The Friendly Foe

Trial lawyer John Chun is not your stereotypical pit bull in the courtroom. But make no mistake: He’s there to win.

Published in 2007 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine — June 2007

The elderly immigrant widow was in a serious jam. She was fighting City Hall and, by all appearances, she was losing.

At issue was the market value of a strip mall she owned in south Seattle. After her husband died, the woman counted on the inner-city property to generate income for her remaining years. But the property was caught in the headlights of the future Sound Transit light-rail line. The Asian widow, who spoke little English, was willing to sell, but she believed the land was worth more than she was being offered by the government.

By the time John Chun inherited the case, it looked like a lost cause. “I felt like I was climbing into the cockpit of a plane about to crash,” Chun says. Important court deadlines had passed, including the cutoff for disclosing expert witnesses. How could he argue a case without an expert to testify to the property’s market value? Meanwhile, one of the woman’s commercial tenants had filed suit, claiming she had failed to disclose that condemnation was pending.

Chun and associate Chris Wion rolled up their sleeves. Chun spent most of Christmas day preparing for the next day’s hearing on the tenant’s claim, which was ultimately dismissed, with attorney’s fees and costs awarded to his client. Meanwhile, the judge was persuaded to extend the deadlines on the condemnation case, leaving time for an appraiser to find a crucial flaw in the government’s valuation. The case went to mediation, where the widow got her price.

Chun has won much bigger cases. But ask him why he loves what he does, and this is the case that comes to mind. It speaks to the reasons he chose to become a lawyer. “We felt we were on the side of truth and justice and fairness, and we were able to turn it around.”

Bucking tradition

At just 37, Chun has become one of Seattle’s premier litigators. Now a partner with Summit Law Group in the International District, he has represented clients as far away as Russia, Norway, Korea and Japan in cases involving employment, landlord-tenant law, complex commercial litigation and international business. In five years, Chun has made partner at three Seattle firms, while teaching law classes at Seattle University and remaining active in organizations ranging from the King County Bar Foundation to the International Association of Korean Lawyers.

And he has done this while maintaining a reputation as a nice guy—an evaluation shared by colleagues, clients and even opposing counsel.

Miles Yanick, of Savitt & Bruce, was once on the opposite side of the courtroom  from Chun. “It was a tough case, with plenty of bitter feelings,” he recalls. “But John is that rare combination: somebody who is both a great advocate for his client and also courteous of opposing counsel. That’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of a certain confidence in yourself and in your knowledge of your case.”

King County Superior Court Judge Mary Yu, who works with Chun on a variety of bar-related groups, agrees. “John is thoughtful, intelligent, considerate, and he cares very much about fairness.”

Chun explains that he is enamored of his profession. “I love the thrill of it all. I love listening to clients tell their stories. I love the stenographers and the notebooks and when the bailiff says, ‘All rise!’ and your heart begins to beat faster.”

This from a young lawyer who once aspired to be a professor. Chun was born and raised in Portland, son of Korean immigrants who “encouraged vigorous debate” around the dinner table. He went on to Columbia University, where he was deeply influenced by literature and religion professors, and briefly considered a career in academia before opting for law school.

At Cornell Law School, Chun was drawn to the concept of the law as an institution designed to resolve disputes. He decided to become a litigator because, he says, that is the heart of the legal system, the point at which disputes are resolved—sometimes at trial, but more frequently through mediation, arbitration or settlement.

Degree in hand, Chun clerked for Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Wright in Seattle before joining Mundt MacGregor, a small law firm where, “thanks to some fine mentors, I learned the craft of law,” he says.

While still an associate, he helped represent a small Seattle software company that felt it had been shortchanged by a national wireless carrier. The carrier refused to settle and the case eventually went to arbitration in San Francisco, where the Seattle company won a major award, “every penny we asked for, plus attorney fees and costs.” This, he says, is another case where he felt he was able to defend the interests of “the little guy” in what seemed like an unfair fight.

And, despite his relative youth, he was able to play a significant role in the litigation. “I was just a kid, but Mundt didn’t stick me in a back room,” he says. “They gave me a chance to prove myself, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”

After a decade at Mundt—where Chun and Wion handled the widow’s case—Chun moved to Preston Gates & Ellis (now K&L Gates), where he spent a year before taking his current position at Summit Law, a small, 10-year-old firm.

Chun won’t discuss his winning percentage, but acknowledges he wins more than his share. And, by all accounts, he does it with a mix of intelligence, hard work and civility. “John is conscientious and detail-oriented, but he never forgets the big picture,” says Polly McNeill, the managing partner at Summit Law Group. “And that’s an unusual combination.”

Fred Tausend, a household name at K&L Gates, agrees. But he adds another descriptor. “I don’t like the word,” Tausend grumbles, “but John is nice. He’s a decent person. Not too nice. Not a pushover. But if he has mean streak, I’ve never seen it.”

That’s as it should be, Chun says. “I believe a good lawyer can be firm, aggressive, even zealous without being a jerk. Some clients want tough lawyers, and some lawyers think that’s an effective approach. But often it reflects a basic insecurity.”

To remind himself of this, he frequently consults a brief essay by the late federal Judge William Dwyer, “The Practical Value of Ethics,” in which the judge argued that civility, courtesy and collegiality are not only ethical, but also good legal strategy. Dwyer pleaded for lawyers to heed Shakespeare’s advice: “Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”

High anxiety

If Chun has an enemy, it may be his BlackBerry—the pocket computer and digital conscience that has proven as addictive as his daily dosage of coffee. He has a difficult time leaving his work at the office. Even on his honeymoon, he insisted on checking in with the office.

“I worry chronically. I literally lose sleep over cases. I used to scribble; leave myself voice messages in the middle of the night. Then came the BlackBerrys, and now I e-mail myself in the middle of the night. I have practiced opening statements in my bathroom at 3 a.m.”

In court, he figures he mixes civility with toughness, sometimes using what one colleague calls “that look.”

“Every litigator learns that there is a point in a trial during cross-examination where you are asking questions [to which] you already know the answers,” says Mark Wilner, a friend and former associate who now works at Gordon Murray Tilden. “John has this look that tells the witness that the right answer is ‘Yes.’”

Chun’s wife, Elizabeth Baldwin, a lawyer who works part time at Volunteer Advocates for Immigrant Justice in Seattle, knows that look. He has even practiced it at home—though not on her.

However, successful cross-examination does not hinge on devices but on “diligent preparation,” Chun says. “It depends on what happens the night and weekend before and during the trial, when the lawyer is poring over documents, statements, deposition transcripts and carefully designing the questions.” Preparation leads to confidence, and that in turn leads to “looseness” and the “ability to use other tools . . . like ‘the look.’”

Another crucial factor, Chun says, is lifestyle. Good lawyers live good lives. Chun strives for a balance between his profession, family, community and play. He and his wife, a former competitive skater and singer/guitarist in the Portland alternative-rock band Rattlecake, spend their spare time with 1-year-old daughter Naomi. “John is a serious guy, but he’s also sort of a pied piper to children,” says his wife. “Kids just take to him instantly.”

Chun is an avid outdoorsman—or, at least, he was before he became a father. He enjoys snowboarding, mountain biking and catch-and-release fly fishing. He is fond of hiking, backpacking and gardening at his Green Lake home. He reads novels, frequently rereading favorites such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Great Gatsby. And he’s a devout Mariners fan.

“Baseball isn’t just about a game,” he insists. “It’s about the vendors, the families, the beer, the seventh-inning stretch. It’s totally Gestalt.”

He brings the same devotion and enthusiasm to the courthouse. “I love looking through the glass doors, seeing the bench. I love hugging the client after a win, when you’re totally exhausted and all the work has paid off. There is a unique smell to a trial, an absolutely unique experience.

“And that is no accident. The courtroom is designed to elicit truth.”

Chun would like to spend more time in trials, yet he is never happier, he says, than when he is able to help a client resolve a dispute satisfactorily without going to court.

 Such outcomes may be short on drama, but they’re long on happy endings.

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