The Sting That Doesn’t Leave You
Robert Le was ready to become a restaurateur; then he discovered how employees were being ripped off
Published in 2023 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
By Jim Walsh on July 20, 2023
“When I was a kid, my mom would always wait for me and my sister to go to bed,” remembers Robert Le. “Around 10, 11 o’clock at night I’d hear all these papers rustling, and I’d open the door to my room. My mom would have all the bills on the kitchen table, and she would be calling each [collector], saying, ‘You charged me late fee $15, can you take it off? Take it off, please, till next month?’
“I had no idea. Your mom loves you, but she actually sheltered you. So when you’re processing these things, it’s like, you experience this sting. And it just doesn’t leave you.”
As founder of a law firm whose credo is “Seeking Justice for Ordinary People,” and as legal director at Oregon Consumer Justice, an organization founded by one of his mentors, Le now works to assuage that sting for others.
Both parents were Vietnam War refugees. His mother and uncle were boat people whose first boat sank. “They held onto jugs of water that were floating. My uncle knew how to swim so he helped my mom,” Le says, adding, “These are fighters. That’s why they left Vietnam to come here—they were fighting to survive. … And at some point, you start to see ‘This is exactly why I’m supposed to be here.’”
Growing up in LA, Le advocated for people even before he got his J.D. At Johnny Rockets, he worked his way up from bussing tables to junior manager. He was studying hotel and restaurant management at California State Polytechnic University, with an eye on becoming a restaurateur himself, when one evening he drove home a busboy named Juan who complained about his paycheck. He kept getting docked hours and couldn’t figure out why. When Le looked into it, he realized it wasn’t just Juan, and it wasn’t just happening at one restaurant; it was, he felt, “the systemic exploitation of the immigrant kitchen staff.”
So Le brought the matter before the California Department of Industrial Relations. When that effort foundered, he searched for a law firm to take the case. One was willing. Le ended up as a plaintiff in the wage-theft case as well. It not only led to a significant settlement for the kitchen staff, it inspired him to change career paths.
But his experience at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland was awkward. “I have some imposter syndrome,” he says. “I was a street kid. … [My classmates] were comfortable going to a brewery. I’d never gone to a brewery. I’d never met a judge. I’d never met lawyers until I came to law school. So it was weird for me.”
He now sees all that as a strength. “Everything I’ve learned, it’s real skills,” he says. “I was busser; I understand that you can’t take away that person’s wages. I start there—with that feeling of injustice. It’s not a theoretical logical exercise; it has strong emotions.”
To subsidize his cases, he and his wife, Dr. Pari Faraji, a pediatric psychiatrist, have borrowed money and even refinanced their home. And as legal director at Oregon Consumer Justice, he looks to hire a team with grit and resilience.
Le sees his family’s struggles in his clients and does what he can for them. “I feel like if I don’t do it,” he says, “nobody else will.”
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