Looking for YLLOGRL

Having grown up in Chinatown and armed with a law degree and a good mind, Judy Lam has a mission: to help her community

Published in 2004 Southern California Rising Stars — September 2004

Before she went to law school, the only lawyers Judy Lam knew were the ones she watched on TV. So when she began to meet real-life working attorneys, part of her was surprised to learn that not everyone chose the job for the same reason she had: to help people make their lives better.

“I guess I have to say that I was pretty ignorant about what makes most lawyers tick,” Lam says. “I grew up in Chinatown. My parents were immigrants. My family didn’t know a lot of lawyers. I thought everyone had the same kind of motivations that I did. So, when I found out that some people were in it just for the money,” she laughs, “I was shocked.”

After earning a J.D. from Los Angeles’ Loyola Law School (she went on a full scholarship), it didn’t take long for Lam to build a reputation as a tireless advocate for members of Southern California’s Asian community. Even as a busy young associate, she found time to work for causes dear to the people she had known all her life, including stints as a board member with the Asian Business League, the Hong Kong Association and the California Minority Counsel program.

“I became interested in becoming a lawyer because I like advocacy,” Lam says. “What really appealed to me about the work was the idea of helping people figure out what should be done in a sticky situation.”

It would seem that being able to say that their only child was an attorney would make Lam’s parents proud. While she admits that they were happy with her achievements, Lam says that her parents were hesitant about her pursuing litigation as a line of work.

“I think they thought it might be a little too adversarial,” Lam says. “Still, they told me, ‘If you want to do it, that’s great.’ Immigrant parents are concerned with stability and achievement. You’re in a new place. You want your offspring to do better than you did. So they wanted me to have a job that would be safe, that doesn’t involve risk-taking. In the end, they were happy for me.”

As a law student, Lam jumped at the chance to take an extern position as a judicial clerk for Judge Geraldine Mund of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. To this day, Lam still considers Mund to be one of her greatest role models and mentors. “She was instrumental in my becoming a lawyer,” Lam says of Mund, who also served as  Lam’s official mentor through a program sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Association. “I was inspired by the compassionate way she helped people who were going through bankruptcy. She had a great knack for teaching, for getting out of the way and letting me learn.”

In the years since, Lam has continued to move her legal career in the same direction as her mentor, focusing her litigation practice on business, banking and real estate. In 2003, she was made partner in the Santa-Monica-based firm of Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan. With her strong connections and reputation in the Asian community, Lam was instrumental in helping the firm establish its Greater China Practice Group, advising clients in both the United States and Asia.

“Since I’ve come here I’ve blossomed in new ways,” Lam says. “This firm encourages people to be well rounded, and I’m a better person because of that.”

One of Lam’s biggest service projects is her work with the Asian Pacific Women’s Center (APWC), a transitional housing shelter for women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse. The center is designed to meet the unique needs of Asian women, a culture that Lam knows from the inside out.

“Within the Asian American community, there is cultural and societal pressure to keep your private problems private when it comes to your family,” she explains. “Because of that pressure, it is hard for women to reach out and get help.”

APWC is structured around “a feminist model,” Lam continues. “What that means is we are not developing a program where we tell our clients what they should do. Instead we provide clients with the means to figure out how to do it for themselves. We offer a transitional housing shelter where they can stay for 18 months while they are taking steps toward ending the violence in their lives.”

In 2001, the shelter was hit with sudden cuts in government funding, and organizers considered shutting down. Lam and other board members solicited private funds and worked to convince government officials to reconsider the cuts. In the end, they secured some $250,000, allowing APWC to remain open for two more years. Lam, now board president, is heading up an ambitious expansion project designed to provide permanent affordable housing for shelter clients. The project will require $5 to $10 million in funding.

That’s a lot of money, but Lam isn’t afraid of taking on big challenges. She says she’s convinced that she and other board members will be able to meet the goal and build the permanent housing — and the temporary shelter will continue to thrive for as long as it’s needed.

This being Los Angeles, Lam has also been lending her volunteer talents to a number of film projects. She’s a member of the board of Pacific Film Currents, a nonprofit organization that supports the efforts of Asian Pacific filmmakers. One project especially dear to her heart is Looking for YLLOGRL, a documentary by director Daisy Lin Shapiro that, Lam explains, “explores the issue of what it means to be an Asian American woman.” The film, Lam continues, is “about the experience of women like me; it’s about our lives, and that feels extremely exciting.”

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