Read profiles of all the winners here.
Law School: Harvard Law School
Favorite lawyer in history: Herbert Choy
Q: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
A: I thought I wanted to be an economist. After college, I enrolled in a two-year master’s program in economics. I found economics to be incredibly theoretical and abstract. The popular thing in the mid-’80s was working with heavily mathematical economic models. That was considered the cool thing in the field at the time. I was strong in math. I emigrated from Korea when I was 11 and did not speak English when I arrived, so I gravitated toward math, which was easier for me. But I became frustrated with economics during this master’s program. I realized that I wanted to do something more practical and did not want to pursue a career in economics. So, I decided to go to law school. I thought that I’d become an antitrust lawyer.
Q: What was your first job after law school?
A: Right after law school, I went to Latham & Watkins. At first, I was part of a large pool of associates, but I eventually joined the corporate department. I was there for nine years, from fall 1989 through summer 1998.
Q: What kind of support did you receive from your superiors?
A: When I was starting out, the first couple of years I felt lost in a sea of young associates. It took a few years to find my footing and feel like I was part of a group. After I joined the corporate department at Latham, I started to find that support. One of the things that helped me tremendously was that when I started to work on transactions, I built relationships with the senior partners I worked with. One partner in particular trained and mentored me and helped me become a better lawyer and was instrumental in my development as a lawyer.
Q: How did your career progress from there?
A: While at Latham, I did a lot of work for one of their big clients, Sithe Energies Inc. I’d helped them structure several joint ventures and helped them go private. Shortly after I became a partner at Latham in January 1997, the CEO called me out of the blue and said, “the industry is changing, and we’re in the boat of growing through mergers and acquisitions.” He asked, “Would you be interested in coming in as GC?” We had a long back and forth and discussed the idea for 10 months. I joined them in the summer.
Going in-house was a huge step and a huge decision. You work so hard to become a partner, and it’s a huge decision to leave that behind. Ultimately, I decided that it’s really about the skills that you have. If you have the skills to become a partner, your skills don’t evaporate overnight—you take them with you.
Q: What attracted you to working in-house?
A: What I loved about going in-house was the variety of work. As a corporate lawyer, I focused on corporate transactional matters. But once you go in-house, you’re responsible for the legal aspects of everything. I enjoyed the challenge and variety. One of the first things I did in-house was a massive litigation where the other side was claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and we were claiming hundreds of millions in damages. We were very far apart. That was one of my first assignments. Eventually we resolved the matter to our business clients’ satisfaction. I enjoyed doing unfamiliar things.
Q: Who was your mentor as you were advancing through your legal career?
A: When I went in-house, I held onto the relationships with people who had mentored and helped me at Latham. I’ve also built strong relationships with the CEOs and other senior executives I’ve worked with at all of my in-house positions, at Sithe Energy, Allegheny Energy and now Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E).
It was so important to build those relationships. You can’t do it alone. The law firm world and corporate world are so competitive. It’s important to ask for help. When I became a GC, I was 37. I was still very much learning. Still today, I’m learning every day. I would encourage any lawyer to reach out to those who have been through more battles and have more experience. Get the benefit of their advice and wisdom.
Q: What obstacles did you encounter on your way up?
A: My obstacles were the same that most lawyers face. I was at a big firm, and what that meant was that you have grueling hours. I remember many nights of working early into the morning, going home at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., and working on weekends. That’s not unique to me. It’s part of that setting. In retrospect, as hard as that was, I think there was no substitute for the kind of training you get being under that stress. It helps you become a lawyer who can handle stressful situations.
Another challenge was when I took my job with Allegheny as GC there. It was based in western Pennsylvania, an hour away from Pittsburgh. My family was living in a New York suburb and decided not to move with me. We didn’t want to uproot our kids, who were in school. I was commuting home on weekends, working at Allegheny during the week. For two years and three months, I was away from home. I made it back every weekend. That was the toughest period of my life.
Q: Who is your favorite lawyer in history?
A: I recently learned about Herbert Choy at a talk I attended. I was fascinated and impressed by Judge Choy because in the late 1930s or early ’40s, he graduated from Harvard Law School and was the first Korean-American to become a licensed lawyer. If you look at Harvard Law School’s history, he was one of its first Korean-American graduates. He formed a firm with a Japanese-American partner and a Chinese-American partner, where they practiced international law. He ultimately became the first Korean-American Article III judge.
Q: What have you done to promote diversity in the legal profession?
A: I try to empower, encourage and support my colleagues and my team. Diversity is the sort of thing that the entire team has to embrace. It can’t be just the GC. PG&E’s legal team has always been a strong supporter of diversity. When I arrived, they were already focused on that.
Specifically, one thing we’ve done is foster diversity pipeline programs. These are summer internships aimed at first-year law students. It’s been going for a number of years. We also started an externship program during the academic year. Really, the only way to do that with law students is providing academic credit. There was a lot of effort and work involved in getting that started. When the people on my team had the idea to do this, they worked on their own time after hours to get it started. Now we have both externships and internships. My job was to encourage and support my team, really by empowering them and getting out of their way.
I also try to get involved with non-profit and bar organizations, such as the California Minority Counsel Program (CMCP), and I encourage others in my department to get involved. Most of our lawyers are very involved with bar associations.
Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer starting his or her career?
A: This is not an easy profession. If this is your chosen profession, keep at it until you find something you’re passionate about and really love to do. If you love what you’re doing, you’ll do great. Explore different practice areas and find something that truly moves you. Also, ask for help. Find great mentors. A lot of people are happy to help. It’s a matter of reaching out, building relationships and asking for help.
Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?
A: At the end of the day, I feel most proud when I contribute to a team effort in a meaningful way, and it ends up making a significant positive difference. My proudest moments involve great teamwork, and ultimately helping the client get a great result.
I’m proud to be doing what I do every day. I am very happy at PG&E. It’s a privilege to be surrounded by the great people I work with here. I feel that the whole team is being recognized with this award.
Q: What is your personal motto?
A: Be humble, especially when you advance in your career and take on positions of greater responsibility.
Q: What other things would you like to do to help advance the careers of diverse lawyers?
A: I want to get more involved with great organizations such as CMCP, the Korean American Bar Association and National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. I also want to be available as a mentor to lawyers in my department. I will try to mentor anyone who wants that sort of relationship with me, especially diverse and women lawyers. I’ve received so much help and support in my career, and I know how essential that is.