Wednesday, February 25, 2009


When I received an email from the Today Show producer on Monday, my first inclination was to say no. They wanted me to fly out to New York that same day and be ready to appear first thing on Tuesday morning. I have been handling some litigation work in addition to my magazine articles and class assignments, and on Monday, I was booked for back to back meetings all day until 9pm. I have also been exhausted from my pregnancy, and all I want to do is curl up and sleep all day long. The thought of a six hour flight was not appealing.

And each time I am contacted to talk about my Paul Hastings email, I worry about being over-exposed. It's not something that I necessarily want to be known for. I sent the email because I thought it was important to speak up for myself and those who may face similar treatment. But I don't need to be known as "that Paul Hastings email girl." So when Lesley Stahl's producer from 60 Minutes contacted me last summer, I told him no. When the Today Show producer emailed, I initially said, "Sorry, I can't fly out to NY today."

But then, there was also a side of me that thought, "Oh, what the hell. The story is already out there, and maybe it'll force some employers to pause before dragging an employee through the mud. And who knows, maybe it'll help me with my writing career in some way." So I decided to do it, and they set me up in a studio on Battery Street in San Francisco. On Monday afternoon, they sent a camera guy over to take some footage of me sitting at my computer. That evening, I picked out a couple of jackets I could wear, grateful that I only needed to worry about the top half of my attire. On Tuesday, I woke up at 3:30am to shower. I asked Jeff if he wanted to join me, but the smart man decided sleep was more important. They sent a car at 4am, and once I got there, a make-up lady fussed over me for a while. Once we were ready, I just sat in a dark room, stared at the camera, and talked when I heard Meredith Vieira ask me questions through an ear piece. I felt strange talking into a camera, so I asked the make-up lady to stand behind the camera. And it was over in a few minutes.

I think the Today Show appearance was neither here nor there. In some ways, it was disappointing because it focused on whether employees are conducting themselves properly when the topic should really have been on the unethical strategies employers use in laying off employees. And of course there were tons of things I thought to say in advance, but once you are in the middle of it, everything escapes your brain and you wonder what the hell you are doing there. The biggest thing I regret not saying is mentioning Paul Hastings by name, pointing out that they are an established employment law firm, and explaining how they were mocking up performance reviews to suit their purposes. But it's too late now.

Yesterday morning, I received a call from Inside Edition. I told them no. I think one dorky TV appearance on this topic, particularly when I've gained so much weight from my three pregnancies in the past year, is more than enough. And it's hard to know when you'll be set up as a punching bag for some TV show's rating.

I have to say, though, that my concerns about the downsides of sending the email have turned out not to be warranted. I think most people worry that you appear unprofessional or that companies will not want to touch you after this kind of an experience. One of the first emails I received yesterday after the show was from one of my current clients, the founder and managing partner of a consulting company, and he wrote, "Great job and well said!" What a decent man. Even my parents, probably the most conservative and risk-adverse people I know, said, "Of course you should speak up when your boss lies like that." And during the past ten months, random people have contacted me and invited me to interview with their company. I've also received emails from in-house attorneys who offered to help in some way.

So many of these incidents stand out. A few weeks after I was laid off, I was flailing and trying to figure out what to do. Out of the blue, I emailed journalist Henry Lee of the San Francisco Chronicle. I had never met him before, but I wanted to learn more about journalism and knew that he covered trials in the Bay Area. In the email, I explained what had happened and that I was considering a career change. In the warmest response, he invited me to have lunch with him. I met him for tapas just a block away from the Chronicle office in Oakland, where he pulled out his notebook to talk to the attorney for the Muslim Bakery, who happened to be passing by. Then he let me hover over him the rest of the afternoon as he typed furiously, clicked on different windows every few seconds, interviewed police officers who had a lead, listened in on police radio feeds as they chased some suspects around the city, scanned press releases and court dockets, exchanged emails with his editor, and shared a story about the time he rode a Blue Angel just weeks before the pilot crashed during a show. I walked out feeling like I could never do Henry's job, but what a great way to find out.

So what could been a terribly sour termination experience has in many ways turned into an affirmation of the decency of people in my life and strangers I've never met. Maybe the world isn't so bad after all. Isn't it a good thing that I'm no longer hanging out in that particular building on 2d Street in San Francisco that seems to be filled with an unusually high concentration of jerks?

Monday, February 23, 2009


I've been asked a few times whether I regret having sent my Paul Hastings email, most recently for this article in the LA Times. I think I would have left quietly if the firm had simply laid me off - or if even one of the partners had the decency to be straight with me, even on a confidential basis. The economy is bad and I am certainly not exceptional for having been let go. What I found offensive was that a company -- an established employment law firm -- would abuse its power as the employer to manipulate my performance review to protect its own reputation at my expense.

Just a week before my review, I had a one-on-one conversation with the head of my department. I had been worried about my low hours. I had talked to him repeatedly throughout the year, asking for more work and asking what I should be doing differently. Always, his response had been, "It is my job to find you work, and I am working on that." During my one-on-one, I raised my concern again that my hours were low. He assured me that my work was "great" and that everyone loved working with me. I thanked him for his assurances and said, "Thanks so much for telling me. We all have our moments of insecurity, you know..." He then responded, "I know, Shinyung, and that is why I want to get it through your head. You are a great attorney. It's not because of your work." When I asked what he thought was the problem, he explained that the economy was bad, the firm was raising its billable rates to a level where it was pricing itself out of its current market, and the firm was attempting to get a foothold in the elite upper tier.

A week after that conversation, I had my review with the same partner and another partner TC. When I walked into my review, they did not make eye contact with me. When I read my review, I was shocked by the downgrading in all but one of the categories. When I asked what had happened between my prior review and the current, TC blathered that he could not explain it, that he had nothing to do with the prior year's review (although he had headed the case for which I received great ratings), and it was possible that my prior review had been "over-inflated." The head partner, who had told me how great my work was a week earlier, said, "You need to think about your future here."

The situation was surreal. When your boss tells you one thing one week and says the complete opposite a week later, you wonder if you know nothing about human nature. Law firms are often afraid to admit that they are suffering economically -- because they are trying to attract other rain-making partners with big books of business. And no partner with a big book of business would join a firm that appears to be hemorrhaging. To protect its own reputation and to avoid any possible appearance of a decline in business, the firm tarnished my performance review to create a public excuse for my termination.

So, yes, when I wrote my email, I was emotional. But I also thought what they did was wrong. I'm no longer emotional, but I still think what they did was wrong.

When a bully is about to stomp you with its giant foot, the least you can do is try to take a bite out of its pinky toe.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

For Those Killing Time

One of my posts from Kimchi Mamas was published in the January issue of KoreAm Journal. I don't know why everything I write looks silly a couple of months after. Oh, well, maybe that means I've learned something in the past two months? Or that my self-delusion has worn off. Anyway, click here if you haven't seen it on Kimchi Mamas already and have time to kill.

Monday, February 16, 2009


I just received my second paid writing job, and I am thrilled. Who knew a $200 gig could mean so much?

It may sound strange, but I don't think I worked so hard when I worked in a law firm. Sure, I worked long hours. I remember many stretches when we rolled out of bed at 6am, rolled into the office, and rolled back into bed at midnight. And there were nights when I stayed up researching, trying to figure out the best arguments, preparing for that deposition, sweating over the right answer to provide to the client. Oh, and never mind some miserable holidays when I was stuck alone in the office.

But this feels different somehow. Less detached. As if it will take all of me to get it right. As if something within me is at stake, not just a job, not just a paycheck. That it wouldn't be enough for someone else to say it's good, that I need to know that it is. And that feels satisfying somehow.

There are times when I feel slightly embarrassed to be exploring career choices at my age. I'm almost middle aged, for god's sakes. Am I not supposed to have figured it out by now? And I feel silly when I feel excited about the things that used to excite me when I was in college. Like being a part of a group of writers who have things to say. Being excited to learn about things, and the thought of taking up some issue to try to make some point, even if they fall on deaf ears. Regression, perhaps?

Quite likely, yes.

But then I think of some people who turn old before their time. And that's not a pretty sight either.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


These days, I find myself in a classroom four days a week. Three of them are for journalism and one for literature. Most of the other times, I am researching, interviewing someone for a class assignment or writing. In each of these settings, I find myself learning again, whether it's from someone I get to talk to as a part of an interview, from a teacher who is trying to help us learn something new, from the other students in the classrooms, or from myself as I am slowly digesting what I have learned and drawing new connections as I write. And I am reminded again what a pleasure it is to learn.

I thought I had done a pretty decent job of keeping myself on the learning curve even while I worked in law firms. I tried to read a fair bit and had signed up for classes here and there, particularly earlier in my career. But more often than not, I had found myself having to miss a class when work kept me in the office late or being too tired to engage fully. I remember just dropping my pottery class when I missed two days in a row and pictured the pots I had painstakingly made sitting on a shelf cracked.

When you work in a field for ten years, that sometimes becomes your life, whether you intend it or not. I'm sure some others are better than me at keeping their lives in flux, but despite myself, I seem to have settled into the life of a lawyer over the years, like sediment that slowly drops, finds a resting place, and eventually calcifies. Most of my friends are lawyers, and the things of the lawyer world became the norm. It no longer seemed strange to talk about billable hours as if everyone in the world tracked their lives by the tenth of an hour. And when some associates went around talking about how they were the "favorite" of such and such a partner and were told that they were a "star," I had learned to stopped wincing.

Last night, in my Berkeley Extension literary analysis/writing class, we analyzed short stories by Virginia Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I walked into class feeling thick-headed after trying to read the Woolf piece four times and failing to get what she was trying to say. Once discussion started, I was amazed by the insights other students had on the story. It was so refreshing to sit with a dozen people with sensibilities that had not been eroded by years of bad television. Oh, don't think I don't relish my share of The Daily Show as much as anyone else, but it was a relief to be reminded that there is room to talk about subjects like the subtleties of human alienation, desire to connect, and the wistfulness of longing without feeling corny. I walked out of that room realizing I have so much to learn.

Sitting in that class reminded me that no matter what, I need to make the effort to keep myself engaged. That whatever I choose to do as a career, I can reach out beyond the comforts of my immediate environment and find inroads to different ways of thinking and approaching life. That I don't need to sit lazily in my own little corner waiting for the world to reveal itself. That that is a sure path to mental decay - and unforgivable waste of what has been given to us.

I know I sound corny, but I prefer it to calcification.

Emory Douglas

(copyright Emory Douglas)

Yesterday and last week, I spent several hours interviewing Emory Douglas, who was the Minister of Culture of The Black Panther Party and a member from 1976 until the party dissipated in the early 80's. He drew most of the images associated with the Black Panthers. I thought you would enjoy seeing some of his work.

Monday, February 9, 2009

This Time Around

This pregnancy feels different somehow. The other day, when someone asked me if I was pregnant, I completely forgot that I was and answered, "Oh, no, but we're trying." A split second after I responded, I remembered that I was pregnant. Maybe it's some defense mechanism kicking in after two miscarriages. Or maybe it's because it's becoming old news to be in the early months of a pregnancy. Sort of a been there, done that feeling. But it's nice not to be obsessively checking the toilet bowl each time.

Friday, February 6, 2009


Looks like Paul Hastings is at it again.

Maybe they are seeking more publicity.

If you haven't seen them, check out the articles from my layoff in April 2008: Above the Law, The Wall Street Journal, The Wall Street Journal Blog, The New York Times, and Legal Week.

And they claim to specialize in employment law. Tisk, tisk.

For all who have been laid off (from Paul Hastings or elsewhere), please believe that you will move onto better places. In the meantime, hang in there.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On Failure

I interviewed one of Jeff's glass blowing friends yesterday for a class assignment and he said so many interesting things that I have to share a bit.

This is what he said about failure:

"I think failure is a great thing. I think people should be embracing their failures so that they can keep moving. But if you blanket your failures, you kind of get stuck with your failures for ever, ever, and ever. And that’s easy to do. I think it’s trickier to say no, I screwed up, that was me. I’m having a bad day or whatever, but I did that. I screwed up. I think glass is one of those materials where you have a lot of opportunities of screwing up. And it’s really cool like that."

Also, in talking about glass blowing:

"But there is something fascinating about how you’re forced to identify what you just did. And what you just did and what you think you did are commonly very different from one another. And if you can figure out what you think you did and identify what you did do, then you’re learning something. You can actually get somewhere and make something better or quicker. But if you can’t separate those two or bring them together, then you can’t do anything."

-Jerry Kung, glass artist, Oakland, CA

Monday, February 2, 2009


I thought about following social convention and keeping the news to myself until it is "safe" to announce the pregnancy. In some ways, keeping the pregnancy secret until the second trimester makes sense. A new birth is supposed to be the one of the happiest of occasions, and who wants to taint it with the risk of miscarriage? It is a bit awkward (as I have found out) to announce in one big blur, "So... I'm pregnant, but we just don't know what will happen and miscarriages are so common and I have about a 30% chance of another one so let's just see what happens and please keep your fingers crossed for us." And what if you do miscarry? Wouldn't it be awkward to have to go back and un-announce your pregnancy? In the days following my miscarriages, I found myself emailing friends instead of calling them because I found it difficult to talk about it without breaking down.

I've never been good at lying though. I give myself away. And when you've already had two miscarriages and all your friends know you're trying again, it's difficult to dodge the question, "Are you pregnant?" My friends ask me that question as soon as I decline a glass of wine. Instead of hemming and hawing, I find it easier to answer truthfully. Sometimes, the answer is, "Nope, but we're trying." Other times, it's, "We are!" followed by a series of disclaimers.

Even the first time around, I found it necessary to talk about my pregnancy early on, especially with other women who had gone through pregnancies. I had a lot of questions. First, I needed recommendations on the books I should read. Then, I wanted to discuss the advice in the books. (Do you think I really can't have prosciutto for nine months? I keep reading conflicting advice about air travel. What did you do?) Then I had questions about whether we should opt for CVS or amnio, where I should buy maternity clothes, when I should start looking into the maternity leave policy, etc., etc., etc.

But talking comes with a price, as I found out. Last time, when I told someone I miscarried, he responded, "You shouldn't have announced the pregnancy so early." I felt rebuked for a second, and then that sense of shame quickly turned to indignation. I thought, do you really think this is about your discomfort? Another time, I felt pretty small when a friend made a point to tell me that his wife kept her pregnancy secret until her fifth month. Is it a matter of my character? Am I the loud mouth who lacks the patience and the discipline to keep it to myself for just a few months?

Maybe it's that of kind attitude that drives women to hide their pregnancies in the first trimester. I've been in situations where women lie about their pregnancy, even as they are suddenly declining food they seemed to relish before. The red flag is a "no thanks" to wine and then another "no thanks" when I offer them a taste of my tuna tartar or caesar salad. Or suddenly requesting decaffeinated coffee after grilling the barrista about the de-caffeinating process. I usually ask straight out, "Are you pregnant?" And some women mouth, "Oh, no," even as they avert my eyes, their cheeks flush, and we quickly change the conversation to the latest news topic or gossip as we both feel embarrassed to be caught in a charade. Surely enough, the "announcement" comes a few weeks later. I feel a little taken aback, and a part of me feels as if something has been betrayed between us.

I can't help but wonder if silence during early pregnancy is a residue of the days (or maybe we're still mired in it) when a woman's social value is derived from her fertility. Maybe some women who miscarry see the miscarriage as failures on their parts - even among women who have degrees and work experience to attest to their ambitions, who see themselves as independent and progressive, who don't bank their identities solely on motherhood. I've seen these women whisper about their miscarriages and then ask me not to mention it to anyone else. It is enshrouded in a quiet shame, a stigma best kept secret.

I wonder if this secrecy doesn't cheat us. It feels like wearing a burka, hiding from society an ambiguous and complicated issue - like female sexuality - that should be socially addressed. In the case of pregnancy and miscarriage, many women seem to have tacitly agreed that these issues do not deserve room for discussion in the social arena. The truth is, life is ambiguous. Every pregnancy comes with the possibility of miscarriage, still birth, complications during delivery, or post-partum problems. Instead of acknowledging these openly, we seem to prefer to pretend that the baby does not exist until the second trimester and then suddenly all is well once we pass the CVS mark. And when the miscarriage occurs or we find ourselves facing a still birth or a death during delivery, we find ourselves alone, feeling like a social anomaly and a failure. I would prefer not to find myself in that kind of a hole if something goes awry again.

The strange thing is that we have come from a time when it was common for both the woman and the baby to die during childbirth to a time when it is almost completely safe. Maybe the denial of death and ambiguity is a safeguard against the fears that permeate in the face of possible risks. If I could help it, I would create a little space for some ambiguity. For society to understand that when a woman announces her pregnancy, that is not the outcome. It is the beginning of nine months of waiting, hoping, and safeguarding. And that the body is complicated and still mysterious in many ways, with no promise of certainty. That even if this fetus is not visible on the surface and may never see the light of day, it still exists inside me. And that is a miracle.