Setting the Bar
How Niki Cung became the first Vietnamese-American attorney in Arkansas
Published in 2016 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 8, 2016
Updated on November 21, 2016
When Niki Cung left Vietnam for the U.S. in 1975, she was too young to remember the journey.
“My mom has told me stories about having to hide one of my sisters and me in the floorboard of a van so that we could get to our meeting spot—so that we could get out of the country,” says the civil litigation attorney at Kutak Rock in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “She is one of my heroes—along with my dad.”
Cung was the youngest of nine kids. Her father was in the South Vietnamese Army and her mom ran a small retail shop in the front of their house in Bao Loc. Cung’s Uncle Bob Destatte, one of the first Americans in Vietnam during the conflict, was able to get the family to safety two weeks before the fall of Saigon. “I’m sure you’ve seen the images of people hanging off the helicopter skids,” she says.
For three years, they lived in a trailer in Minnesota, where another uncle lived, and where Cung’s parents each worked two jobs. Searching for warmer climates, the family moved south and passed through Fort Smith, Arkansas, on its way to the Gulf Coast. “There was a little Vietnamese community,” she says. “They had a church and a Buddhist temple, a grocery store, and a couple of restaurants.” Immigrants who came on boats from Vietnam were processed in its neighboring town, Fort Chaffee. After running into old friends from Vietnam, her parents decided to settle in Fort Smith.
Cung began thinking about a career in law when she was 16. Her father hurt his back and filed for workers’ comp, but his claim was denied after he checked an incorrect box on the form. “That was when I realized lawyers can make an impact,” says Cung, who, as a senior in high school, worked as a runner for Jones, Jackson & Moll. “The lawyers there really solidified for me that this is what I want to do.”
After earning her J.D. from the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1996, she passed the state bar that summer, and in the process became the first Vietnamese-American to be licensed in Arkansas history. “It’s pretty awesome,” she says. “It’s a distinction that I’m really proud of.”
At the Jones firm, Cung defended insurance companies with a focus on motor carrier liability, and became known around the office as the “Big Rig Chick” because there weren’t many female attorneys working in the trucking industry at the time. She joined her current firm, Kutak Rock, in 2005.
After nearly winning a judicial position for the Arkansas Court of Appeals in 2012, her name was submitted by then-Sen. Mark Pryor to President Obama to be considered as a judge for the Western District of Arkansas. She didn’t get it, but it’s still an aspiration.
“I think that being a judge has the potential to allow me to make a bigger impact than what I do now,” Cung says. “I’ve had so many opportunities, and the privilege to be able to practice law … and to be able to serve would allow me to give back.
“I really have been able to live the great American story. I mean, my first job was when I was 14, at McDonald’s. I have worked ever since.”