February 15, 2017 Articles

Transcending Law: Rising to Public Figure Status

Learn how to leverage early success to yield bigger opportunities in the future.

By Tomas J. Garcia

At the recent Professional Success Summit, distinguished litigators Benjamin L. Crump, Morgan Chu, Brian A. Sun, and Theodore V. Wells shared insights on their experience rising to the highest levels of their practice, reflected on the vital role diverse lawyers’ play in our communities, and contemplated the challenges that lie ahead for diverse lawyers. In a discussion moderated by Section of Litigation Chair Laurence F. Pulgram, common themes that emerged during the discussion included the importance of leveraging early success through hard work and diligence to yield future opportunities, and the importance of being guided in the practice of law by the desire to achieve justice. 

Leading criminal defense lawyer Ted Wells began his law practice at a large firm in California after clerking for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Judge John J. Gibbons.  Soon after arriving in California, Mr. Wells realized that he had a passion for criminal law and, at the urging of his former boss and mentor, Judge Gibbons, he returned to New Jersey to work for Judge Gibbons’ former law partner practicing criminal defense law. In this role, Mr. Wells found himself defending a client opposite a prosecution team from the U.S. Attorney’s Office that included his former law clerk colleague at the Third Circuit, and future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.  Mr. Wells said that his legal career was significantly enriched by his participation in organizations such as the National Bar Association, the NAACP, and the Legal Defense Fund.  Through his involvement with these organizations early in his career, he became involved in political campaigns, bonded with colleagues and learned how to mobilize communities and raise money.  Mr. Wells reflected on the importance of living a life “connected to your community” and he cautioned young lawyers to resist the urge to stay locked in their offices.

Intellectual property law expert Morgan Chu had an opportunity to take on a patent law case very early in his career after more senior attorneys at his firm declined to take the case.  Mr. Chu represented his client successfully at trial and through appeal.  He has since gone on to serve as lead counsel in some of the world’s largest verdicts, judgments, and settlements.  Mr. Chu said that his career has been enriched by working on cases he enjoys, including taking on pro bono matters early in his career to gain trial and courtroom experience.  Mr. Chu reflected that one of the benefits of pro bono work, besides helping people who need counsel, is meeting more people, which ultimately enhances the probability of getting more clients.

Complex business litigator and white-collar criminal defense lawyer Brian Sun was influenced to pursue white-collar criminal law after an internship at the Securities Exchange Commission.  After a judicial clerkship and time in private practice, Mr. Sun went to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, prosecuting money launderers, and he was later involved in the enactment of anti–money-laundering statutes.  Mr. Sun went on to represent Los Alamos National Laboratories nuclear physicist Dr. Wen Ho Lee in a case involving suspected espionage.  Mr. Sun, a former president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), said that when he was a new lawyer, there were no organizations like NAPABA.  Reflecting on cases like Dr. Lee’s, which involve criminal charges based primarily on racial profiling, Mr. Sun noted the importance of national organizations for diverse lawyers.  

Personal injury and civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, whose clients’ cases have captured national attention, such as that of the family of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, said that he’s often criticized for taking only high-profile cases.  But in reality, Mr. Crump said that when he takes cases, they’re not high-profile, and they are often cases nobody else wants to take.  Mr. Crump said that he’s particularly moved to represent clients who otherwise have no voice, and he reflected that he knew from an early age that he wanted to be a lawyer to make things better for his community.  Mr. Crump is involved with the National Bar Association and he noted that one of the important purposes of national organizations such as the National Bar Association is to help bring attention to people and cases that otherwise don’t receive the attention and scrutiny that they should.

In closing their discussion, the panelists reflected on the difficulties that diverse lawyers have in achieving success at the highest levels in the profession and that, unfortunately, our society is still a long way from being “color blind.” Thus, the panelists concluded that it is more important now than ever for diverse young lawyers to be guided by their convictions and their conscience and to work together in collaboration with each other to combat stereotypes that plague our communities and achieve greater professional success.

Tomas J. Garcia is an associate with Modrall Sperling in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


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Tomas J. Garcia – February 15, 2017