WLALA President 2020-2021
Margaret Cho said, “The power of visibility can never be underestimated.” May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time to commemorate and reflect on remarkable Asian Pacific American (APA) trailblazers who have left enduring legacies. In the 1970s, Jeanie Jew, a former congressional staffer, approached Representative Frank Horton with the idea of designating a month to recognize Asian Pacific Americans. In June 1977, Representatives Horton, and Norman Y. Mineta introduced a United States House of Representatives resolution to proclaim the first ten days of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. A month later, Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga introduced a similar bill in the Senate. Both resolutions designated May for two reasons: (1) On May 7, 1843, the first Japanese immigrant arrived in the United States; and (2) On May 10, 1869, Chinese laborers drove the golden spike into the First Transcontinental Railroad. On October 5, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution for the celebration. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a bill passed by Congress to extend Asian Pacific American Heritage Week to a month. In 1992, May was officially designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In May 2009, the name “Asian Pacific American Heritage Month” officially changed to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month when President Barack Obama signed Proclamation 8369.
In 2020 and 2021, Asian Americans continued to make history. In January 2021, Kamala Harris became the first person of South Asian descent and the first Black American to hold the Office of the Vice President. In November 2020, Kim Ng became the general manager of the Miami Marlins and in doing so, became the first female general manager of a major men’s professional sports team and Major League Baseball’s first Asian American general manager. In April 2021, Chloe Zhao became the first Asian American and first woman of color to win the Academy Award for Best Director, and only the second woman to do so. In April 2021, Vanita Gupta became the first Asian American and woman of color to serve as Associate Attorney General. As we reflect on the tradition of leadership and resilience shown by the APA communities, we also recognize the heightened fear felt by many Asian American communities in the wake of increasing rates of anti-Asian harassment and violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increasingly observable layers of hate now directed toward women and elders of Asian descent.
This May, I was honored and humbled to interview Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (WLALA) Past President Helen Kim, longstanding WLALA Board Member and the first APA President of the California State Bar Judge Holly J. Fujie, Asian Pacific American Women Lawyers Alliance (APAWLA) Immediate Past President Calimay Pham and current APAWLA President Sandy Yu. These women are tremendous leaders, they are incredibly inspiring and they continue to have a far-reaching impact on the Los Angeles legal community
First, I invite you to learn about each of these women.
Ms. Kim is a Partner at K&L Gates. She focuses her practice on securities and other complex litigation. She is a first-chair trial lawyer representing public and private companies, as well as their directors, officers, and principal shareholders before the courts and in arbitration proceedings. She has successfully defended clients in multiple shareholder derivative suits, nationwide securities, and commodities class actions, and related opt-out litigation, and guided companies and their officers through regulatory investigations. Ms. Kim is actively involved in the American Bar Association (ABA) where she serves as Managing Director Designate of the Section of Litigation. She previously served as Chair of the ABA’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. Ms. Kim is a Past WLALA President and serves on the WLALA-LACBA Joint Task Force on the Promotion and Retention of Women in the Profession. Ms. Kim been recognized as one of the most influential women lawyers and most influential minority lawyers in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Business Journal.
Judge Holly J. Fujie
The Hon. Holly J. Fujie was appointed to the Los Angeles Superior Court of the State of California on December 27, 2011, by Governor Jerry Brown. She is currently sitting on a Civil assignment at the Mosk Courthouse. Prior to her appointment, Judge Fujie was a shareholder in the Los Angeles-based law firm of Buchalter Nemer, APC, where she practiced corporate civil litigation. She received A.B. and J.D. degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was an editor of the California Law Review, and in 2008-2009 she was the third woman and the first Asian Pacific American to serve as the President of the State Bar of California. Judge Fujie is currently the President of the California Asian Pacific American Judges Association. She has also served as Vice President of the California Bar Foundation, President of the Berkeley Law School Alumni Association, and the Chancery Club. When she was appointed to the Bench, she was Chair of the Board of Bet Tzedek Legal Services. Judge Fujie continues to serve on numerous boards and she has received many awards for her work in diversity and bar leadership, including WLALA’s Distinguished Service Award, the National Association of Women Lawyers’ M. Ashley Dickerson Diversity Award, the ABA’s Difference Makers Award, and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s Trailblazer Award. Since 1991, she has served on Senator Feinstein’s Judicial Advisory Committee, advising the Senator and the White House on federal judicial nominations and the nomination of United States Attorneys for the Central District of California, and she currently serves on Governor Newsom’s Judicial Selection Advisory Committee for Los Angeles County.
Ms. Pham is a Staff Attorney for the Los Angeles County Child Support Services Department (CSSD), where she works to establish and maintain much-needed financial support for families. Prior to her work with CSSD, Ms. Pham was a Staff Attorney with the Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, a non-profit organization that represents parents in juvenile dependency proceedings. Ms. Pham is the Immediate Past President of APAWLA. She also serves as Secretary for the Multicultural Bar Alliance of Southern California (MCBA), and Chair of Volunteer Recruitment for the Annual Asian Pacific American Community Holiday Toy Drive and Reception. In addition to her work in the legal community, Ms. Pham serves as Vice President for the California State Board of Barbering Cosmetology and is a Planning Commissioner for the City of Alhambra. In her free time, Calimay plays Dungeons & Dragons and is currently playing a Level 20 High Elf Druid. Ms. Pham received her Juris Doctorate from UCLA School of Law and her Bachelor of Arts, summa cum laude with College Honors, in the Study of Religion and History from UCLA.
Ms. Yu is currently a Staff Attorney at the California Department of Social Services. Before joining the California Department of Social Services, Ms. Yu was a Staff Attorney at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, where she represented victims of human trafficking on immigration relief matters and as a UCLA Public Service fellow at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, where she provided legal services to low-income individuals involving immigration and family law matters. Ms. Yu received her law degree and her master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA School of Law and UCLA School of Public Affairs, respectively.
When did you know that you wanted to be a lawyer? What or who inspired you?
Ms. Yu: I decided that I wanted to become a lawyer when I was working as a family advocate at a domestic violence shelter, the Asian Pacific Women’s Center. As a family advocate, I saw firsthand how the legal system overlapped with many issues that my clients experienced in leaving their abusive relationships. However, most of my immigrant clients faced difficulties in accessing legal services due to their language and cultural barriers and limited knowledge of the legal system. I came to realize that my passion lies in making the legal system more accessible for survivors of domestic violence.
Even though my family did not pressure me to become an attorney, my family’s experiences inspired me to go to law school. Growing up, I saw that my mother, who was a single parent raising three young children, faced a great deal of discrimination and many challenges. My mother’s experiences have shown me that knowing the laws can make a difference and that our communities needed more trusted and bilingual attorneys.
How did you get started in bar association work? When did you get involved in Bar leadership?
Ms. Kim: When I started as a young litigator in New York City, there were no Asian women litigation partners. I did not have role models. When I went to my first National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) convention, becoming a partner at a law firm seemed possible. Seeing, speaking, and meeting with titans of the Asian American bar associations was exceptionally empowering. That experience motivated me to get involved in NAPABA. When I moved to Los Angeles, Jennifer Landau – now a WLALA Past President – introduced me to WLALA. I did not know anyone in the legal profession in Los Angeles and Jen encouraged me to join WLALA. WLALA brings together people from all sectors of the profession in a way that other bar associations have not done. Being on WLALA’s board gave me access to people I otherwise would not have met. WLALA and NAPABA were safe places for me to talk openly – at times about the challenges I faced – and to seek guidance and advice.
Being an APA woman leader in the law, what challenges have you faced?
Ms. Pham: I have had to deprogram myself from certain cultural expectations. I know the importance of advocating for oneself and being one’s own champion. However, as an Asian American woman, there is still an expectation that I do so while being reserved and modest. People have perceptions of and biases toward Asian American women that I still face. At work, I see my male colleagues comfortably speak up and advocate for themselves. When we as Asian American women advocate for ourselves to get the recognition we deserve, we may be deemed “aggressive,” whereas our male counterparts are engaging what is deemed normal male behavior.
Judge Fujie: Asian American women have to deal with the perception that if they are not the stereotypical submissive “Geisha Girl,” they are the stereotypical hostile “Dragon Lady.” We constantly have to tread a fine line between being ignored and being disliked. As an APA woman judge, it is amazing to me that I still have to fight to be respected in my own courtroom by lawyers and litigants who are accustomed to treating women of color without respect.
Ms. Kim: Asian American women are taught to be modest and quiet. As such, self-promotion may not come naturally. To combat the biases people have about Asian American women, I advise people to reach outside of their places of employment and seek leadership roles in outside groups. I have been fortunate to have wonderful mentors, many of whom are men and non-Asian. Mentorship by men is also critical.
Ms. Yu: I recognize that self-promotion and self-advocacy are important. Sometimes, I struggle with being viewed as “too much,” as people expect Asian American women to be reserved and humbled. At the same time, I want to make sure that I am recognized for my work.
Judge Fujie, you were the first APA President of the California State Bar. What was that experience like for you?
I was so lucky to have the opportunity as California State Bar President to speak over 200 times all over the country, many times to audiences without a single APA, and to try to convey to those audiences what it is like to be a woman of color in the legal profession. I also was privileged to speak many times to APA groups both in California and in other states and to serve as a role model and a mentor to many young law students and lawyers.
Ms. Kim, describe your experience as the first APA woman President of WLALA.
Although I was certainly aware at the time (2008-2009) that I was the first APA woman to serve as President of WLALA, I never felt within WLALA that I was ever treated differently because I was Asian-American. On the contrary, I think that WLALA members and leaders share the strong bond of being women attorneys and that strong tie forged many strong and productive relationships. I recall that my primary goals when I served as President were to strengthen WLALA’s financial position and to grow WLALA’s membership base. We accomplished both goals by reminding everyone that we needed by being fiscally prudent and by growing our membership base by 25%. Frankly, I don’t recall my race or ethnicity ever being an issue — positively or negatively — when I was President of WLALA. Although I no longer serve on the WLALA Board today, I retain many good friendships from my days on the WLALA Board, and I continue to serve on the WLALA/LACBA Joint Task Force for the Promotion and Retention of Women, which is one of the avenues through which I continue my efforts to promote women in the profession.
Ms. Pham and Ms. Yu, what has been President of APAWLA meant to you personally and professionally?
Ms. Pham: It is hard for me fully to express all that being President of APAWLA has meant to me. I was drawn to APAWLA initially because it felt like a refuge in an unforgiving profession. I became active with APAWLA in my first year of practice when I was really struggling with whether this was the right profession for me. APAWLA exposed me to a wide breadth of incredible, talented, and civic-minded women. I was in awe of them and only wanted to emulate them and follow their example. In following their path, I found confidence and cemented my own passion for service. I’m still shocked that the amazing women that I met then are now my peers and friends. I’m even more shocked, albeit pleasantly so, by the realization that, as President, I’ve been able to serve as a role model for others.
Ms. Yu: Being the President of APAWLA means being able to give back to the community that has given so much to me personally. I have been involved with APAWLA since my first year of law school. Every day, I am so impressed by my board and the work that they are doing for our membership and community at large. Professionally, being able to meet and work with so many inspiring and community-minded leaders like Jessica Kronstadt, Michelle Kazadi and Lorrina Duffy has been amazing.
How has racism and/or sexism affected your professional and personal life? How has the recent increase in violence and racism against the APA community has affected you?
Ms. Kim: As an Asian American, I’m often perceived as a foreigner. Throughout my career, people have asked me where I am from or even complimented me on my English as if English were not my native language. The recent increase in violence in the APA community underscores how important allies are, and how critical it is for non-Asians to condemn racism and violence against Asians. Even before the pandemic, I urged my mom to be cautious when she walked by herself because Asian women – particularly elderly Asian women – are targeted based on their often smaller stature and because people view Asian women as weak.
Ms. Yu: Recently, I received a racially offensive call when I was at my office. Someone called me at work and told me she had gotten the “China vaccine,” and then proceeded to mock Asian dialect. I was shocked. After talking to a coworker, I reported it to my office and my office is investigating it.
Judge Fujie: Like all Asian Americans, I constantly face people’s assumption that I am not a “real American.” When I first started practicing, people often felt uncomfortable talking to an Asian American and often expressed this discomfort by initiating bizarre conversations involving raw fish. Once while taking a deposition, the deponent challenged me on the record to tell him my “first language,” asking in what language I practiced law. With the recent increase in incidents of Anti-Asian violence, non-Asian friends have asked me to counsel their APA mentees who are fearful for their own safety and that of their parents and grandparents. I counsel them that they should not give anyone – particularly the type of misguided and often unstable people propagating this violence – the power to make them live in fear or to keep them from achieving their goals.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Judge Fujie: Other than my 43-year marriage and my wonderful children, I am proudest that in the course of my career I have been able to use my influence, contacts, and knowledge successfully to mentor, support, and assist others in their careers.
Ms. Kim: I am proud of the life I’ve lived so far: I have a wonderful marriage and a strong relationship with my children, all while managing a very robust career. I am proud that I have been able to give back by mentoring students and younger attorneys. My mother always advised me to be independent so that I did not have to depend on anyone financially. I am proud that I followed through on her advice. When I was growing up, my parents struggled to decide which bill they were going to be able to pay. Through hard work and the support I had, I am proud that I can give my children a life free from that struggle.
Ms. Yu: My proudest accomplishment has been seeing a student to whom I served as a mentor attend and graduate from law school. That student is now a practicing attorney. It has made me very proud that I guided and served as a mentor in that process.
Ms. Pham: I am proud that I have been able to pursue an education and career that has enabled me to become self-sufficient. My parents are refugees from the Vietnam War. I was raised by a single dad and we were very poor. We spent a great deal of time figuring out how to allocate our money, in particular how we were going to get from place to place. I was extremely lucky that nothing impeded my education, and by devoting myself to it, I went to college and graduate school. I do not have the same financial struggles that my parents had. My mother told me once that she hoped that I could one day find a job that pays twenty dollars an hour—that was the extent of her ambition for me. I’ve never taken for granted how lucky that I have been able to surpass that.