A top attorney, community leader, and tireless force for change, the principal of the Los Angeles-based firm Lim Ruger discusses how his experience as a first-generation immigrant galvanizes his passion for civil rights.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, John Lim ’82 immigrated to the Los Angeles area with his family in 1967. Lim’s experiences as an Asian American immigrant have helped to shape the law firm he cofounded, Lim Ruger, a multiethnic multicultural law firm deeply committed to changing perceptions of minority lawyers and aiding minority communities.
Q: What was it like growing up in Los Angeles as an Asian American?
J.L.: I attended a public elementary school in the part of Los Angeles called Koreatown. Upon graduation, I was bused to a middle school in North Hollywood. Going from a predominantly minority neighborhood to an almost all-white school was shocking. To be viewed by the students and their parents as an outsider was a daily struggle. There was tremendous resistance, racism, and constant name calling.
What did you take away from this experience?
It taught me a lot about being tough and staying focused. I think it made me more sensitive to civil rights issues, and it definitely influenced my desire to have some positive impact on society. To me, law seemed the most natural medium to make that impact.
Why did you choose to study accounting before attending UC Hastings?
Growing up in a minority community, I saw many immigrant businesses manipulated by unfair business “partners.” I sensed that somebody needed to level the playing field a bit and help provide equal access to justice. I thought that if I could offer competent legal representation by lawyers who could communicate in their native language and understand their cultural landscape, it would be an important contribution. And I thought that my background in accounting and legal studies would equip me to be an effective leader and business lawyer.
What was your goal in starting Lim Ruger?
We started with the hope of building a minority-owned law firm that would represent minority-owned businesses. We would also effectively represent mainstream corporations that would benefit from the strengths and capabilities of diverse attorneys. A big part of our mission is to change commonly held perceptions of minority lawyers and minority-owned law firms.
What community activities are you involved in?
The one in which I spend most of my energy away from private practice is the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, based in Los Angeles. We are the nation’s largest public interest law group providing direct legal services and civil rights advocacy primarily for Asian Americans. I was on the board for 20 years and have been the board chair for the past five years.
Lim Ruger recently received the Builders of Peace Award from the Western Justice Center. Was that in recognition of your pro bono work?
Yes, but I also believe it was in recognition of the scholarships we give out every year to various bar organizations, including the State Bar Foundation. We see tremendous value in giving back to the community and also by being an example among diverse law firms.
In the time that you’ve been practicing law, have you seen the situation for minority lawyers improve significantly?
We’ve made huge improvements. When I joined a major New York firm as a recent UC Hastings graduate, I was one of two Asian American lawyers in the entire firm. If you go to any major firm’s roster today, you will see a fair number of Asian American lawyers. So yes, we’ve made huge progress. But do we still have a long way to go? Absolutely. Except for a limited number of minority lawyers I know, most minority partners have very little voice, are not active in firm management, and are often regarded as backroom lawyers, or lawyers they put out for marketing purposes. These things need to change.
Is your family proud of your success?
Yes, but immigrant families’ expectations are often beyond what you can deliver. When I came here at a young age, we were told that if you work hard, you can achieve your dreams. I believed that, but I would qualify that knowing what I know today about how economically challenged immigrants need to make money to put food on the table. I’m the youngest of four children, and all of us worked, even at a very young age. I’ve never ceased working. And I think that work ethic has been the platform for whatever success I have achieved.
What are your goals as a member of UC Hastings’ Board of Trustees?
When I was asked to serve on the board, I gladly accepted because I wanted a meaningful platform to raise money for the school. Because of the hardships I endured growing up, I know what it means when I hear about students not being able to pay for books or having to borrow tremendously for their tuition. Thanks to UC Hastings, I have been able to raise three children and put them through school without them having to take out loans. With this tremendous blessing, how else do I express that gratitude?
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