July 2015 Bar Bulletin
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July 2015 Bar Bulletin

Building a Foundation Through Service

 

Forty years ago my family escaped Vietnam, leaving just three days before the fall of Saigon. Like many families, our dramatic departure depended on luck just as much as it did on planning. Once in the United States, a network of organizations and individuals opened their homes, shared their resources and probably saved our lives.

Some are known to us: the Army officer at the airport gates who chose my family as hundreds pressed for entry and a Lutheran Church who sponsored my Buddhist family out of the refugee camps. Many people helped us whose names I will never know and who will never know the impact of their help.

Of course, my parents' instinct for survival and creative thinking didn't hurt either. We lived for a short while in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when my dad worked for Rockwell Engineering. One winter he drove alone to Texas in our wood-paneled station wagon for a job interview. My dad swerved off an icy road, into a ditch.

He made his way to a phone booth and for a moment did not know whom to call. He simply opened the phone book, found someone (a stranger) with the last name Tran and called. My dad guessed that the person answering the phone would speak Vietnamese and would be willing to help. He was right.

In similar fashion, the attorneys who volunteer for the King County Bar Association's pro bono programs frequently answer the calls for help. Last year, the KCBA pro bono programs provided more than $7 million in free legal services. Our Neighborhood Legal Clinics serve more than 35 communities and offer subject-specific clinics.

Earlier this year, the Pro Bono Services Committee put out an "all hands on deck" call for attorney volunteers to assist unaccompanied minors and help with other immigration-related programs. More than 250 members from our legal community responded to the call. I served as a volunteer naturalization teacher for 10 years and am especially inspired by the way in which KCBA collaborates with other agencies to be nimble in providing timely legal assistance to a community where people's lives often exist in constant flux.

I began volunteering for a KCBA Neighborhood Legal Clinic in the International District because I wanted to help families like my own. KCBA operated that particular clinic in collaboration with the Asian Counseling Referral Service (ACRS), a social services agency that provides culturally competent services, and the Asian Bar Association of Washington.

KCBA provides training for attorney volunteers, coordinates scheduling and provides interpreters for clients. I often saw my own family reflected in the clients being served at the clinic: teenagers explaining that their parents needed help understanding a form or letter and that the teen's capacity to help had been maximized.

These experiences drew me into the work of KCBA. Recently a Neighborhood Legal Clinic client (not mine), describing the clinic experience, noted: "Very helpful, there is no way I could afford to seek legal advice otherwise. I got clear information that will help me to avoid further conflict and debt."

In addition to providing free legal services to individuals, KCBA has been a trailblazer on a number of public policy issues. KCBA voted to support same-sex marriage long before Washington voters passed Referendum 74 in 2012, eliminating Washington's ban on same-sex marriage.

I recall then-KCBA President Gary Maehara asking me in 2005 whether the Asian Bar Association of Washington would join KCBA in endorsing a resolution to support same-sex marriage. At the time, I was serving as president of the Asian Bar Association of Washington, and a number of organizations debated whether and how LGBT rights would intersect with the discourse on racial and ethnic discrimination.

Likewise, KCBA's leadership on comprehensive drug policy reform began in 2001, more than a decade before I-502, legalizing personal use of marijuana, was implemented in 2013. Our Public Policy Committee continues to systematically identify public policy issues relevant to our members and the broader society.

KCBA rises to the needs of individuals and our society as a collective. We must continue to lead, to be disruptive risk takers, and to be solution oriented as we respond to inequities. The work of KCBA, the lives that we change, the policies that we influence - all of that work is driven by individuals, and sometimes by one individual. Leaders - even unintentional leaders - see what our world should look like despite what it may currently look like.

I think back to the month that my family fled Vietnam. The Army officer who could have looked the other way and pretended not to recognize my family. He did not ignore our plight. During the same month that I left Saigon, Bill Gates saw a picture of a computer in a magazine that inspired him to design a new computer program. He did not wait for someone else to do it and Microsoft was born. I now have the privilege to work in-house for Microsoft.

These actions and circumstances clearly influenced where I am and who I am. The KCBA Neighborhood Legal Clinics were founded just a year before I left Saigon. The program's founders were rightly focused on helping clients. In the process, they also created many opportunities for volunteer attorneys to be fulfilled in the practice of law.

Not only do the clinics assist families like the one I was raised in, my work with the legal clinics introduced me to the great work of KCBA. I look forward to working with you as we do right by those members whose vision makes our work possible.

Kim Tran is the president of the King County Bar Association. She is in-house counsel with Microsoft's Global Employment Law Group. She can be reached at 425-705-7609 or kimtran@microsoft.com.

 

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