Patricia Chen can trace the genesis of her career in law to a business disaster that befell her father when she was just 5 years old. An immigrant from Taiwan trying to make a better life for himself and his family in Hawaii, he had sunk his life savings into a business venture with a friend. The supposed friend ended up swindling her father out of all his money.
“That left an indelible impression on me,” Chen says, recalling who was born in Hawaii, lawyers are regarded as somewhat less the period of family turmoil that followed. “I remember that my parents argued all the time. They didn’t understand the legal system and didn’t know that there was anything they could do about it. That is one thing that pushed me into law. But it was by no means a straight path.”
Her route through school led at various times in other directions, a tactic aimed at assuaging her parents’ concerns about her personal career preference. Apparently even in Taiwan, observes Chen, who was born in Hawaii, lawyers are regarded as somewhat less than honorable. “My mom thought law was a terrible profession, especially for a woman,” she says. “They wanted me to be a doctor, but I didn’t want to go down that career path.”
Her parents’ qualms about the legal profession have long since vanished, now that their daughter is a senior associate at Fulbright & Jaworski, specializing in environmental law. Her own fits of youthful chafing at her parents’ expectations are also a thing of the past, replaced with gratitude for their lifetime of hard work and their willingness to sacrifice for their children’s education.
Chen’s father, who was employed by China Airlines when he arrived in Hawaii, worked after hours for H&R Block so that he could afford to send his three daughters to one of the best private schools in Honolulu. Despite the traumatic collapse of his first venture in a business of his own, he bought a gift shop in Waikiki, which brought its own problems, from long hours to surly shoplifters.
“My parents were always working. We hardly ever saw them except when we were helping in the store,” says Chen, who shared space in a two-bedroom apartment with two sisters. “All of the money my parents made went into our education,” she says.
Chen went to college at the University of California in Irvine, where she started out majoring in physics. That passed muster with her parents because it looked like she was on a pre-med track. In her sophomore year, she switched to civil engineering, but decided during a summer job before her junior year that it was just too “mind numbing.” Back at school, her counselor said that if she wanted to change once again, she was closest to completing a major in biology, so she switched to that. “I thought, oh my god, I’m going to fall back into the doctor thing,” she recalls. She eventually made yet another switch — to applied ecology. “Amazingly enough, I graduated in four years,” Chen says.
Applied ecology was a new major at Irvine. In fact, it was so new that when she went job hunting with that degree in hand, “nobody knew what it was.” She was told that if she wanted a job in environmental engineering, she would need to go to graduate school, a piece of advice that she used as a good excuse to go to law school. She graduated from the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco in 1998 and has been at Fulbright & Jaworski ever since.
Her science and engineering background is invaluable in her specialty: counseling private industries and public agencies on issues related to compliance with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, California Environmental Quality Act, federal toxic-waste law and other environmental statutes.
Her work as a lawyer “makes my dad very happy,” she says. “I think he feels like he’s done his job.” Her mother, too, has warmed up to the idea of having a lawyer-daughter. “They work it into conversations with their friends all the time now,” Chen says.