Friday, April 1, 2011
Wesley Hsu, New President of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association
Highly Regarded,Youthful Federal Prosecutor Takes Charge of Venerable Asian-American Lawyer Group
By MARC B. HAEFELE, Staff Writer
Wesley Hsu, to be-installed tonight as president of the Southern California Chinese American Lawyers’ Association, says he still remembers perfectly well the day he decided he was going to become a prosecutor.
He’d been a high-achieving teen at Los Alamitos High School—he wrestled, he did the Academic Decathalon, he wrote for the school paper. He sat in the Model UN.
Then one day, in his junior year, both his parents were struck down by a drunk driver as they were crossing a local street.
He recalls that both were severely injured:
“My mother was in a coma for two and a half months. She was not expected to live.”
She survived, and the driver got eight months in jail. Hsu, then and there, says he decided he could do much better than that.
After he graduated from Los Alamitos, he went on to Yale as an undergraduate and then to Yale Law School. After clerking for U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer of the Central District of California, now a senior judge, he worked for three years at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher.
Then he decided to go to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles—fulfilling his childhood vow to himself. He’s never looked behind, although he recalls that his parents were upset that he was turning his back on a very remunerative career with an extremely prominent firm for one with a limited financial future.
“My mother and father’s first reaction was ‘You’re going to do what?’ But it was what I always wanted to do....And I had decided there was nothing I would rather do.”
He says he still feels that way. A federal prosecutor since 2000, he rose through the ranks to become chief of the Cyber and Intellectual Property Crimes Section.
Under-average height, slender and utterly fit looking, in a perfectly tailored light brown suit, Hsu looks a great deal younger than his 39 years. There is an elevated cheerfulness about him, an inclination to break into light laughter that somehow belies his grim occupation of fighting the forces of crime on behalf of the U.S. government.
You can see why one of his distinguished, and favorite, professors at Yale Law School, Harold Koh, now advisor to the U.S. Department of State, remembers him as “unfailingly upbeat and likeable, loved by all, deeply motivated, a huge bundle of energy and good will.”
“I never saw him not smiling broadly.”
These are traits that apt to serve him well after he’s inaugurated as the new 2011 President of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers’ Association at its annual installation banquet tonight at the Empress Pavilion restaurant in Chinatown. It’s SCCLA’s (members pronounce the acronym “scalla”) major meet-and- greet event, hosting over 600 members and guests (down from over 800 at some past events) over a feast of legendary amplitude and savor.
“We don’t do rubber chicken at our banquets,” Jones Day partner and former SCCLA president Brian Sun put it.
Some founding members of SCCLA can still recall the first banquet in 1975, when 44 people attended. For its first decade, the organization grew gradually. But members say it is now the oldest and largest organization of its kind in the state.
Sun says, “When I took over as president in 1986, there was $300 in our treasury.” But as more Chinese and other Asian Americans entered the legal profession, the membership swelled to 300 and beyond. Hsu says the actual membership number is confidential, but fully 621 SCCLA members are tallied on its Facebook page.
Sun notes a correlation between the 1975 founding of SCCLA and broadening minority awareness of America’s great Civil Rights revolution. (As it happened, it also, fortuitously, coincided with the opening up of Los Angeles’ long-hermetic self-governed Chinatown community).
The founders included legal pioneers Ronald S. Lew, now a senior U.S. district judge, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Delbert Wong, who was the first Chinese American to hold a judgeship in California and is now deceased.
Early members also recall that at first SCCLA was something of a gathering and bonding group for Sino-American attorneys that also included (as it does still) a number of Filipino-, Korean- and Japanese-American members.
“It really started as just a way of getting us all together,” founding member and onetime president Nowland Hong recalls.
The other minorities have since established their own voluntary bar groups, though many continue to hold membership in SCCLA as well.
That may be because “we have some great parties,” Hong quips.
But there was a serious side to the group’s founding, a sense of discrimination, members recall.
As late as 1982, Sun notes, “I was the only Chinese American in the [Los Angeles] U.S. Attorney’s Office.” Many young local Asian lawyers also found their original employment with the Los Angeles County Counsel, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
But prestigious jobs with the old Spring Street “white shoe” firms, or even lesser law partnerships in the area, remained a dream to most. As did judgeships.
Curiously, Sun remembers, it was a brutal 1982 homicide nearly 2,000 miles away that most determined that SCCLA “would become more than just a social group.”
Vincent Chin was bludgeoned to death in a Detroit suburb by drunken assailants who thought he was Japanese—and thus somehow responsible for the loss of U.S. auto jobs—and never served a day of jail time for their crime. It showed, Sun says, that Asian-Americans of all professions and national origins needed to get proactive about issues such as stereotype, discrimination and race hatred.
“There was the push to get more judgeships, of course,” which is still a SCCLA priority, “but then the group started doing more civil rights law,” more pro bono work, more working with dedicated civil rights groups and other minority bar groups, Sun recalls.
Today, Sun and Hsu both say, it is not just a lawyers’ club, but an organization dedicated to making Southern California a better, and, as diversity increases, a fairer, place.
Indeed, as Asian Americans have grown to be the third largest population segment in California, more Chinese Americans than ever have moved, often via the legal profession, successfully into the realm of elected office—like former SCCLA board member, now state Sen. Ted Lieu, a former assemblyman and Torrance councilman, who represents a majority non-Asian district in the western part of the county.
“An important role of the organization, as Asian Americans become more prevalent in our community is getting them into leadership positions, commensurate with their presence in the profession,” Lieu says of SCCLA. “More partnerships in major law firms and in judge positions.”
And Hsu is the right person to carry the banner, the lawmaker says. “Wes is a terrific person and an amazing attorney; we are all very glad to see him in a leadership role.”
To Next Level
Sun praises Hsu as part of “a new generation of leadership, taking the organization to the next level.” Hsu, he says, comes to the presidency with “a lot of energy, a lot of passion” and a willingness “to make a sacrifice for leadership on behalf of us older guys.”
Karin Wang, vice president of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, describes SCCLA as the parent organization of a half-dozen younger Asian-American bar groups.
“There seem always to be younger bright people coming through its pipeline. Wes, I think, exemplifies this,” she remarks.
Actually, the 36-year-old organization’s roster of past presidents is studded with the names of Sino-American attorneys and jurists from multiple generations of leadership, ascending heights of accomplishment and official and career attainment that the young Chinese-American lawyers of the early 1970s could only have dreamed of.
SCCLA presidents have included McArthur Award-winning APALC head Stewart Kwoh; prominent litigators Hong and David Bow Woo; George King, now a U.S. district judge for the Central District; John K.C. Mah, who became a workers’ compensation judge; and Harry Mock, who became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and is now deceased.
Lew, who was MetNews Person of the Year in 1998, noted that at that time that SCCLA took a leading role in pushing members to apply for the bench. “We had to encourage and basically force people to put their names in,” he said.
The mission continues, Hsu says.
“I strongly feel that the public [judicial] office is like the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” he explains. “If it doesn’t reflect the diversity of the community, there is a question as to its legitimacy.”
He was delighted, he says, in 2009 when Dolly M. Gee became the first Chinese-American woman to sit on the federal bench and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, a SCCLA member, became the first Vietnamese-American woman to achieve the distinction. Both sit in the Central District of California.
As for his own potential ascent to the bench, Hsu says:
“This is something I would welcome…but there would be a lot of people over my pay grade making this decision.”
For now, though, he has plenty of work to do. The group’s list of dedicated committees is ample—including Asian Concerns; Attorney Education/MCLE; Community Education; Community Law Day; the Food Basket Program; Law School/ Mentoring Programs, Trial Advocacy Skills Workshops, Unauthorized Practice of Law and many others.
Hsu says he also wants to advance the group’s outreach programs. And Hong suggests that emerging demographics create another challenge that SCCLA needs to address—access to legal services within the newer, less-prosperous Asian American communities.
“There’s still a huge need for legal services for those who can’t afford them, for people who need these services on the most basic level,” he says. “Many of us who’ve been with SCCLA a long time, and have risen to the corporate level, may have trouble seeing this.”
SCCLA, he intimates, can’t forget its simple origins as its members rise to success.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company