Turning Hate Aside

Michael HuYoung fled Castro and embraced a skinhead client

Published in 2014 Virginia Super Lawyers — July 2014

On New Year’s Day 1962, when Michael HuYoung was 5 years old, his mother packed up him and his brother and fled Cuba for the United States. HuYoung’s father, optimistic that the reign of Fidel Castro—who came to power three years earlier—would not last, stayed behind. It would be almost 15 years before the family would be reunited.

That day, HuYoung’s family was separated from something else as well. His  parents, both from China, had come to Cuba so his father could be a diplomat in the late 1940s, and operated a shop that sold Asian goods and furniture in Santiago, but all the money they saved stayed in Cuba. Castro did not allow any wealth out of the country. Havana airport guards even searched HuYoung’s pencil and crayon box, where, unbeknownst to him, his mother had hidden jewelry in a secret compartment. The jewels, too, were confiscated.

As a result, in Miami, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and then finally in Newport News, HuYoung’s mother worked many jobs to support the children. The injustice she faced as an immigrant inspired her son to go into law. “I saw her hard work; I saw how she was taken advantage of by employers,” he says. “She used to clean houses; she did menial labor jobs, and being an immigrant …  at times, they might not pay her.”  Her work ethic rubbed off on her son. So did her determination.

HuYoung, now at Barnes & Diehl’s Richmond office, remembers how he had to dig in his heels to make it as a respected attorney. In one of his first court appearances, HuYoung remembers an older judge looking at him and saying, “Mr. HuYoung, aren’t you the wrong nationality to be practicing law? Shouldn’t you be an engineer or a chemist?” 

He even had a client who refused his counsel.

Early in his career, HuYoung was the court-appointed attorney for a teenager, a skinhead, who, along with three others, was arrested for attempted robbery. The client was less than thrilled when HuYoung showed up. “I do not want a yellow motherf---er representing me,” HuYoung remembers him saying. “I’m the only one you get,” HuYoung responded, “It’s me or no one.”

During the case, HuYoung discovered that his client had been abandoned by his parents to live with his grandmother. He took to roaming the streets. He joined the skinhead gang. But thanks to HuYoung, he was acquitted of all charges.

As a result, he had a change of heart. HuYoung remembers the client telling him, “‘You showed me that you cared about me. You came to see me when I wouldn’t even talk to you. You came to see me when I called you all these names.’” The young man eventually joined the Army, and the two stayed in touch for some time. HuYoung considers the case one of the most influential of his career.

Along with racking up favorable outcomes for his clients—70 percent of his practice is criminal defense, 30 percent divorce—HuYoung chaired the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association’s and Virginia Bar Association’s criminal law sections and is a fellow in the Virginia Law Foundation. He also is a member of the board of governors for the Virginia State Bar’s Diversity Conference, as well as on the board of directors for the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Virginia. He enjoys reaching out to other minority lawyers in the area.

“I always tell the Asian attorneys [at the Asian Pacific American Bar Association] and other minority bar groups, ‘You know, you’ve got to prove that you’re three times better than [everyone else],’” he says.

“I guess that’s why I do so many things,” he adds. “Because I think deep down inside, I still feel like I have to prove myself.”

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