At age 35, Luan Tran enjoys the breezy countenance of carefree youth; he seems almost brash or arrogant. He loves traveling the world, thinks saving for a rainy day is overrated, and dresses Esquire-sharp. As this co-founder of Lee & Tran looks out from the 42nd-floor conference room of the Wells Fargo Tower with all of Los Angeles spread below him, he muses that there is nothing in life that scares him.
But Tran isn’t just some cocky naïve kid. His inner life is one of humbleness toward those who have helped him achieve his goals. His success is a tribute to those who pulled for him, those who sacrificed. In fact, once you know his story, Tran is the kind of person you cheer for.
When Tran thinks back to his boyhood in Vietnam, there are only cloudy images, except for one. He can vividly recall when he was 5 and his family was running frantically to the U. S. Embassy in Saigon. They were fleeing — along with thousands of other South Vietnamese — before North Vietnamese communists gained total control of the country. The attempt was futile.
“We couldn’t get into the compound at all,” Tran recalls, “but I had an aunt who was also there, and she managed to get inside the embassy by throwing her baby over the heads of the marines. But even she couldn’t get away on the helicopters.”
It’s impossible for most of us to comprehend such desperation — where throwing a child is the last best hope for the kid’s future. But Tran believes that man is hardwired with a resiliency and a yearning for freedom that compels people beyond desperation, to float on rafts from Cuba to Miami, or to keep resisting until barriers like the Berlin Wall are torn down. To this day, Tran is amazed at just how dire the Vietnam of his youth was. “My country has been through a lot for thousands of years, from wars to occupation, but never before would we leave our country,” he says. “But this was so bad. There is only one word to explain why we would leave. Freedom.”
When Saigon fell in 1975, Tran’s parents (both college professors) lost all their possessions. Because his father had studied in the United States, he was sent to prison (or “re-education camp”) for three years.
“Many families were in the same situation. The communists are really good for propaganda and they would tell us in school that our parents were counter-revolutionaries and we should spy on them,” says Tran. “With all that hopelessness, the only thing people were concerned about was getting the hell out of the country.”
When Tran’s father returned from prison, the family tried three times to escape Vietnam, only to be scammed out of the gold bars they used for money. On the fourth attempt, there was only enough money for two people. Faced with the kind of pain no family should suffer, they decided that father and son would try to leave.
“That day when we said goodbye was just like in the movies — very dramatic,” says Tran. “It was raining and dark, and my mother was trying not to cry too hard because people might see us and figure out that we were trying to escape. I remember feeling confused, but excited about another attempt to get away.”
Tran and his father hid in a safe house until nightfall, and then carefully made their way to a boat, bribing officials and risking capture along the way. The boat that served as their vessel of salvation was less than 40 feet long and about 6 feet wide, and filled with 88 people. Tran spent most of his passage in the hull, but during his brief visits on deck he remembers seeing the ocean turn chillingly dark wherever it was really deep. The small craft didn’t slice through the water but rather rode the steep ups and downs of waves several stories high. The conditions were so tight, Tran says, that when the sea got rough the refugees often had no choice but to vomit on each other.
“We were lucky. We were all about to die, so hungry and so tired, but we felt lucky.” Remarkably, Tran often uses that word — lucky — to describe the situation. Even after three days at sea, after a French boat passed by without stopping despite everyone on the deck screaming and waving, Tran reiterates that he was not disillusioned. “We were the lucky ones. We got out.”
They were finally picked up by a German ship chartered by Doctors Without Borders and the crew told them that a huge storm was right behind them. The remains of another boat, in fact, floated by the ship after the squall passed. Tran’s boat had probably cheated death by a few hours.
The voyage was not over, though. They remained aboard the ship for a month because no country would take them. Tran remembers docking in Singapore at dawn, marveling at the high-rise buildings and thinking to himself that the city was what freedom looked like. Though he couldn’t walk its streets, he recalls that it was still magnificent to behold.
Finally, a Philippines refugee camp accepted them. The wait was hard, but Tran insists he felt fortunate that the stay lasted only a year. In 1982 they were allowed into Canada, where Tran’s father had relatives, and they settled in Montreal. Despite the long odds of a reunion, his mother and sister joyously — and legally — joined them four years later.
History would show that Tran and his father were among hundreds of thousands of fleeing Vietnamese refugees, and part of the largest mass departure of asylum seekers by boat in modern history. “My story is nothing extraordinary compared to my fellow Vietnamese Americans,” Tran says. “Never underestimate the resilience of the human being. We just need hope.”
Tran thrived in law school at the University of Ottawa. After graduation he worked white-collar crime cases for Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg. But he wanted to try his luck in the United States, so upon receiving his LL.M. from Harvard, Tran moved to Los Angeles — for the weather and proximity to the large Vietnamese population.
In 1999, after practicing business litigation at Quinn Emanuel for a couple of years, he was brought the case of Dac Vi Hoang. In Vietnam, Hoang, a wealthy and successful businessman had criticized the communist government — not because of its politics, but because of its wide-ranging economic corruption. When Hoang feared that the government meant to silence him, he quickly left with his wife and daughter to seek asylum in the United States.
“I didn’t know immigration law,” says Tran of his decision to take the case. “But you know what? The practice of law isn’t rocket science. No matter what area you’re in, you do your research and prepare your case well. However, after researching immigration law, I quickly decided that this was a loser. Never in U.S. immigration law history, as far as I could determine, had asylum been granted for economic policies.”
Nothing in Tran’s past ever stopped him from pushing forward with an empty hand, and so he didn’t give up here. Tran proved an artful attorney by making Hoang a refugee sur place, someone who becomes a refugee after leaving the place of danger. By essentially becoming Hoang’s publicist, Tran made his client’s anti-communist views well-known with published newspaper profiles; he then convinced congresswoman Loretta Sanchez to take Hoang to Washington, D.C., to testify during congressional hearings.
Tran took a perceived weakness — that a wealthy businessman had all the breaks and didn’t need help — and turned the argument on its head. Basically Hoang told Congress that “if a guy like me, with all those advantages, can’t live there freely, cannot speak out even about economics, there’s hardly any chance of the little guy surviving under a repressive Vietnamese government.”
It was a brilliant tactic. After generating so much publicity, it was clear that Hoang could not safely return to Vietnam and in 2002 he and his family were granted asylum. It’s at this point in Tran’s narrative that there is a pause. A long pause. Tran has spoken all afternoon with incredible calm and an unwavering smile. For the first time, though, he’s briefly at a loss for words.
“It was the most satisfactory of moments,” Tran says quietly. “No matter where my legal career takes me, that is my most successful moment. I was once in his shoes, trying to risk everything to get freedom. I made something good with my life to help a fellow human being get that freedom. It was very touching when I told him. I cried a little bit with him.”
With partner James Lee, Tran opened a law firm in 2003. They practice trial and litigation matters in areas such as business contingency, intellectual property and employment for some fairly big clients, such as Hilton Hotels and the Walt Disney Company. Strategically, Lee & Tran is focused on the Southern California Asian population. “The Asian-American market is growing tremendously,” says Tran. “We are positioning ourselves to be the first call when someone needs a good lawyer.”
It would be a very wise call indeed. Tran is still fearless while representing Haong’s oldest daughter, who fled Vietnam and is waiting in the Philippines for U.S. asylum. He’s also involved with VietACT, a group dedicated to ending human trafficking in Vietnam.
Today Tran is at peace with all of his decisions. “I always tell my partner, even if we collapse — big deal — we can always do something else. I came to this country with nothing. The worst is that I leave with nothing. But I have my education; I have the will to succeed. I’m an adventurous person and don’t mind taking chances.”