won reinstatement, full back pay and retroactive benefits for all of them.
Besides the Grokster litigation, Cheng says his proudest career moment was “handling the summation before a jury in a case representing a Nepalese domestic worker.” Cheng’s representation of the woman’s claims of abuse at the hands of her employers resulted in an award of $206,000 in compensatory damages and $20,000 in punitive damages. He says, “It was so gratifying to fight for someone’s rights and to know that justice was served.”
Harmeet Dhillon, managing partner of Dhillon and Smith in San Francisco, has the decision from her first case framed on the wall of her office. Dhillon recalls, “I obtained asylum for Mohammed Tariq, a refugee from Kashmir whose family had been killed by the military. He was detained in Queens, N.Y., in a federal detention facility during his exclusion proceedings. Over the course of several months, I won his trust, his freedom, and a chance at a peaceful life after a trial before a federal immigration court. Handing my client a one-way ticket I bought for him myself, so that he could go stay with his only living relatives, was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
— Les Jin, Executive Director, NAPABA
NAPABA’s Best Under 40 lawyers aren’t just noted for their contributions to the APA community in the courtroom. Thuy Thi Nguyen, whose family fled Vietnam as refugees when she was only two years old and eventually settled in Oakland, Calif., co-produced a publication entitled 25 Vietnamese Americans in 25 Years, which is archived at the Library of Congress. Her many community service efforts ultimately led the mayor of Oakland to proclaim a day in her honor.
But while some have been inspired to serve the public as attorneys, one member of the Best Under 40 says it was a personal example of public service that inspired her to become an attorney in the first place. Minh-Duc (“Ducie”) Le, assistant general counsel at Capital One, served as a fellow of the ABA Business Law Section and a board member of the Domestic Violence Resource Project. She credits her father’s concern for the Vietnamese community with inspiring her career choice. Le recalls, “I was a young child living in the Washington, DC, area at the end of the Vietnam War, and my father pulled me out of kindergarten one morning to stand outside of the White House and pass out leaflets aimed at spreading awareness about the devastating situation faced by thousands of Vietnamese refugees who were stranded at sea or in refugee camps. I later realized that what my father, who was also a lawyer, taught me that day was one of the most powerful lessons I’d ever learned. As a solo practitioner, he dedicated countless hours to providing advice and help for many individuals. I remember seeing the looks of appreciation on the faces of the numerous people he helped.”
NAPABA’s Best Under 40 attorneys can point to the tangible results their lawyering skills have produced for clients. Emily Kuo, associate general counsel at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, was originally trained as a litigator. But in her first year in-house, she entered the arena of transactional law, negotiating a $250 million construction and services deal with a manufacturing company in China. “[The deal] ultimately led to a significant equity stake in the Chinese company’s projected multibillion dollar IPO,” says Kuo.
Bill Yu, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Chicago, recalls being asked to co-chair a complex product liability trial at the last minute. “I had to completely immerse myself to get up to speed and was responsible for half of the many witnesses. We obtained a verdict for our client,” says Yu.
Marty Lorenzo, a corporate and securities partner in DLA Piper’s San Diego office, cites “the ability to do a 144A note transaction for a client (a few months after they went public) and nearly simultaneously doing an M&A deal to purchase the oldest company on the New York Stock Exchange. Nothing proves true client satisfaction as strongly as an invitation to return—and both deals were extremely significant in helping me shape the practice I have today.”
Patricia Lin, counsel in the Environmental Practice Group of Chevron’s law department, sees the importance of her role in “leading the legal team providing support to Chevron’s Environmental, Social and Health Impact Assessment standard process, which was created to help all of Chevron’s capital projects around the world be examples of world-class performance.”
Jennifer Choe Groves works for the White House as director for intellectual property in the Office of the United States Trade Representative. Her work takes her around the globe. “I’ve negotiated several international treaties on behalf of the United States and have led numerous U.S. delegations in negotiating intellectual property chapters of free trade agreements in the Middle East and Asia,” Groves says. “It’s always interesting negotiating with foreign countries, from a political, cultural, intellectual, and personal perspective. I learn a great deal about each country’s economy, politics, and culture, and meet many interesting foreign officials in my work.”
Judy Kim, assistant general counsel for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., works on the real estate operations team, handling general corporate, climate change and energy matters for the company. She says her responsibility for advising the client on energy issues has “given me the opportunity to work on cutting edge issues such as climate change and renewable energy projects. It’s exciting to come to work and pursue projects where I also have a personal interest, such as sustainability.”
Shirish Gupta, a senior litigation associate at Mayer Brown, is in the midst of a number of stock option backdating disputes, representing special committees, officers and directors. “It’s exciting working on these high-profile cases, especially when you get to work directly with the senior executives.” Recently, he helped secure the dismissal of securities fraud class action claims against several of his clients.
Tung Chan, the securities commissioner of Hawaii, counts all the citizens of the state as her clients. She led the effort to pass Act 95, one of the first state laws in the nation that increased penalties for securities violations against seniors, a measure that a number of states and the U.S. Senate are now considering. Her office also has worked with the Securities and Exchange Commission to initiate the first major case resulting from a nationwide sweep to protect senior investors and expanded investor education outreach to more than 60,000 seniors in 2007 alone.
Thuy Thi Nguyen, general counsel for Peralta Community College District, helped reach a settlement in an eminent domain case for the building of the new Berkeley City College, which provided an estimated benefit to the college district of $1.9 million. She says her negotiation of the deal was important “not just because of the high acquisition costs involved, but because of a long-standing promise to the community that a new campus would be built.” Ultimately, it was this level of service that led to Nguyen’s appointment as general counsel in a unanimous vote by the board of trustees.
For Sharon Hwang, a partner at McAndrews, Held & Malloy in Chicago, her proudest moment was her first jury trial victory. She recalls, “In addition to the regular stresses of trial, I had left my four-month-old baby at home for the first time ever to serve as second chair for a contentious patent infringement trial, and our lead attorney fell ill during the trial. I stumbled through my first cross-examination of a very experienced expert witness. Our team was somehow able to persevere, and the extra stress made our victory so much sweeter!”
A Sense of the Community’s Needs, A Source of Community Strength
Despite their accomplishments, many members of the Best Under 40 noted concerns about issues facing Asian Pacific Americans in corporate America. To Colin Owyang, “The first step is to firmly establish and maintain APA issues as one set of concerns in the broader context of any discussion about diversity.” For Garner Weng, a partner at Hanson Bridgett’s San Francisco office, the advancement of APAs in the legal profession is a particular concern: “Though there has been some progress at the entry level, such as the junior associate ranks in law firms, the number of APAs at the partner ranks lags behind, particularly in firm leadership, among general counsel of prominent corporations and among judges.”
Patricia Lin agrees: “The numbers of APAs in senior management are still not reflective of the community at large. I believe that those numbers can be increased and the pipeline to leadership roles can be primed by encouraging a wholesale opening of the APA community and culture to the mainstream—mentoring, networking, cultural exchange, internships, and other programs all can help improve the way corporate America evaluates its APA professionals.”
Vincent Eng, deputy director of the Asian American Justice Center, says that the most gratifying moment in his legal career arose from his efforts to help maintain a pipeline for all minority students to professional careers through his work on the Asian American amicus brief in support of the University of Michigan and affirmative action in the Gratz and Grutter cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. “The brief was joined by nearly 30 Asian American organizations, an unprecedented level of unity and support from the APA community on a legal brief,” says Eng.
Emily Kuo believes a greater sense of unity among APAs—such as the support generated for Eng’s amicus brief—is critical. Kuo says, “There’s certainly a place for separate Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, South Asian, and other groups, and I recognize that the separate groups have unique and differing concerns, but we should also make a better effort to reach out to one another and find more common ground for discussion. This would help APAs have a stronger, more unified national voice, especially politically.”
Christine Yong-Hwa Chi, a litigation partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf in New York, sees a deeper concern with the needs of APAs in the legal process generally. “There are issues with all aspects of access to justice,” observes Chi, “including the number of APA judges on the state and federal level, participation by the APA community in the jury pool, and the lack of adequate court interpreters to serve the needs of APA litigants, crime victims, and witnesses. There are no quick fixes. The work done by bar associations, such as the Asian American Bar Association of New York, on judicial screening panels, public education efforts, and organized communication with the legislature and the bench are a start.”
Theo Cheng agrees with Chi, adding, “We need to encourage APA youth to consider possible career paths in politics and in the judiciary, and to participate in politics—at every level—so that we can develop a broad base of interest and support.” Harmeet Dhillon says, “I think that APAs must try to increase their influence in the political process, which in most states and at the federal level is the key to getting candidates recognized and promoted to the bench.”
Marty Lorenzo, a partner at DLA Piper who has served in the Marine Corps reserves for nearly two decades, wants a spotlight on warriors of a different generation, focusing on the plight of Filipino World War II veterans. “Americans have forgotten that the Philippines was a U.S. territory before, during, and after World War II. Filipinos fought under the U.S. flag under military orders issued by President Roosevelt even before the attack on Pearl Harbor. These veterans fought proudly alongside and under the command of U.S. forces, but then were denied veterans benefits promised by the same government they took an oath to defend. When Congress passed the Rescission Act of 1946, it even went out of its way to single out Filipino veterans, saying that the efforts of these brave men would not count as active service entitling them to veterans benefits, despite their bloodshed and struggles in some of the most ferocious combat of the war.” Lorenzo urges passage of a bill before Congress that would grant full veteran status to the Filipino veterans who are still alive. He says, “The number of Filipino veterans has dwindled from well over 200,000 at the beginning of the war to about 5,000 in the United States and 12,000 in the Philippines, and even the youngest are in their late 70s, with most in their 80s and 90s. There’s a Filipino veterans equity bill, Senate Bill 1315, headed for a floor vote. Among other things, the bill would restore pension and other benefits for these veterans with nonservice or noncombat disabilities.” An impassioned Lorenzo adds, “The bill still falls short of treating all the Filipino veterans on par with the U.S. veterans they fought alongside, but after 61 years of this injustice, honor requires nothing less than enacting this bill into law.”
Keeping the Past and Themselves in Perspective
This year‘s honorees have a wide range of interests and achievements outside the legal field. For Emily Kuo, her proudest moment isn’t her climb thus far up the corporate ladder, but “reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.”
Patricia Lin is an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer. “I’ve unfortunately also been witness to the appalling disappearance of sharks from the oceans,” Lin says. “They are being harvested from the seas in numbers that cannot be replenished. It makes you hope people will do what they can to conserve nature’s balance.”
Ducie Le says, “People are often surprised to learn that I’m a black belt in Shotokan karate, which is a traditional Japanese style of karate that focuses on the core abilities of strength and power. The seven years of training it took to achieve my black belt instilled in me a strong sense of discipline and persistence that has also greatly benefited me in my career. You learn quickly in karate to recover from a hit [and] to continue the fight.”
Still, they don’t take themselves too seriously, even with their accomplishments and accolades. Bill Yu remembers being on an episode of Good Morning America. “I was just out of college and in my 20s and appeared in a group segment called ‘Attitudes Toward Dating in the Nineties.’ I didn‘t have much to offer the audience.” Marty Lorenzo says, “I was drafting a memo to a client about the strategy we should follow on a deal. I was in the ‘zone,’ and the thoughts were sprouting from my mind and onto my computer. My third grader son looked over at me with wide eyes and said, ‘Wow…your fingers are like ninjas on the keyboard.’ I beamed with pride.”
Many of the honorees count their parents among their primary role models. For Sharon Hwang, “It’s no contest. It’s my dad, who came to this country with $5 in his pocket and a willingness to work hard to succeed. After working in steel mills and restaurants, he finished his Ph.D. and has worked as a respected nuclear physicist for more than 40 years. He was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, but he continues to epitomize grace and dignity in the face of this latest challenge. He is an inspiration to me and to all whose lives he touches.” For Jennifer Choe Groves, her top role model was “my mother, who had her own businesses and yet was always there for me. She was selfless in giving me opportunities that made me who I am today. She taught me that a woman can be independent and have a thriving career, yet be a loving and caring mother. I hope to set the same example for my daughters.” Christine Chi has looked to her parents as “models of loyalty, an unflagging work ethic, discipline, and generosity to others.” Thuy Thi Nguyen counts her mother as her top role model. ““She was brave to flee communist Vietnam in search of freedom for her family. She is also smart, strong-minded, good-hearted, and fun.”
Other honorees mention mentors and those who were trailblazers for their own careers. Marty Lorenzo remembers being sworn in to the California bar by the first Pinay (Filipina) judge in the United States, the Hon. Lillian Y. Lim. “I’m proud to call her a mentor and a friend.” Harmeet Dhillon calls California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin “an amazing role model for APA attorneys. He is a true inspiration to all who dream one day of a judicial career of courage and distinction.”
Products of the guidance of their mentors, this year’’s Best Under 40 have advice of their own that they are eager to share with young attorneys who seek it. Dhillon says, “Think independently and listen to your heart about what you really want to be, and then make career choices based upon your ultimate goals.” Khin Mai Aung, staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, adds, “Get as much hands-on experience as possible early on—particularly in different areas of law. You may find yourself drawn to new areas you never thought you’d find compelling.”
Emily Kuo suggests that contributing your talents to the community can be rewarding in many ways. “There’s no better way to be fulfilled in both your professional career and personal life than to become involved in your community. There’s also no better way to network in both your professional and personal relationships.”
Tung Chan would encourage young lawyers to “be courageous and decent. It’s a powerful combination, and it seems people I most admire tend to be both at once.”
Garner Weng, a partner at the San Francisco office of Hanson Bridgett, counsels, “Be confident and convey confidence. That said, also understand that the profession may be harder than you think, the competition in the marketplace for legal services is increasing exponentially, and it is becoming harder and harder to build and maintain a book of business.”
Young attorneys would do well to not be too serious about everything, according to Sharon Hwang, an intellectual property litigation partner at McAndrews, Held & Malloy in Chicago. “Lighten up! As a law student and as a younger attorney, I had a difficult time separating the trivial from the important. As a result, I stressed myself out unnecessarily over things that ultimately did not matter.” Shirish Gupta, a senior associate at Mayer Brown, adds, “Please try to take time out for yourself and your family. I make it a point to take a three week vacation every year so that we can really spend time together.”
For Vincent Eng, deputy director of the Asian American Justice Center and an adjunct professor at American University, Columbia University, and George Washington law schools, the advice he would have given to himself as a law student was both practical and personal: “I would tell myself, ‘Pay more attention in class, because one day you may be teaching this course. And, by the way, your future wife is sitting next to you in tax class.’” DB
Ben Lumicao is counsel with Allstate Insurance Company. Mr. Lumicao was featured in NAPABA’s 2006 Best Under 40 list.
From the January/February 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®