Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Nelson Dong:  A Good Son

Profile / Nelson Dong: A Good Son

August 2017 Bar Bulletin

By Peter Ehrlichman

You learn a lot about the background of some fascinating lawyers in our community through reading the KCBA Bar Bulletin Profile, and this Profile about Nelson Dong is no different. Currently a partner in the Seattle office of Dorsey & Whitney LLP, Nelson heads the firm’s National Security Group and co-chairs its Asia Practice Group.

Hard work, respect for others and community service come naturally to Nelson, who began learning their importance as a young boy while working in his parents’ small grocery store in North Sacramento, California. The early formative experiences that shaped Nelson’s character and values were being a stock boy and cashier at that store from the age of 10 until he went to college, learning to interact easily with people from many diverse backgrounds, and modeling on his immigrant parents’ example.

In explaining Nelson’s background, one has to begin with his Chinese ancestry and the fact that his father was a “paper son” who had illegally entered the United States in 1923, claiming to be the child of a naturalized American citizen. Thousands of Chinese came to the United States in the early 20th Century in this way to avoid the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which, along with its successor statutes, barred virtually all U.S. immigration of Chinese or the naturalization of such Chinese persons until the 1943 Magnuson Act.

Nelson has indeed always been proud of his heritage, but he also grew up with the darker reality of race and racism in American life and the nation’s laws. He recalls his family was never able to buy a house because of racial covenants that blanketed whole neighborhoods in Sacramento, and his father eventually had to buy a vacant parcel of land to build his own house despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1948 decision in Shelley v. Kramer outlawing the enforcement of such covenants.

In high school, Nelson became a champion high school debater, student paper editor and student body president. As a high school leader, he was the first person of color ever elected governor in the American Legion’s California Boys State program — just one of many “firsts” he has experienced in his life.

Nelson’s parents wanted him to pursue medicine. He had strong science and math abilities, and they thought being a doctor could help him avoid some racial barriers that they expected he would confront in life. Nelson thus began college at Stanford University in 1967 as a pre-med in biology. However, he eventually switched to economics and studied constitutional law under political scientist Robert Horn. Horn became Nelson’s mentor and friend and was instrumental in urging him to study law.

The state inspector of California’s city and county jails, Edward Viet, also saw Nelson’s future in the law and public service, and supported his law school applications. Viet hired Nelson as a research assistant, enabling him to author studies of California’s jails and prisons and to draft amendments to the California Penal Code that were later adopted by the California State Legislature. Nelson was thus one of two Stanford students to enter Yale Law School in the fall of 1971 in a class that also included his friend Wallace Loh, who would later become dean of the University of Washington School of Law.

Nelson began his legal practice in 1974 as a commercial litigator in San Francisco with Morrison Foerster. He was soon drawn into local and state bar activities and co-founded the first Asian-American bar group in the nation — the Asian Bar Association of the Bay Area, which became the prototype for many other similar, local bar groups, including Washington’s own Asian Bar Association of Washington (ABAW).

He took on multiple pro bono projects, especially in San Francisco’s Chinatown district. Stanford also sought him out as an alumni volunteer and he helped draft Stanford’s first ethical investment guidelines for the management of its multibillion-dollar endowment. Several San Francisco attorneys and civic leaders, seeing his potential as a rising young community leader, encouraged him to apply for the prestigious White House Fellows program, and he was selected as a Fellow during the Carter Administration.

As a White House Fellow in 1978–79, Nelson became a special assistant to Attorney General Griffin Bell and was assigned to work with the Civil Rights Division and Tax Division, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the U.S. Pardon Attorney, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. He also helped to review candidates for Ninth Circuit judicial appointments.

In addition, Nelson was part of a Justice Department legal team defending President Carter’s decision to normalize full diplomatic relations with China. He also dealt with the defection in New York City of Bolshoi Ballet star Alexander Godunov and an Aeroflot airliner incident involving Godunov’s wife, Lyudmila Vlasova — two fateful tasks that would do much to bend the arc of his later legal career.

Nelson recalls that two of his proudest moments that year were the solicitor general personally moving for his admission to the U.S. Supreme Court bar while his “paper son” father and mother watched from the gallery, and Bell’s invitation to his parents to have lunch at the Justice Department. At that point, Nelson’s parents seemed less worried that he had not become a doctor.

At the end of his Fellow’s year, Nelson was appointed deputy associate attorney general, overseeing major cases and settlements in the Civil Division and the legal affairs of the INS. In this new role, Nelson found himself drawn into even more high-profile, international legal matters: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Carter’s withdrawal of the U.S. Olympic team from the Moscow Olympic Games; the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and President Carter’s expulsion of all Iranian diplomats as persona non grata; closure of all of Iran’s diplomatic missions in the United States and imposition of the first economic sanctions on Iran; and the changing of multiple INS policies affecting immigrant and visitor rights.

Nelson married in 1980 and moved to Boston as an assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuting public corruption, embezzlement and fraud cases. In 1982, he returned to the Bay Area where he left litigation and became a transactional attorney, handling venture capital financings of start-up companies, technology licenses and cross-border investments.

Nelson mastered his new legal skills just as the era of microelectronics, software, personal computers and biotechnology exploded in the Silicon Valley, launching his new international business law career. Following five years at a boutique Valley firm, he became a Cooley Godward corporate partner, handling many of its international deals and clients in Asia and Europe.

Nelson became active in the international law sections of the California State Bar and the ABA and in other international technology law groups, teaching and chairing many of their CLE programs. He also served on the California State Bar’s Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC) and became its chair, writing and editing dozens of state bar ethics opinions and helping to revise the entire set of ethics rules for the California bar.

When Nelson’s wife, a doctor, moved to the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1992, Nelson joined Dorsey & Whitney, where he has practiced ever since (eight years in Minneapolis and the past 17 in Seattle). Nelson’s main work focuses on U.S.-Asia trade and investment, export controls and economic sanctions (e.g., on Iran and Cuba), foreign inbound investments or acquisitions affecting U.S. national security, government contracts (especially involving classified information) and international technology transfers.

He has published widely in these fields and is regularly invited as a CLE teacher and lecturer in Washington as well as nationally and around the world. He also has been an adjunct professor of international law at Seattle University Law School.

The breadth of Nelson’s expertise in these areas has led to many client successes and numerous testimonials. Recently, client David DeVilbiss of Seattle-based Global Diving & Salvage offered an observation about Nelson’s extensive experience dealing with economic sanctions matters administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC): “Nelson possessed the unique combination of experience and creativity that allowed us to succeed in what was, for our company, truly uncharted waters” (dealing with deep gas production wells in the Persian Gulf). The issuance of that OFAC license is believed to be the first of its kind for any American company.

Nelson’s lifelong passion for public service has also brought him into multiple civic roles, both nationally and in Seattle. He was the first Asian-American trustee of Stanford University. He is now in his third term as a director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and is active in the Council on Foreign Relations, both in New York City. He is a member and former director of the Committee of 100, the national advocacy group of leading Chinese Americans. He has been president of the White House Fellows Foundation and Association.

Closer to home, Nelson is a director and former board chair of the Washington State China Relations Council and actively supports the Seattle chapter of the World Affairs Council. Its director, Jacqueline Miller, had this to say about Nelson’s work for the Council: “He has tremendous knowledge of so many issues, from sanctions to cyber policy to the U.S.-China relationship and much more. His support of the mission of the Council helps ensure that greater Seattle continues to enjoy the opportunity to hear from policymakers and thought leaders on global issues that matter to this city.”

Nelson has also been a director of the ABAW Student Scholarship Foundation and Puget Sound Public Radio, the operator of KUOW-FM. For his many professional and civic accomplishments, including becoming the first Asian-American partner in three law firms, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association honored him in 2009 with its prestigious “Trailblazer” award. Remembering his North Sacramento roots and in memory of his now-deceased parents, Nelson has provided scholarships for more than 100 minority high school graduates from his hometown.

Nelson’s family life now revolves around his second wife, Diane Wong, a Zen Buddhist priest and former nonprofit executive and print journalist, whom he married in Seattle in 2003, and his two sons from his first marriage, Phil (31) and Will (28). Phil is the founder and CEO of a Seattle nonprofit called MarketShare; Will is a product designer for Nest Labs in Palo Alto.

At this point, I think that Nelson’s parents can finally relax and know their son has fulfilled their highest hopes for him in his life of family, professional accomplishments, public service and community leadership. 


Peter Ehrlichman is one of Nelson Dong’s colleagues at Dorsey & Whitney and a long-time friend.

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