Published in 2024 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
By Chanté Griffin on January 9, 2024
“I need a kick-ass female attorney,” the woman said, “and I need somebody who understands I’m not lying.”
It was 2008, and S. Graham (not her real name) was speaking to attorney Geraldine Ly at a Starbucks because Ly’s office in Santa Ana had a spiral staircase but no elevator. While working at IKEA, Graham broke her ankle, but even with a year of rest and rehab she was still on crutches, insisting the pain was too intense to even stand on unassisted. Her original attorney advised her to accept IKEA’s $15,000 settlement offer, telling her, “Suck it up, buttercup, this ain’t the lotto.”
But the pain didn’t go away, and eventually Graham was forced to trade in her crutches for a wheelchair. She’d been diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a medical condition that creates intense prolonged pain after an injury; now she needed someone to believe in her and fight for her.
Ly researched CRPS until she understood it inside out, had medical experts examine Graham, and presented the evidence in court. The result was a million-dollar settlement—Ly’s first—that included money for a home retrofitting for wheelchair access and CRPS treatment.
This was the beginning of Ly’s ascent into becoming a leading workers’ comp attorney, but it was just one of countless times Ly stood headstrong in the face of inequity.
“I straddle the cultural divide,” says Ly. “In Chinese culture, you have a lot of deference to your elders, and my dad’s dad—my grandfather—demanded respect just because he’s the grandpa. … [But] I am outspoken. I am a fighter. I’m defiant. If you don’t give me a reason, [I question] why I am to do something you’re telling me to do.”
In her teen years, in particular, she began to question her cultural norms. One afternoon, her grandfather told her to pour tea for her uncle. “Why?” she answered. “What’s wrong with him?”
Her grandfather admonished her, but her mom defended her. It seems like a small matter, but mother and daughter were taking on 5,000 years of Chinese cultural tradition, and her mom wound up ostracized by her dad’s side of the family. Invitations to family dinners and events all but ceased.
But the incident had a huge positive effect on Ly. “My mom empowered me,” Ly says. “She was not going to be the quiet married woman who doesn’t say anything, and that taught me that it’s OK to stand up, to do what you think is right, and not just go with the flow because tradition tells you to.”
Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Saigon in the early 1960s, then moved the family slowly westward: from Indiana to Minnesota to Colorado and eventually California. Like many immigrant parents, they saw education as the key to getting ahead. “People can take away your money,” Ly and her younger brother were frequently told, “but they can never take away your education.” Her parents walked that walk, too: Mom received various liberal arts degrees in languages and art, while her father got his MBA from Ball State.
The kids were given two options for careers: doctor or lawyer. Ly says she faints at the sight of blood—”mine, yours, or anybody’s”—so she went with door number two. Her brother chose neither, winding up in finance, following in his father’s footsteps.
Ly’s activism began early. At Granada Hills High School, Ly, a skilled debater who was elected student body president, remembers speaking out for “groups of individuals that didn’t have a voice at our school,” whether they were goths or geeks. She was good at connecting with and representing different kinds of people—a quality that was even reflected in her 1980s attire. On a Monday morning you might find her sporting neon, denim, off-the-shoulder sweater, white pumps. On Wednesday she might be more preppy: sweater, mini skirt and loafers. “That’s what I would wear for my student body events,” she says. But on Friday, you might find Ly strutting the hallways in a fringed black leather jacket, black leggings, high boots, and hair teased high to the sky.
Throughout high school and college, Ly found ways to rebel against the rules. “Up until I was 18,” she says, “I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup, except I could wear a little bit of mascara.” Because bold eyeliner was all the rage, Ly would let her mascara run a bit and smudge it so it looked like eyeliner.
Similarly, after she received her driver’s license, Ly was tasked with driving her younger brother to school and baseball and basketball practice. “I had to do it, that was fine,” she says. “But then I also went and bought a motorcycle—no room in the inn—so he can drive himself to his practices.”
Ly was developing creative problem-solving skills—a useful trait in a future personal injury attorney. “Whenever there’s a creative theory I need,” says fellow plaintiff’s lawyer Aaron Hicks, “I call her and she’s got the answer.”
In her second year at California Western School of Law, she worked at the Victim Witness Advocates Organization, a group designed to support victims of violent crime; she helped families apply for grants. After hearing families’ heartbreaking stories and assisting them toward recovery, she knew she wanted to use her law degree to stand with plaintiffs. “I always wanted a job that required me to interact with people,” she says.
Post-graduation, she adds, “I was looking for any position, any law firm that would take me.” Fortuitously, her parents knew an attorney in Los Angeles, N. Van Dao—one of the first Vietnamese attorneys licensed in California, Ly says—and there she worked on every aspect of law: personal injury, family, criminal defense, immigration. “I became the jack-of-all-trades,” she says.
Then she partnered with two classmates from California Western Law. In 2016 she hung her own shingle. “It was pretty scary,” she says. But after she secured two offices in a friend’s building—one for her and one for her assistant—she says she “never looked back.”
Today, Ly represents a wide range of clients injured on the job—from teachers to firefighters—many of whom suffer from CRPS. Hicks met Ly when she moved into the office suite next to his. “Whenever she’d have a party or lunch for her staff, she’d include all of us as well,” he says. Since then, Ly has become a trusted mentor and friend; they often work cases together, with Ly on the workers’ comp side and Hicks handling the personal injury aspect.
“There are very few attorneys that have the ability to understand multiple complexities,” says Traci Kaas, a Newport Beach-based financial settlement planner who also works with Ly’s clients. “Meaning she can handle workers’ compensation, she can handle personal injury, and a lot of times those crisscross. And then having the ability to emotionally connect with their clients as well.”
Kaas met Ly through the Orange County Trial Lawyers Association, which Ly once served as president. Asked to describe Ly, Kaas says, “Can I say a tiger and a kitten at the same time? … She’s that person, that kitten, that everybody loves, but when it comes to advocating for her client, she becomes that tiger.”
Kaas witnessed this dynamic in the aftermath of the December 2015 terrorist shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. Fourteen people were killed and 17 injured at a work event after an employee and his wife opened fire on the crowd. Ly was hired to represent several of the employees who were shot and others who suffered from PTSD from witnessing the attack. She sat with each of them, listening to their stories of trauma and nightmares. But many weren’t receiving essential treatment and medication; so on the one-year anniversary of the tragic event, when a news outlet interviewed Ly, the tiger came out.
“I kind of went off,” she says. “It was unprofessional, but I was pissed because the County of San Bernardino was not taking care of their employees.”
After that interview, Ly and one of the survivors spoke with any and every news outlet that would listen. Simultaneously, Assembly Member Eloise Gómez Reyes drafted AB 44, a bill would make it possible for workers injured on the job through domestic terrorism to receive increased workers’ comp support. Ly and her client flew to Sacramento to speak on behalf of the bill. In 2019, it was voted into law, which Ly says she’s “pretty darn proud of.”
The walls of Ly’s office highlight other accomplishments she’s proud of: being named one of the 10 Best California Attorneys in Client Satisfaction by the American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys; being named Board Member of the Year for the CRPS Warriors Foundation; many others.
The main wall inside the office conference room, however, is sparsely decorated—just one picture: a calligraphy painting her mother created for her.
“My Chinese name, Ga Kay, is on the right side of the painting,” Ly says. “The other two characters are in old Chinese. They say ‘justice.’”
“My mom is an artist, and she has made me several paintings, one of which is Mulan,” says Geraldine Ly. “If you know the story—it’s not just a Disney character, it’s a Chinese fable—that’s how she sees me. Mulan wanted to fight and help her country, but at that time only men could volunteer, so she dressed like a man. So my mom saw me as Mulan because, when I passed the bar, the overwhelming majority were men.”
Ly knows that disparity well, having experienced several instances of gender bias and discrimination.
“Many times, I would walk into the deposition room and male attorneys thought I was the secretary and asked me for a cup of coffee.”
In one instance, Ly obliged simply to relish the payoff. “I said, ‘Sure, would you like cream or sugar with that?’ He goes, ‘Yeah a little cream,’ not even looking up from his file. This was not too long ago, by the way, maybe 2015 or 2016. So I bring the coffee, then go get my client and enter the conference room to introduce ourselves. He looks up and immediately blushed.”
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