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Spotlight on Hyphen Hero Eugene Ryu, Head of KABANC Free Legal Clinics

March 18, 2014


Many successful people donate money to charitable
organizations. Fewer, however, give of their most precious resource: their

Eugene Ryu, partner at the prestigious employment law firm
Littler Mendelson, gives plenty of both.
He has served on the Board of Directors for the Korean American Bar Association
of Northern California
(KABANC) for over five years, where he leads the pro-bono committee that organizes a free law clinic twice a year.

“We help everybody,”
says Ryu. “But originally, the clinic was focused on the first-generation,
elderly Korean community who were having language difficulties.”

its early days, the clinic primarily addressed immigration issues. Today,
clients of all ethnicities walk in with other legal questions ranging from
family law to small business practices -- including hopeful entrepreneurs
trying to launch start-ups.

The clinic benefits
not only the community, but also the law students and attorneys who volunteer.
For law students, interacting with clients provides real-life experience the
classroom cannot provide. And for attorneys, the satisfaction they gain from
mentoring the next generation of lawyers provides a brighter outlook on the

not just for our parents’ generation that we [KABANC] spend so much time doing
this stuff,” says Ryu. “It’s also for our kids, to show them, ‘Look, you can do
anything, you can be active in the community, you can be Asian and [...] do
whatever you want to do. You don’t have to adhere to any kind of
preconceptions, stereotypes, or misconceptions.’”

a young age, Ryu had to banish any sense of self-consciousness or insecurity in
order to help his first-generation immigrant parents. Long before he graduated
from UC Berkeley with a double major in ethnic studies and mass communications,
and from UC Hastings with a J.D., Ryu had adult responsibilities to bear --
even as a young 10-year old. When asked why he pursued employment law, Ryu
says: “It was a pretty natural fit [...] my parents were small business owners
[and] I had to help them with all this random stuff relating to their business by
communicating in English on their behalf.”

acknowledges that his experience is likely a common one among children of
immigrant parents. But unlike others who may have felt burdened by the need to
serve as their parents’ spokesperson (consider, for example, Amy Tan’s essay
“Mother Tongue,” in which she discusses a similar experience in a rather
ambivalent tone), Ryu always felt up to the challenge.

was totally okay with it. I would negotiate things for my dad, and I remember
having to call credit card companies and banks for my mom [and] do all these
different things,” he says. “I joke about this when I say my parents were my
first clients, but they kinda were.”

was drawn to employment law because it required him to work directly with people.
“I have pretty personal relationships with all of the clients that I work
with,” he says. “I understand that their business is their livelihood, and that
problems need to be fixed in order for their business to succeed. I get it -- and
it kind of feels [like when] I would help my parents deal with the growing
pains of their own business, being able to commiserate and understand what
that’s like.”

grew up in San Diego, CA with his parents and younger sister at a time when
very few Asian Americans residents lived there. To help their children form a
stronger Korean identity, Ryu’s parents drove the family to a Korean church
over an hour away on at least a weekly basis. “It wasn’t at all about the
religion part ... it was about them just wanting us to hang out with other Korean
kids,” he recalls.

listening to Ryu speak, I try hard to ignore the cognitive dissonances
resounding in my brain as I ponder Ryu’s seemingly contradictory qualities. For
one thing, he looks very young. More like a 1L student wearing a
pinstripe suit borrowed from his father than a senior partner at a big-deal law
firm. Second, he speaks in an even, laid-back, deep and very kind voice -- not
the over-assertive, brash lawyer-type voice I might have expected from a highly
successful attorney. And, perhaps most notably, the guy is just one
down-to-earth kind of dude, keenly honest and self-aware.

As our conversation
winds down, Ryu asks Hyphen to reach out to others for help. In addition to volunteers and free publicity, KABANC needs a
permanent space to host its clinics. KABANC is hoping that securing a permanent
space at no cost will allow their clinic to draw in a steadier, larger crowd
and help more people in the community. If you, Dear Reader, can help in any
way, please email me at abigail[dot]licad[at]hyphenmagazine[dot]com.

next KABANC clinic is scheduled for April 5, 2014, from 10 am to 4 pm, at the
Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) offices (3003 North First
Street, San Jose, CA 95134). Please help spread the word, and help Ryu and
KABANC fight the good fight.

make an appointment 

Phone: (800) 871-9012 ext. 124930#




Abigail Licad

Books Editor

Abigail Licad is one big FOB and damn proud of it. She grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to San Leandro, CA at age 13.  She has a BA from University of California, Berkeley and a master's degree in literature from Oxford University. Her poetry and book reviews have appeared in Calyx, Borderlands, The Critical Flame, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. She is Hyphen's Books Editor.