Published on Sunday, July 17, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
Unique Law Firm Doing Well While Doing Good
by Phil Tajitsu Nash
When discussing how he managed to face reality after being ordered as a college student to report to a concentration camp, Gordon Hirabayashi once said, “sometimes idealism is realism. I could not report to the camps, because I believed that it was unconstitutional to place American citizens in camps.”
After refusing to report to the camp in 1942, serving time in prison, living behind barbed wire, and enduring a life where ideals did not match realities, Hirabayashi, Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu were able to see their idealism vindicated in the mid-1980s. A team of courageous, smart, and dedicated attorneys made the legal and media systems work, and a just cause prevailed. The Japanese American internment was declared wrong in the courts of law and public opinion, paving the way for the Congressionally-authorized redress payments that soon followed.
While this story had a happy ending, fairy tale authors sometimes forget to tell us that the idealism of the Gordon, Fred, and Min’s of the world sometimes has to be backed up by the realistically-infused idealism of social justice advocates. In this case, those advocates were a team of young attorneys that included Dale Minami, Don Tamaki, and others.
Digging even deeper into this story, one might ask even more fundamental questions: How did Minami, Tamaki, and a large team of researchers, writers, and litigators sustain themselves for such a long period at such a grueling pace? How did this bunch of recent law grads take on and win against the experienced litigators and deep pockets of the federal Department of Justice? And who was paying for all of this tilting against windmills forty years after the initial injustice?
Answers to these questions lead to a unique public-private partnership that has been one of the most prolific and successful sources of social change advocacy for APAs over the last three decades. Minami and Tamaki have served as both paid and unpaid leaders of the not-for-profit Asian Law Caucus (ALC) in San Francisco, while teaming with Garrick Lew, Brad Yamauchi, Jack Lee, and Minette Kwok in a private law firm known as Minami, Lew & Tamaki (MLT).
While the ALC has been replicated in cities from New York to Los Angeles, and while grants and donations continue to support not-for-profit entities such as ALC, MLT was and continues to be a rare entity. Its partners and staff contribute to non-profit causes with time, energy, and financial contributions way out of proportion to what is given by larger firms that are not owned by minority partners.
The APA community has been fortunate to have had government grants, foundation support, individual contributions, and lots of volunteer effort that have allowed us to build a social service infrastructure over the last thirty years. To be self-sustaining in an uncertain economy, however, we must become more self-sufficient in the years ahead. More law firms such as MLT ( www.mltsf.com ) are needed so that the attorneys can continue to feed themselves and their families while having enough time, money, and awareness to help our non-profits stay afloat.
How did MLT come about, and how can we create more firms like it?
The firm started in 1974 when veterans of the ALC decided to create a minority-owned law firm rather than enter a corporate world that still was reluctant to hire APAs, women and other minorities. The firm almost went under in the early years, when its founders spent too much time doing pro-bono work, and too many APA community members bought into the stereotype that they needed a white lawyer to get the best possible legal representation. Contrary to public perceptions, doing free legal services does not usually lead to paying work. It only leads to more requests for free representation, which cannot be honored unless there are paying cases to keep the attorneys going.
The firm earned $6,300 in 1975, $8,400 in 1976, and $6,700 in 1977, but now they are earning enough to hire 17 attorneys in offices in San Francisco and Silicon Valley (Los Gatos). Over three decades, their clients have included well-known individuals such as Fred Korematsu, Kristi Yamaguchi, and UCLA professor Don Nakanishi, as well as groups such as a group of African Americans alleging discrimination by the USDA Forest Service.
Like any company, MLT reflects the personalities and convictions of its founders, who all were honors graduates of California’s best universities and law schools. As might be expected given this pedigree, MLT has developed a reputation for top-quality work, with several of its partners “AV Rated.” This means they are considered the best of the best by lawyers who do the criminal law, labor law, and other types of law done by the firm. Yet unlike the firms that specialize in one or two types of cases, they have developed a range of expertise (including personal injury, immigration, employment, business practices, and family law) that usually are offered only by mega-firms that charge mega-rates.
Another important characteristic of the firm’s founders and partners is that they came of age during the height of the anti-war and racial justice movements of the 1960s and 70s. Several of the founders were children of the interned Nisei generation, and all were influenced by the movement to develop Asian Pacific American studies and APA social service groups. This consciousness, in turn, has led to a situation that is not as widespread as it should be in business entities: MLT partners share profits across specialty areas so that the firm as a whole can thrive while remaining true to its goal of doing good while doing well.
In sum, MLT is a unique law firm that is a product of a unique group of individuals, a unique series of cases, and a unique historical moment. If the APA community is to continue to thrive, however, more young attorneys will have to take the plunge and set up their own public-minded private firms like MLT. And we who benefit from their community service must make sure that we demand top quality service from them while bringing them the business they need to keep the doors open.
© 2005 Asian Week