The VTLA Diversity and Inclusion Alliance is committed to fostering a more inclusive and diverse legal community. This commitment requires work that doesn’t end after one series of successful programs, one high profile legal verdict in Minnesota, one legislative success in Richmond or even after one minority attorney’s personal success story in the Commonwealth.

In 2021 the DIA will, among other things, continue conversations in the vein of last year’s “Tough Talks.” Since May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month in the U.S., we are eager to hear and learn from several members of Asian descent about their legal journey. We will work, through this format and webinars, with other groups whose voices we hope to amplify.

 

 

We asked our panelists the following four questions. Join us in listening to our colleagues!

1. When and where did you first begin practicing law and what were your first legal jobs?

2. How have your experiences as an Asian American shaped your practice of law?

3. In what ways has your experience as an Asian American attorney changed throughout the years of your practice?

4. Is there anything else you want your colleagues to know/consider about the experience of an Asian American in the law in Virginia?

 


When and where did you first begin practicing law and what were your first legal jobs?

I started out at a small general practice firm in the Chesterfield area. I then moved to a couple years working as a staff attorney/in-house for a major insurance company trying cases all around the greater Richmond metro area.  I then spent a couple of great years working for the law firm of O’Hagan Meyer in its Richmond office.  I now work for Allen Allen Allen & Allen and am coming up on my third year with the firm. 

I have been lucky enough to have a varied legal career already at a relatively young age.  Not only did I learn a lot at my other jobs, but the experiences with my other firms really helped me focus on what mattered most to me as an attorney.  Joining Allen & Allen was long a dream of mine, having grown up passing the office on route 3 in Fredericksburg on my way to and from school every morning as a kid.  I love what I get to do.  

 

 

After passing the bar exam, I served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Richard B. Potter in the Prince William County Circuit Court.  In 2001, I joined Nichols Zauzig in their Family Law Section and have been there ever since. 

 


 

In 1982, after graduating from the T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond and passing the bar exam that summer, my first full-time legal position was as an associate with Richard R. Ryder, a solo practitioner and renowned criminal defense attorney in Richmond, Virginia.  Because of his reputation, I was put on every court-appointed list in the Richmond area (City of Richmond, Henrico County, and Chesterfield County).  I figure the Judges felt that if I messed up too much, Mr. Ryder could bail me out, figuratively and literally, if I was held in contempt.  Also because of him, most of the lawyers and the judges accepted me (but see below), because if he hired me, I could not be that bad of a lawyer. 

 

 

My legal jobs highlight the importance of being in the right place at the right time. Every job I held came about only when I was in a place where an opportunity presented itself.

My first job was with a law firm in Bethesda, Maryland, handling Virginia litigation. I got that job because I happened to be in the GW law school placement office when they let me know of an opening in Bethesda close to where I was living at the time. The friendships formed at that first law firm remain with me to this day.

The firm’s practice of allowing associates to take Friday afternoons off if you agreed to file a pleading in court led me to my next job. Of note, leaving the office early on a Friday afternoon was not a luxury since Saturday was considered a workday.  Full answer here. 

 


How have your experiences as an Asian American shaped your practice of law?

My experiences as an Asian American have shaped my practice of law largely through the mentorship that I have received from other Asian American attorneys that I have met over law school and the years of my practice.  During law school, I had the opportunity to become involved with the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA).  Through that program, I was put in touch with a number of Asian American attorneys.  Loc Pfeifer, Nhon Nguyen, Vijay Mago, Judge John Tran, and Michael Huyoung to name just a few.  Some of these attorneys had lunch with me regularly, helped me find jobs, gave me practice tips, and even coached me when I was on trial team in law school.  Being around these Asian attorneys has influenced my practice through mentorship and the example that they have set for me as an attorney.   

Representation really took on a new meaning when I sat for the first time in a room full of Asian American attorneys. 
 

Growing up in a traditional Asian family, I chose one of the 3 generally accepted occupations (doctor, lawyer, engineer), then I veered a little bit off the expected path.  Family law is not a field that many Asian Americans choose, perhaps because divorce is not generally accepted in our culture.  As an Asian American attorney, I understand that cultural differences shape how my clients view and handle family law matters, particularly in contested divorce cases.  Divorce can impact not only my clients’ personal lives, but acceptance within their families and the broader community.  How my clients handle finances, how they discipline their children, what they expect of their spouse, these are all things that vary depending on their cultural backgrounds.  I am also keenly aware that bias exists everywhere, sometimes those biases benefit my clients and sometimes they are a detriment. 
 

 

It has made me more patient and tolerant, and today, when I get frustrated about how things did not go as I expected in court, I think back to the “good old days” when I started practice and am glad that things have changed for the good.  Also, because I had to prove myself to my colleagues and the Judges before whom I practiced, that work ethic and perseverance have made me a better attorney for my clients.   

Being one of the first Asian (Chinese) attorneys in the Richmond area, we were considered an anomaly especially for me as I believe I was the first Asian attorney practicing criminal defense and family law in the area.  At that time (early 80’s) there may have been other Asian attorneys working in the big firms or governmental agencies, but not many ever ventured into the world of litigation often.  As one Circuit Court Judge asked me, “Aren’t you the wrong nationality to be practicing law?  Shouldn’t you be a chemist or engineer?”  My reply was, “I am not that smart to be one.”

Likewise, although I do not believe they meant any harm or offense to me, some Judges and attorneys would make comments to me about my Chinese heritage, maybe just to be an icebreaker when they first met me or just to lighten the tense atmosphere of trial work, but I can just imagine the thoughts that raced through my clients’ minds.  Another Circuit Court Judge before whom I practiced regularly would often say to me when I lost a motion or case in his Court, “No Tickee, No Laundry.”  (For those who do not know that term, there were and are still many dry cleaners owned by Asians.  In the early days when the Chinese immigrated to this country, most of the laundries in America were Chinese-owned. If you did not have your laundry ticket, you could not pick-up your laundry.) Read Michael’s full answer here. 
 

The experience of being a refugee following the collapse of Saigon, South Vietnam had a greater impact in shaping my law practice than being an Asian American. Refugees of unpopular wars are imbued with a profound sense of gratitude for being made a part of this great nation. Having that sense of gratitude proved to be an elixir for the stress and challenges of the legal profession.

The private practice of law is a difficult endeavor. It is a profession because of the diligence, commitment, and resilience required of those in the profession. Life is hard, and has an Asian refugee and a lawyer, that lesson is obvious.

Those who is fortunate enough to be licensed to practice law should know that the worst days in the profession are still better than the daily experience of refugees during the transition from being homeless to gaining refuge. 

 


In what ways has your experience as an Asian American attorney changed throughout the years of your practice?

As time goes on and especially when my younger brother entered the practice of law, I feel a greater sense of responsibility about my place in the legal community.  As a litigator, I am in and out of courtrooms all over the state.  Each courtroom I have the pleasure of practicing in, I have to consider that I may be one of the few Asian attorneys to ever practice in that courtroom, in front of this judge or this jury.  Right or wrong, history tells me that my actions as an attorney, my skills, my reputation may very well be imputed to the next Asian attorney to grace that courtroom. 

I feel the responsibility of not only doing the very best I can for my client, but to also do the very best that I can so that if anyone (again right or wrong) associates me with the next Asian American attorney that they see, that it is a good association and reputation that I leave.  I hope that I give them that same running start that I feel I was granted by the Asian American attorneys that came before me. 
 

There was almost no diversity on the bench when I started practicing law.  That has slowly changed over the last 20 years, although we still have a long way to go.  At bar events, especially those devoted to family law, I am oftentimes the only Asian American in the room.  As an Asian American attorney with diverse clients, it is uplifting to see how diversity and inclusion has become a focus of bar associations nationwide, even though the conversations can be difficult and polarizing. 
 

 

 

One of the goals of my legal career has been to aid and support young Asian law students during their years at law school, assist in bridging the gap into practice, and be there for young Asian attorneys in their practices.  So as the years have passed, I find myself mentoring more young attorneys.  I try to be active in the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Virginia (APABA-VA) to support the Asian attorneys in Virginia and the D.C. area. 

When I first started my practice, there were very few Asian lawyers so I always conducted myself in a manner that would not shame us and have our non-Asian colleagues look down on us.  I tried to set an exemplary example of what an Asian lawyer can do and accomplish in the hopes of portraying us in a good light to others.  I was not willing to be too aggressive or take chances, or be too much in the forefront.  Although I wanted to be a trailblazer, I did not want to put the trail ablaze or burn any bridges.  As I gained experience and established myself in the legal community, I was willing to take more chances by stepping out and be more active in promoting Asians in the law profession and the judiciary and to make sure that the young Asian lawyers did not have to go through the same demeaning incidents that I went through as abovementioned.

Now, there are more Asian law professionals, not only as lawyers working in big firms, but in small practices, and even solo practitioners.  Many have become excellent litigators. There are more Asians in academia, but we still need more Asian Judges on the bench, and that is probably going to be my next project.  There are many outstanding Asian lawyers who will make excellent judges. 
 

When I first entered the practice of law there were few Asian American trial lawyers visible in Virginia courthouses. I used to suggest to clients or witnesses with whom I had not met in person to look for the “Asian American” lawyer in the cafeteria. Over the years, the number of Asian American trial lawyers has increased to the point that the suggestion may be less helpful.

My experience has also evolved as I begin to see more clearly the different categories of Asian American lawyers. I generally group Asian Americans into three categories. The first are the refugees and forced immigrants. The second are the voluntary immigrants – the ones who had a choice and decided to stay. The third are the ones born in America and know of no other culture or heritage. All three categories have different experiences but are occasionally treated the same, and the value of examining Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is understanding when all are treated as a single group. 

 


Is there anything else you want your colleagues to know/consider about the experience of an Asian American in the law in Virginia?

We all come from different backgrounds.  Encompassed within the Asian American attorney community are not only people with connections to Korea, China, Vietnam or Japan.  But also many attorneys from India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.  Asia is comprised of 48 different countries.  Each with their own separate and distinct cultures.  Some of us are immigrants ourselves and many of us are the daughters and sons of immigrants.  For some of us, English is not our first language.  Many of us have served as translators (and still do) for our parents, family members, and friends.  Many of us are first generation attorneys.  Our position as attorneys came at the cost of sacrifice from our families as well as ourselves. 

We are here in fulfillment of that great American dream. 

 

It has been disheartening to hear about blatant racism and even violence towards Asian Americans.  Thankfully, I have not experienced that in my professional life.  I know that others have paved the way for me to have a positive experience as an Asian American attorney.  Because of that, I think we have a duty to not be complacent about bias, racism, and ignorance, even when it is not blatant, intentional, or directed at us personally. 
 

 


 

Yes, as I tell every young Asian attorney who seeks my advice in the practice of law, regardless for whom you work or with which firm you practice, you will be judged on your work alone and not on the work of your law firm or colleagues.  Being considered a minority in the legal profession, we have to prove ourselves by working harder, setting higher standards, accomplishing more, doing pro bono work, becoming more active in bar activities, and establishing an excellent reputation for yourself in the legal community. 
 

 

 

Many Asian Americans (also referred to as Asian Pacific (Islanders) Americans “APA” or “APIA”), may find themselves in communities or groups where they are either the only APA or one of few. When the number is just one or a handful, the difference is remarkably not as noticeable.

From my days in the Arlington public school system to my years at GW Law School in D.C., I had the privilege of spending most of my working life in a progressive bubble known as Northern Virginia and the DMV area. Until I went to law school I had no Asian American friends and yet did not feel isolated. I did not know I was different.

Over time, however, the difference could not be ignored, and it manifested itself in different ways, most of which were positive, while some were awkward.  Read Judge Tran’s full answer here.

 

 

Some Helpful Resources

Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Virginia: www.apabava.org 

National Asian Pacific American Bar Association: www.napaba.org 

Asian Pacific American Law Students Association: www.napalsa.com