Robins Kaplan LLP – Minneapolis, MN
Serving as a trial lawyer is a calling. A vocation that demands passion and commitment. I feel privileged to be a trial lawyer, and to have tried all sorts of cases in my career, including multi-million dollar verdicts against powerful companies. But among my many trials, I am most proud of several pro bono cases. As a first year lawyer, a young Ethiopian woman who faced persecution for her political views on women’s rights and free speech was granted asylum. A young man with the cards stacked against him needed vigorous representation against felony charges. And several years ago, a verdict in an international custody dispute under the Hague Convention allowed a young girl to continue living in the United States with her mother. The clients in each case all had the same question: can you help me with the most important problem in my life? I was honored then that they each entrusted me with their problem. And I am honored today to receive the ABA Pro Bono Publico award as recognition for this pro bono work.
The background for my pro bono work started 80 years ago. In 1938, two lawyers started a firm of their own because antisemitism denied them employment at established firms. From that day on, Robins Kaplan LLP has worked tirelessly to ensure equal access to justice for all. That mission motivated me to join the firm out of law school in 2006. Through my experience as Chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee, I have witnessed that mission in action. My colleagues have rewritten the odds for so many people who had no one else to turn to. I have seen some of our most significant wins, and shared in some of our toughest losses. Above all, my colleagues, from junior associates to senior partners, have answered the call—time and again—when someone needed a trial lawyer but could not afford one. I am so proud to be part of this firm.
My work for Panyia Vang remains the highlight of my career. Panyia brought her case in federal court against her abuser—a U.S. citizen who sexually assaulted her in Laos when she was 14 and he was 43 years old. She carried the trauma from that assault with her for years. Panyia pursued her case for years with unrelenting courage—confronting not only her abuser, but also the unsupportive community she lived in.
She testified with resolve for hours. Listening to her testimony, it was clear that emotion knows no language. Anyone who heard her testimony, even without translation from Hmong to English, could feel the powerful impact it had. The jury certainly did. Verdict means to speak the truth. And the jury’s $950,000 verdict spoke on behalf of the community that what the defendant did to Panyia was wrong and will not be tolerated.
This verdict sends a broader message too. “Sex tourism,” referred to as international travel for illicit sex, is an unconscionable crime. And it occurs more often than any of us can imagine. The U.S. State Department reports that sex tourism is a $1 billion a year industry. Panyia and I hope this verdict makes the next perpetrator think twice before getting on a plane to head overseas—and if not, that he knows he may be held accountable by a jury in federal court.
There is not enough space to express my gratitude for those who helped me develop my career as a trial lawyer. In retrospect, however, any achievements I have obtained all stem from my Mom and Dad—the opportunities they provided and the values they instilled in me, including the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect. Today, no one sacrifices more for me and our children than my wife, Christine, who celebrates the good days and shoulders the bad ones, but no matter what, is always by my side. I am also grateful for the mentorship that Marty Lueck and Ron Schutz have provided throughout my career. They trained me as a trial lawyer, and I have used the skills they helped me develop in every one of my pro bono cases.
Few professions offer the ability to change people’s lives forever. Being a trial lawyer is one that does. And pro bono work offers the ability to do that for those who have no other hope—the poor, the disadvantaged, those who live in the shadows of life. My past pro bono work (and this award) will always serve as a reminder to me, as I hope it does for others and especially my children when they grow older, that when someone in need asks if we can help them, that the answer is an easy one.