1. What was your first job?

Well, that’s hard to answer because it depends on how you define job. So, when my family moved over to the US from Korea, back in 1977, my mom started working at these clothing factories, sewing, and she would bring home work to do because she was getting paid by the pieces she’d complete, so she would bring work home on the weekends and I had to help her do the things she needed to do so she’d pay me like 10 cents for each piece that I was able to complete. So, one could argue that if the job was defined as getting paid for whatever you’re doing, that would be my first job. But outside the family, my first job was a store clerk at a convenience store. It was called Convenience Mart, and I didn’t lie, but I withheld the fact that I was not 16 at the time that I applied, I just put down my birthday but not the year.

  1. Tell me a bit about your work now. What kinds of cases do you preside over now as a US Magistrate Judge?

I hear civil and criminal cases but all federal. It gets a little bit technical, but there are some state cases that I will hear if there is something called “diversity jurisdiction” where you have controversies among residents of different states. Those cases come to federal court. The idea is that a foreign state citizen would not feel comfortable litigating their case in state court.

  1. What makes a case federal?

If the claim is based on federal law or federal statute. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title 7. If you file an employment discrimination case under Title 7 then the federal court has jurisdiction over that so they’ll come to federal court to file those cases.

  1. Why did you pursue law?

That started back in high school when I took a street law class, and I think as part of our program we watched a movie called “And Justice for All” with Al Pacino as the star and that kind of got me interested in law, and the whole movie was about how people with money and power are always getting away with things while those without money and power are disenfranchised, and they didn’t really have any voice in the system. The Al Pacino character really was just fed up with that whole system, and he was trying to do something about it and that really resonated with me as an immigrant, seeing your parents struggle and not really having any voice.

  1. Did you always picture the path of becoming a lawyer and then a judge?

No, no. I think that I wanted to become Al Pacino. I wanted to become an Assistant Public Defender, and I went to law school for that reason. And I actually did get a job as an Assistant Public Defender and thinking back now I was really lucky to have gotten that job because that was my main goal. I was not interested in being a judge, it was not something I even thought about. It didn’t even come into play at all, but after working as an Assistant Public Defender, I clerked for a federal judge and seeing how things are done behind the scene and the impact that judges have, that got me interested, that’s how I got interested in maybe, maybe taking the bench. But again, it’s just so difficult to get on the federal bench it just wasn’t something I dreamed of.

  1. Are you happy that you’re on the bench now?

Extremely happy. I’m not sure that there is a day that goes by without me feeling grateful that I’m in this position. I’m very lucky, I think, to be able to do something that you call work that you enjoy doing.

  1. As someone who immigrated here and has made your career the law, have you ever faced discrimination in your career?

You know that’s the thing about discrimination, sometimes it’s really hard to detect. I think in today’s society, people are sophisticated, and so no one is going to come up to you and say, I’m not going to hire you because you’re Asian. So, it’s hard to say whether or not I was subjected to discrimination. Let’s just say that I never felt like I had to file a lawsuit or a grievance. I think that’s a fair way of putting it. In that sense, I didn’t feel that I was discriminated against but it’s hard to say.

  1. Your point about people being more sophisticated now is an interesting one, I was in a meeting a few weeks ago — me and two older white men — and for the first half of the meeting, the person we met would really only talk to my colleague. I try to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, was he ignoring me because I’m a young woman or because his primary connection to that point had been my colleague?

I think the more insidious thing is implicit bias. We don’t know that we’re doing it and so if we don’t know that we’re doing something that’s biased, it’s hard to even correct it. But what you’re describing is something that’s beyond discrimination. I think it’s just being polite to have eye contact with everyone you’re talking to; you don’t just ignore someone. Lawyers are trained to hold eye contact with everyone they’re addressing. It’s something we emphasize, something we learn in law school that we have to have good eye contact because it’s just a good trait to have.

  1. It’s polite, obviously, but why do you specifically learn it in school?

Our job is to persuade someone and if we are ignoring someone, we are not persuasive. It’s not going go over well when you’re trying to persuade someone to do something for you. So, for instance in the appellate arguments, you have three judges in these types of arguments, even if one judge is asking the question, we’re taught to hold eye contact with the judge that asked the question, but also to look over to the other two judges to let them know that their opinion on the question matters too. It’s just common sense, and the same thing happens when you’re doing a jury trial, you don’t just look at one juror you try to look at every one of them to build that rapport and relationship.

  1. What are some ways, if you have any, to combat that implicit bias?

That’s a tough one, I’ve had training in implicit bias just to get you aware that there is such a thing as implicit bias and that you may actually treat people differently without even knowing. You need to somehow recognize that and start asking questions like, “Why am I doing the things that I am doing?” It may have something to do with the fact that she’s a woman, that she’s younger than the person sitting next to her. The best way to combat implicit bias is by talking to yourself and by asking questions.

  1. Are there any specific challenges you feel like immigrants face in their careers and if so, is there advice you have about that?

Yeah, I think for me it’s a lack of network, a lack of support network. Like Cathy [his wife], both of her parents went to college, her Dad went to law school and was a big-time lawyer when Cathy was in law school, so she had this whole network that she could have relied on. But as an immigrant, the first one in the family to graduate from high school, you’re not going to have that same network. I think that’s probably one of the barriers that immigrants have is they just don’t have the support network that others may have which gives them a leg up.
So, how do you combat that? The way to combat that is finding those who are willing to mentor you, those who are willing to give you that network that you might need, so I do my best in offering my services to others, especially law students and young lawyers if they want to come in and talk to me about anything really. I make the time to talk to them. I made a promise to myself that because I didn’t have that support network if I was ever in a position to be able to help someone that I would help.

  1. Do you have any resources you can share? Communities or groups that help facilitate those mentorships or relationships?

Yes, the best way is to go back to the school you graduated from and is to offer services to students. Also, every group of professionals probably have their affinity groups or associations and that’s probably the best way to offer your services or to network. I hear a lot from law students that when they hear “networking” they get anxious. They think to themselves, “How do I network?” So, I always tell them, you go to parties to meet people. That’s all it is. You shouldn’t go into it thinking that networking means that someone is going to give you a job or that the someone is going to give you something in return just because you got to know his or her name. If you think of it as a way to meet other people, meet interesting people, and make friends, then you take away that pressure because networking, I think, places undue pressure on people.
One of the places lawyers network are the bar associations, for example, when I became a lawyer there wasn’t a Korean American Bar Association in Chicago so we formed one. The whole purpose of the association was to simply have social events, and even though we didn’t call it a networking event, you get to know people on a very informal basis and it takes away all that pressure. So, we just call it a social event and people just get to know each other and start having friends in the same area. Then, when something comes up you can share information with that particular network and information is key so I think mentoring is also important which is an easier thing to do. If somebody is willing to mentor you, meet that somebody and have a cup of coffee and ask questions. Having the right information is always important.

Nora Philbin

Nora is a co-founder of Happy Spectacular, which she still can't really believe, and she's on a lifelong quest for the world's best cheeseburger (applicants accepted).