Living the Dream

How Susan T. Kumagai rose from a disadvantaged childhood to co-found a thriving employment law firm

Published in 2013 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2013

Most days, Susan T. Kumagai is in the office by 5:30 a.m., ready to put in many long hours defending employers and doing ERISA work. It’s a grueling schedule, and one that doesn’t leave much room for outside pursuits.

She doesn’t mind. She considers her life a dream—the American one.

Her journey, which began in one of California’s poorest neighborhoods, eventually led to the top of one of the state’s most successful minority-owned law firms. Kumagai, a third-generation Japanese-American, and her law partner, African-American attorney Gary Lafayette, co-founded their firm in 1994.

Their client roster has included Gov. Jerry Brown, who sought legal advice when he was mayor of Oakland; government entities; and a lengthy list of Fortune 500 companies ranging from Viacom to Coca-Cola. They’ve even taken a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kumagai wrote the legal brief; Lafayette argued it in 2002.

The case involved a lower court’s ruling against a “one-strike” rule in housing authorities’ lease provisions that said tenants could be evicted if they, their family members or guests used illegal drugs on the premises. The rule stemmed from regulations by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, also a defendant in the case.

“So because it was a HUD regulation, it was in the housing authority’s lease provision, and [the case] was really about upholding that regulation,” Kumagai says. Her firm successfully appealed on behalf of the Oakland Housing Authority after taking the case through several other courts, including an en banc hearing at the 9th Circuit.

“It was exciting and a bit intimidating,” Kumagai says of her experience with the Supreme Court. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that certainly I won’t ever forget.”

Kumagai’s life got off to a rough start, with her birth coming four months after her father’s death. Her parents, sister and brother had returned to San Francisco after being sent to the Topaz internment camp near Delta, Utah, during World War II. When the family came back to their hometown, the “temporary housing”—as the projects were called—was located in Hunters Point—“the San Francisco America pretends does not exist,” as novelist and activist James Baldwin described it in the early 1960s documentary Take This Hammer.

Kumagai, 60, says her family was drawn closer by its hardships. They were able to move out of the projects when she was 12, thanks in large part to her oldest sister, Hisako Kumagai, who worked as a bookkeeper at a publishing house to support the family, including her four siblings, their mother and maternal grandfather. Hisako, 14 years older than Susan, paid her siblings’ way through college and lived with her mother her entire life.

“I am very fortunate for sacrifices that others made so that I could have that childhood and take advantage of the opportunities that came my way,” Kumagai says.

In her scarce free time, Kumagai takes cooking lessons and tries to master the recipes her mother once made. She’s also a season ticket holder to the San Francisco Opera. Someday, she hopes to find more time for her other hobbies: Japanese doll-making, which she mastered as a teen; and playing the koto, a traditional stringed instrument.

Lafayette & Kumagai has maintained its commitment to being a diverse firm. Today, nine of its 10 lawyers are minorities. Kumagai believes the legal profession should reflect the community.

“If you want to be part of the change, you have to be sitting at the table,” she says.

That’s why Kumagai is involved with a number of groups—including the National Minority Law Group, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and the California Bar’s Ethnic and Minority Relations Committee—with the goal “to diversify outside attorneys for corporations.” Kumagai also mentors young minority attorneys at her firm and serves on the San Francisco Bar’s board of directors.

While there’s plenty more to do when it comes to boosting diversity, Kumagai says, things have improved dramatically in the last few decades. She recalls an incident in the late 1980s in which she was representing a major automobile manufacturer. She was the only woman present. At the expert physician’s deposition, the doctor directed her to the court reporter’s chair.

“It hasn’t happened to me again,” she says. “Times have changed.”

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