My path to law: one immigrant’s journey
Jeena Cho. Photo courtesy of the JC Law Group.
I watched a lot of Law & Order growing up. My family immigrated to the U.S. in 1988 (the same year that Korea last hosted the Olympics). I was 10 years old and didn’t speak a word of English. Neither did anyone else in my family. As I watched, I repeated the phrases the lawyers said on the show, trying to learn the words, the intonation, the meaning.
When we moved to the U.S., we settled in Astoria, New York, where my grandparents owned a grocery store. My dad went from being an architect at Samsung to working seven days a week at the grocery store. My mom had been an art teacher; in New York, she worked at a nail salon.
Here’s the thing. When you’re an immigrant in a country where you don’t speak the language, where you aren’t familiar with its rules and laws, you get taken advantage of.
We moved into an apartment with no hot water but plenty of cockroaches and rats. We didn’t know for years that you can report the landlord to housing agencies. I still remember waking up in the middle of the night, screaming, terrified because a rat ran across my torso. Once I found a cockroach in a bowl of soup.
Eventually my dad bought a laundromat. More than once, customers threatened to sue him for some claimed loss or damage to their clothing. He usually paid them because he didn’t understand how the legal system worked.
I knew from watching Law & Order that there were rules in this country designed to protect the innocent, punish wrongdoers and restore justice. I loved the show. In 60 minutes, bad people were always prosecuted and justice served. To my naive 12-year-old self, this was obviously my path: Go to law school. Become a prosecutor. Send bad guys to jail. Protect the innocent.
As a sophomore in high school, I decided I was going away for college, but my parents were very traditional and didn’t approve. They often said that the only way I was allowed to leave the house was if I were (1) married or (2) dead. Neither option appealed to me.
I saved every dollar I could from my job as a cashier at Boston Market and applied for colleges out of town. I faked their signatures on the applications, completed all the financial aid forms, and got into University at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo) 420 miles away with a full scholarship.
Once it was clear that I wouldn’t need their permission or financial support, I “ran away” to college. I was 17 years old. I didn’t speak to my parents for a long time after that
As an immigrant working menial jobs, you often feel unseen and unrecognized. I’ll never forget the summer I worked in my mom’s nail salon. She told a customer (very proudly) that had I just graduated from college. The woman looked at me as if seeing me for the first time (while I was washing her feet), and said very sweetly, “Well, isn’t that nice. So, will you be working here then?”
Stunned, I paused and responded that I was there for the summer but was starting law school in the fall. Her facial expression changed and she responded: “Well, good for you.”
I graduated from law school at 24 and got my dream job as an assistant state attorney in Florida. There I learned that one privilege of having that role is seeing images we’ll never be able to unsee and hearing stories we’ll never be able to unhear.
I was assigned to the domestic violence unit where I learned that our criminal “justice” system is a terrible mechanism for helping people.
Later, I was assigned to misdemeanors court. The first day was arraignment day. The judge, through a Spanish-speaking interpreter, asked everyone who was there for driving without a valid license to move into the jury box. A group of about 30 men stood and walked over. There were too many of them for the jury box, so they huddled around it. They looked tired, with leathered skin from working in the fields all day, their hands and fingers swollen.
The judge had the interpreter tell them his rule. “The first time you’re caught, it’s a fine. Second time, it’s 10 days in jail. Third time, 364 days.” For comparison, a third-time DUI carried with it a minimum mandatory sentence of 30 days.
One by one, the men were asked to plead. Those that pled guilty were sentenced according to the judge’s rule. Often the defendants didn’t understand the consequences of pleading guilty, and more than once would start wailing when they were taken straight from arraignment to jail. Those that didn’t plead were assigned a public defender and set for trial.
This was deeply traumatizing. Although I was in the U.S. legally, I could see myself, my family in the faces and stories of these workers.
Bryan Stevenson asks in his book Just Mercy: “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” I didn’t try capital cases, but his question resonates with me. As an assistant state attorney, I saw how we want to lock away, criminalize and shun people who are broken.
Like most state attorneys’ offices, we were overworked (I had over 250 cases) and there was no time. No time to sit down and figure out how to help people. No time to consider what would be a just outcome. I was burning out, desperately trying to keep my head above water, and having regular nightmares of seeing my parents in the jury box—nightmares of their being taken away from me for 364 days.
I needed a change. So, I moved from Tampa to the San Francisco Bay Area. I met my husband, Jeff Curl, who is also a lawyer, and we started a bankruptcy practice. This was the perfect practice area for me (even though it doesn’t make me very popular at cocktail parties). I get to help people who are experiencing financial trauma and give them a fresh start. It is healing and restorative.
The first bankruptcy case I ever filed was for a very sweet 69-year-old immigrant. He was HIV-positive and struggling with bipolar depression. After the meeting of creditors, we hugged and he cried.
I started practicing mindfulness and meditation in 2011 after being diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. This eventually led to co-authoring a book with Karen Gifford for ABA Publishing, The Anxious Lawyer.
Here’s what I know. While my 12-year-old self’s understanding of how our justice system works was flawed and naive, what I’ve retained is the deep desire to make a difference, to create a better world, and to live with compassion.
As Rainer Maria Rilke writes in his book Letters to a Young Poet: “The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Every day, I live with the question: “What would be the most kind, generous and compassionate response?” I am practicing living into the answer.
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on actionable strategies for well-being and stress management through mindfulness training. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation. Jeena practices bankruptcy law with her husband at JC Law Group in San Francisco.
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