Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Janet Chung:  In the Room Where It Happens

Profile / Janet Chung: In the Room Where It Happens

October 2017 Bar Bulletin

By Jamila Johnson

Policy maven Janet Chung has been a strong presence in the Seattle legal community for some 15 years, advocating for and advancing the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and others who find themselves overwhelmed by a legal system that often shuts them out. Over the years, Chung has become a regular in the rooms where cutting-edge policies are formed, but her journey to becoming one of the region’s most respected legal minds started 2,300 miles away.

Summer in Houston is hot, humid and generally unpleasant. The air is thick. The pavement traps the heat and keeps it uncomfortably close. It was during such a Houston summer that 11-year-old Janet Chung became a newspaper woman — the editor, publisher and reporter for her brainchild, The Mott Lane Bi-Weekly Backtrack.

Newspaper women have an insatiable curiosity and a need to see it all, to try it all, and to write. Chung was a newspaper woman in her bones, as each of those qualities described her then and today. In the summer of 1980, Chung hit the hot, humid, unpleasant pavement to prove it. “Looking back at my younger self, what I am most impressed with was how much time I put into this,” Chung said with a fondness for the endeavor and a subtle hint of embarrassment.

She wrote articles on the milestones of her family and on the real and imagined comings and goings of her neighbors. Her writing glowed with a gloss of sensationalism — the hidden insights of her own “Peyton Place.” She poured hours into formatting columns, proofing, typing and perfecting her publication. The Backtrack was certainly a unique labor of love and an ambitious undertaking for a pre-teen. “It eventually made the technological leap from onion skin paper to photocopies with carefully cut out photos,” explained Chung’s sister, Susan.

Chung grew up in Houston in the 1970s and ’80s where there existed a palpable “can-do” attitude. Houston was a land of opportunity, which is easy to overlook in a traditional narrative about the Lone Star State for people who’ve never lived there. As a Korean-American girl in the United States, she would always be, in many respects, an outsider, but Houston was also a city of immigrants chasing dreams, opening businesses, setting new courses for themselves and their families.

It may have been as much a sense of place that motivated Chung to spend her free time up to her elbows in newsprint, as much as it was her admiration for Louisa May Alcott’s quintessential heroine. “Our brother and I were enlisted to write articles with an oddly Victorian bent presumably inspired by Jo March of Little Women, to hand sketch comics and to type (on a typewriter) each issue,” said Susan Chung.

Chung’s parents immigrated to the U.S., initially to the East Coast, with a wave of immigrants recruited to fill needs in health care, earlier than much of the growing immigrant population they joined in Houston. They had grown up in a country scarred by Japanese occupation and two wars. The country they left had been economically ravaged and depressed. In many ways, they were living the American Dream. They were physicians, people of science, and dedicated to providing opportunity to their daughters and son.

“I had a privileged childhood,” Chung said. “I heard about my parents’ hardships when they were young. My father was one of eight children, and my mother lost her father when she was 3 years old, so my grandmother worked outside the home, which was unusual. Probably because of their own experiences, they, and my grandmother, who lived with us, worked hard to shield me and my siblings from the extremes of economic inequality.”

She appreciates how this has shaped her opportunities in life. But with those opportunities came a dogged work ethic that made her a National Merit Scholar and earned admission to Yale University. Chung recalls her mother expressed some concern that the hallowed halls of Yale would intimidate Chung. “I don’t think it did,” she recalled. “I was really just like a sponge. There were so many interesting things to do.”

Chung, in fact, did everything. She tried intramural water polo, produced a play, and learned to work a printing press. She was a carillonneur in the bell tower and joined the mediocre dance club. She studied science, languages and the history of the international communist movement. She added comparative literature, philosophy of language, religion and anthropology. It took her quite some time to develop a major in the sea of so many possibilities because she was truly, madly, deeply interested in everything.

Those who chase after experiences in diametrically opposite fields are often criticized. There are terms like dilettante or expressions about being a mile wide but an inch deep. Yet, such words and phrases fail to appreciate and underestimate the power of broad interests, experiences and passions. Women like Chung drown oceans precisely because they are curious about everything.

Such curiosity eventually led Chung to a volunteer opportunity that set her on a career path. Yale was preparing to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of admitting the first women to its previous all-male ranks. With the knowledge that this evolution had transformed the educational institution she loved — the place that gave her so many opportunities to learn about herself, the world and others — she began her feminist awakening and started exploring issues of policy and gender.

After graduation and leaving the cocoon of education, Chung found herself on the way to D.C. To say it was a whim would likely be unappreciative of her demonstrated interest in policy, but it was a move somewhat driven by the availability of a place to live. “We became housemates right out of college thanks to a mutual friend,” said Eric Liu, a former Clinton White House speechwriter, author, and founder/CEO of Citizen University. They, with a group of friends, had somehow managed — through the gracious spirit of a traveling diplomat — to secure a home in Woodley Park in D.C.’s northwest quadrant.

The neighborhood is bounded on the east by the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park, and on the north by Klingle Road. Some of its grand homes are in fact other countries’ embassies. In simplest terms, it is the sort of neighborhood where grownups live, and Chung’s motley crew were still learning how to be adults outside their ivy-covered walls.

“We were a little like fish out of water with our fancy neighbors,” Chung recalled, but she understood “we were in this very lucky bubble.” It was a good year for Chung, who landed a string of positions doing everything from clipping news articles for a scrappy women’s economic research nonprofit, to working at a Tex-Mex restaurant, to teaching civics and getting youth jazzed about participating in their government. At night, Liu recalls, “our house of four did have some fun dance parties.”

But after a year, Chung was off to New York City to enroll at Columbia University School of Law. There, she watched law students devour free bagels and honed her legal mind. Shortly after graduation, she found herself back in the hot summers of Houston clerking for the Honorable Lee H. Rosenthal at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

By 1997, Chung returned to D.C. to work at a law firm, where, she says, with a touch of sarcasm, “The high water mark of my achievement may have been helping research a footnote for a brief by John Roberts,” then a partner at the firm. Later, as a Georgetown University Women’s Law & Public Policy Fellow at the National Partnership for Women and Families, she cut her teeth on policy advocacy — working on family leave laws, authoring amicus briefs, and cooperating with stakeholders on federal advocacy efforts on labor, employment and civil rights issues.

Chung’s broad interests worked to her advantage during her fellowship and eventually led her to private practice in Seattle. Chung has frequent bouts of cyclical restlessness. Short bursts of energy directed at other passions are reminders that she is more than her role at the time. “I think we are searching for that Holy Grail: that we are doing meaningful work, for adequate compensation to support ourselves and our families, and getting the right intellectual stimulation,” Chung explained.

She had always loved writing and an opportunity to teach legal writing opened at Seattle University. Seven years after leaving Yale, she joined the faculty at Seattle University School of Law. For five years she taught research, writing, oral argument and advocacy skills in the school’s top-rated legal writing program. Then her restless gene kicked in again and she found Legal Voice (then known as the Northwest Women’s Law Center).

Legal Voice is a progressive, feminist organization that uses the power of the law to effect change in the Northwest. It advances women’s legal rights through groundbreaking lawsuits, legislative advocacy, and legal education materials for women and families. “I still remember responding viscerally to the ad for my position, which began, as I recall, with the words ‘Do you want to help change the world?’ My answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’ and that’s exactly what I’ve done over the past decade,” Chung said in her farewell letter distributed late this summer, as she prepared to bid farewell to the organization that had been her work home for the past decade.

Legal Voice is nationally renowned for using the legal power structure to dismantle sexism and oppression, specifically advocating for the Northwest region’s most marginalized communities: women of color, lesbians, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, immigrants, the disabled, low-income women, and others affected by gender oppression and injustice.

Over the last decade, it has also been known because of Janet Chung, who, despite a deep-seated desire to avoid the spotlight, has been “in the room where it happens” — as the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton” might say — during the course of forwarding meaningful gender-equity efforts in the Pacific Northwest.

Chung was part of the team that litigated Stormans v. Wiesman to ensure that patients have access to lawfully prescribed medication, on site and without delay, regardless of the objections of individual pharmacists. She gathered groups around tables in small conference rooms and in coffee shops across Washington talking about how a lack of paid sick leave and safe time disproportionately impacts women in the workforce, and explaining the need for paid leave following domestic violence or sexual assault. Her tireless work on these coalitions helped to pass Seattle’s 2011 Paid Sick & Safe Days ordinance, and 2016’s Initiative 1433 to raise the minimum wage and establish paid sick days as a labor standard.

“I have been really proud of the work we have done on expanding workplace protections for low-income people,” Chung said. “When you improve workplace protections, you impact a lot of women. These have all been collective efforts.” Her dedication to advancing gender issues and policy has been clear throughout her life, but it has not been her only passion. As a mother, Asian-American, and first-generation daughter of immigrants, Chung has broad policy interests in economic and racial justice.

“I certainly identify as a woman, but that’s not all I am,” she says. “My experiences as a parent, as a racial ‘other,’ and as a woman deeply inform my work. I pay attention to people; I am interested in people and families and their stories. I think that is where my interest in employment law came from — both that it is a natural private practice analog for anyone interested in discrimination and civil rights, but also the fact that it addresses problems with Human Resources.

“Many employment law disputes originate from basic problems in human relations. People don’t bring claims lightly; they have to feel wronged. This doesn’t always translate into a legally cognizable wrong, but to me it’s more important to get at the question, ‘What caused that feeling of injustice?’”

She wonders, “If I have trouble getting in my medical appointments, transporting my kids, trying to feed them healthfully, getting through the busy day, how on Earth do people with fewer resources and more barriers manage? Yet they do. So I try to use my travels and curiosity in human nature to really understand where other people are coming from. And then for that to inform my work about what changes there need to be in this world.”

The peripatetic Chung is on the move again. She left Legal Voice at the beginning of September to become the advocacy director for Columbia Legal Services — a nonprofit, statewide civil legal aid program. “Janet brought so many gifts to her role that helped build Legal Voice into the leader it is today — empathy, wit and a keen legal mind,” says Sara Ainsworth, Legal Voice’s advocacy director. “Her contributions and personality will always be an important part of our history and legacy.”

Such sentiments are echoed by many who have worked with Chung. And for those who have not had the good fortune to work directly with Chung, but who have observed her efforts in the community, there is a quiet respect for the balance she maintains. “Janet understands that there is no particular formula for ‘work-life balance,’” said King County Superior Court Judge David Keenan. He respects how Chung loves what she does, but takes the time to be with her family and to recharge so she can keep that spirit alive.

It helps to get away, Chung says. She feeds her broad interests and continued curiosity through travel and a deep, somewhat extreme, love of national parks. “They are like my children: I don’t have a favorite,” she says. The parks are filled with variety and her road trips are often planned around visiting NPS sites, sometimes in inconvenient places.

The parks are how her family engages in history and place. Meanwhile, Chung continues to shape the history and sense of place in the Pacific Northwest with her advocacy and engagement. 

Jamila Johnson, KCBA’s 2011 Outstanding Young Lawyer, who cut her legal teeth in Seattle with Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, is the recently appointed, senior supervising attorney for criminal justice reform in the New Orleans office of the Southern Poverty Law Center. After watching Chung give public testimony on TVW about employment discrimination in 2010, Johnson decided to become the president of the unofficial Janet Chung fan club. She is grateful Chung is not creeped out by this. Johnson can be reached at jamila.a.johnson@gmail.com.

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