As the Oregon State Bar strives to develop a comprehensive picture of the profession’s ethnic makeup, several minority attorneys say they know firsthand that they represent just a small fraction of legal professionals within this predominately white state. While the population of minority lawyers in Oregon may be small, it is cohesive and committed to fostering diversity and inclusion.
Formal and informal mentorship, hiring diverse employees, collaborating on cases, referring clients, and passing along news of upcoming networking events are among the ways minority attorneys are working together to strengthen not only their individual professional development and personal growth but the legal community’s overall diversity.
This movement represents a sea change from the professional climate Ernest E. Estes encountered when he graduated from Willamette University College of Law in 1976. Inspired to become an attorney by Martin Luther King Jr., and Justice Thurgood Marshall, Estes found no fellow African-American attorneys to mentor him as he began his career.
Now one of about 40 in-house lawyers in the office of general counsel at the Bonneville Power Administration, Estes is a member of the Oregon Minority Lawyers Association and a mentor with the bar’s New Lawyer Mentoring Program. He says he believes every attorney, and particularly minority attorneys, should mentor a new lawyer.
“Most of the things I see are common with all new lawyers. Folks at the top of the class get most of the assistance. Everybody else is trying to figure out whether this is for them and whether they can do it, which can be even more difficult lately,” he says.
Estes says he encourages new lawyers to be patient with themselves, and he describes how he too had trouble finding a job just out of law school and can relate to the anxiety they are experiencing. Estes says he also emphasizes the need to work with other attorneys who come from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures.
“It’s a skill that is indispensible if one is to practice law in Oregon. You can’t practice law if you can’t get along with people who are different than you,” he notes.
Jan Wyers also recalls the days when minority lawyers were an anomaly and has dedicated his professional life to increasing the presence of African-American attorneys. A former judge with a private practice in Portland, Wyers hired Sonda Fields as a clerk. The pair became partners and worked on cases together before Fields opened her own practice last year. Wyers knew Fields through her parents, whom he met in 1963 while demonstrating for civil rights.
Over the course of his career, Wyers voted to establish Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday in Oregon; partnered with former state legislator Margaret Carter to sponsor a divestiture bill requiring Oregon banks to no longer do business with customers involved in South African apartheid; and was part of a committee designed to strengthen the connection between the Legislature and minority communities.
“I’ve hired, mentored and encouraged five African-American law graduates to pass the bar exam and become lawyers. I consider that to be one of my greatest achievements,” Wyers says. “I learned from working with Sonda that somebody who grows up in a family where there aren’t any lawyers can learn how to be a private practice lawyer with some mentoring and encouragement.”
Minority Attorneys Negotiate Many Firsts
First-generation attorneys face a formidable learning curve as it is, and those who are first-generation Americans say learning the language and culture of their new homeland and the nuances of an unfamiliar profession add to the challenge.
Kimberly Sugawa-Fujinaga, an attorney with Portland’s Greene & Markley and president-elect of the Oregon Asian Pacific American Bar Association, is half Chinese and half Japanese and one of few women in her family to pursue a career. She is originally from Hawaii, which while part of the U.S., is in many ways ethnically and culturally worlds apart.
“I come from a place that is very diverse, but it’s also heavily ethnic. There were not very many white people in my school or my town, so when I came here I was overwhelmed and felt very isolated and alone,” she says.
As a law student at Willamette, Sugawa-Fujinaga found solace in a cousin who also attended the university and in a former admissions dean who was from Hawaii. Sugawa-Fujinaga also credited Stella Menabe, then administrator of the bar’s Affirmative Action Program, with providing invaluable support.
Still, that couldn’t insulate Sugawa-Fujinaga when some white, male Willamette students drove past her one day while she was jogging, threw beer cans at her and hurled a racial slur. Sugawa-Fujinaga says she joined the law school’s mentorship program partly out of desperation to find attorneys who looked like her. She says she was fortunate enough to be paired with Liani Reeves, now Gov. John Kitzhaber’s chief legal counsel.
Now established in her own practice, Sugawa-Fujinaga mentors other Willamette law students, most of whom are Asian. She encourages them to celebrate their own culture while learning about the new personal and professional paradigms they face.
Recently, Sugawa-Fujinaga began mentoring a law student whose family is from Syria. She says her relationship with Jessica Nomie has been an enormous learning experience.
“With all of the unrest in Syria, it opened my eyes to appreciating everything we have in America and reminded me about being more open to the world,” Sugawa-Fujinaga says. “As a global citizen, you need to be more aware of what is going on.”
Nomie, an attorney with Phillip Gilbert & Associates in Gresham, says it was helpful that Sugawa-Fujinaga had also graduated from Willamette and could give her some advice on which professors and courses would be most helpful. She says Sugawa-Fujinaga’s networking expertise also has been beneficial.
“I’m kind of shy, so it’s nice to get out and meet people and get people’s different perspectives on how things work,” Nomie says.
Helle Rode and Mimi Luong also are first-generation Americans and the first in their families to become attorneys. Rode’s family moved to the U.S. from Norway when she was 4, and Luong’s family left Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. They met at a 2004 employment retreat hosted by the bar, when Luong was a first-year student at the University of Oregon’s law school. The pair connected immediately and Rode, a UO law grad who was working at Oregon’s justice department, offered to be Luong’s mentor.
“I knew from my own experience that it’s really hard to get to know the Portland legal market if you’re going to school in Eugene and don’t have any contacts in the Portland area,” says Rode, now the equal opportunity compliance officer for the Oregon Health & Science University’s Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Department.
Luong says she has gained much from the relationship, from having a sounding board who can answer an array of questions about the profession to a friend who, among other new adventures, introduced Luong to cross-country skiing.
Rode says the learning opportunities have been mutual. Through Luong, Rode has a greater understanding of the difficulties female attorneys of color face, not just within the profession but sometimes within their own families. Women who want to pursue careers remain a foreign concept for the older generations of many cultures. Rode says she also has learned how important family connections are within the Vietnamese community and met several of Luong’s relatives at her graduation and other special events.
“They all stay very connected and are always getting together. My own family is different in that regard. Although I have a large family in Norway, growing up here I just have my parents and siblings. In contrast to Mimi’s family, my family, while close, does not have big family gatherings very often and does not even get together all that often,” she says.
Robert Le, who was born in the U.S. after his parents emigrated from Vietnam, found a kindred soul in Anastasia Yu Meisner. Meisner, partner at Lake Oswego’s Guyer Meisner, is Korean-Caucasian and is frequently asked for professional advice by new minority attorneys. She counseled Le as he neared graduation from Lewis & Clark Law School and debated whether to stay in Portland and help the Vietnamese community or move to California to explore business prospects there.
“I’ve had other practitioners come to me and say, ‘I want to serve my community, how do I do it?’ ” Meisner says. “I tell people they need to be able to pay their bills, not just for the first six months but the first year. I scare some of them away because I try not to sugarcoat it, but it can be really hard, especially these days.”
Le decided to stay in Portland, and he and Meisner often refer cases to each other. It hasn’t always been an easy transition, says Le, whose mother is Chinese and whose father is Vietnamese.
“My family is very traditional and vertical relationships are important, so in my culture older people — especially judges and attorneys — have higher status and you respect them regardless,” he says.
When he had to argue a motion before Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Nelson, Le found himself struggling against his ingrained inclination to defer to her superior role in the courtroom. Nelson called Le into her chambers to ask why he was holding back, and once he had explained his cultural dilemma, encouraged him to argue more aggressively.
“She was so kind to me, and when she said that to me it made me so much more comfortable to stand before her and argue that motion,” he says.
Just as Meisner helped guide Le, he offers to mentor others as well. This paying-it-forward approach is just one of several factors that enrich Oregon’s minority bar community. “The numbers are small, but the quality is very deep,” Le says.
Everyone Has an Opportunity to Learn
When Japanese-American attorney Akira Heshiki joined Standard Insurance Company, she found not only a pair of invaluable mentors but also an opportunity to increase awareness of the benefits of diversity and inclusion within the company. Now a senior attorney at Standard, Heshiki describes how her supervisor Tony Padilla, a Latino attorney, quickly became a mentor and a friend.
“Tony was the only other attorney of color for a long time in the legal department. When I joined Standard in 2002 it was just the two of us, and he and I developed a bond immediately,” she says. “The fact that Tony was here spoke volumes to me about the company and the legal department, and his encouragement and mentoring are a major contribution to my longevity at the company.”
Heshiki also found that the company was receptive to broadening its efforts to foster diversity and inclusion. She and Flo Stephens, a second vice president of medical underwriting, initiated an employee resource group called Celebrating Racial and Ethnic Diversity (CRED). Designed as a co-mentoring model, the group pairs senior level executives with younger employees and the two mentor each other.
“It’s quite revolutionary in a top-down organization like The Standard because we are, like many similar institutions, very hierarchical in nature,” Heshiki says. “So arranging people in these relationships means you have to find people that are willing to step outside their comfort zone, people who are willing to take some risks.”
Heshiki’s co-mentor is Sky O’Callahan, an assistant vice president of customer support. Heshiki notes that the co-mentoring model has allowed her to have several personal and difficult conversations that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to have with a superior, particularly in a traditional corporate environment.
“One of the challenges of being an in-house attorney is that the scope of your views can be limited because the lawyers can be isolated from the day-to-day workings of the business,” she says. “My discussions with Sky help me view things through a different perspective. He gives me insight about what may be driving decisions from business leadership and historically how things have worked at the company. His candidness has helped me understand things about myself and how I can be a better lawyer and work more effectively in the company.”
Heshiki is dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion outside of her workplace as well. The former OMLA board member serves on the bar’s Diversity section and co-chaired the 2011 Convocation on Equality. In addition, she serves on the Diversity Committee for the American Bar Association’s Tort Trial and Practice Section and the ABA’s Legal Opportunity Scholarship Committee.
“To me, being a lawyer at its heart is about relationships. Removing barriers to understanding each other and feeling understood, no matter the color, is part of the success of communicating and part of being a great advocate,” she says.
A longtime advocate on behalf of minority attorneys, Oregon Appeals Court Judge Darleen Ortega has hired clerks who are African-American and Asian, as well as a Romanian immigrant and a Hispanic transgender lawyer.
“I do that really deliberately because if you look around the court system in Oregon, there’s not a lot of diversity among the staff and that’s a problem,” she says.
Ortega says she looks beyond law school grades and LSAT scores, and determines the most qualified candidates by their ability to solve legal problems, their research and writing skills, their success at thinking outside the box and their references.
“It has enabled me to hire some people who otherwise wouldn’t be on the radar, and it has allowed me to hire some really excellent clerks,” she says. “I tell minority lawyers, ‘You have something valuable that isn’t out there, and the challenge is to get in the door and show what you have to offer.’ ”
Ortega adds that a diverse mix of clerks have enhanced the conversations in her chambers, and reminds her to continually ask challenging questions rather than simply doing things the way they traditionally have been done within the system.
“I feel totally enriched by working with these people from different backgrounds than mine,” she says. “Diversity is a two-way street. If I’m going to promote it, I need to expand my understanding of people from different backgrounds, stretch my own views and keep learning.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2013 Melody Finnemore