Starting salary

Starting salary of a legal aid attorney is around $40,000-$52,000. Salaries vary based on location and agency, but that is the ballpark. According to the legal career association NALP, the median salary in 2014 was $44,600. My own salary fits within the range.
 
Living in the Bay Area on that salary requires careful planning and diligence, but it’s definitely doable. I don’t eat out much, and try to prepare my own food (hence the Mason jar salads). I don’t go to shows or concerts. I don’t travel. I exercise at home, so I don’t have to pay for a gym membership. I make sure to put some money aside for my Roth IRA and for my savings.
 
I’m thankful for what I have, because every day I meet people who have to survive on much less. People who are receiving General Assistance from Alameda County get $336 a month, along with $194 in food stamps. That’s $530 a month, or $6,360 a year. That’s not a lot, especially for folks who are disabled and unable to work. SSI is $895 a month, or $10,740 a year. While not great, it’s definitely better. This is why we work so hard to get people on SSI.
 
Some folks may be surprised by my salary. “Don’t lawyers make a lot of money?”, they may wonder. But it depends on the kind of lawyer you are. Private practice lawyers, especially those at big firms (with clients like Google, Exxon, or Walmart), can make significantly more. In fact, starting salary at these big firms is around $160,000, not including bonuses. So a 25-year-old straight out of law school can make more as a BigLaw attorney, working to support big companies, than a legal aid attorney with 10 years of experience, working to advocate for poor people. That’s just how things are.
 
But BigLaw is not the life for me. Many BigLaw attorneys are unhappy. They’re unhappy with the stress. They’re unhappy with the 80-hour work weeks. They’re unhappy with the constantly buzzing phones. I know people have their reasons for pursuing BigLaw, and I wish my BigLaw colleagues success and happiness in their careers. But I’ll take my lower salary, my 35-hour work week, and my personal satisfaction with my work, and be content with that.
 
My parents joked with me that it’s a good thing that I’m saving money now, because once I have a girlfriend, my money will disappear. I certainly hope that’s not true. I mean, I would like to be the kind of guy who can afford to take his girlfriend out to fancy dinners or excursions. But the truth is, at least for a while, I won’t be able to afford that. So some women who are accustomed to a certain standard of living won’t give me the time of day. But I bet that whoever ends up choosing to be with me will appreciate what I do have to give.

Dating advice from mom: Opposites Attract

My mom’s dating advice: “Opposites attract.”
 
“Look at our family. Your dad and your brother have similar personalities. They are both simple people. Not that they are simple-minded; they are both incredibly intelligent. But they have simple approaches to life. You only give them a few things, and they are happy!”
 
“On the other hand, you and I are similar, in that we are deep thinkers with complex inner worlds. We are always thinking. You give us everything, and we’re still unhappy!”
 
“You and your brother get along so well, even though you two are so different. You see the good things in each other. You bring out the thoughtful side of Dale. He brings out the fun side of you. You need someone who will do the same for you.”
 
It’s true that I tend to be more serious in my approach to life. I’m not a dour-faced curmudgeon, but I do seek out purpose and meaning in life. As a result, sometimes it’s hard for me to have fun.
 
And this isn’t to say that I would pursue a bubbly pixie person who chirps from diversion to diversion. I would find such a person ungrounded and obnoxiously flighty. But it’s nice to be comfortable enough with someone to let my silly side out.
 
If people have stories about opposites attracting, I’d love to hear them!

Changing your plans

I am 30 years old, and currently single. In fact, I’ve been single my whole life.
 
One of the reasons that I have been single for so long is because my life has constantly been in transition. When I was in high school, I was waiting until college to date (I also didn’t like myself very much and didn’t expect that others would like me, but that’s a separate issue). In college, I was waiting for graduation. After graduation, I didn’t know where I was going in life, and wanted to get that figured out. When I was in law school, I was waiting for after graduation (plus, I had hardly enough time in law school for myself, much less someone else). Now I’ve graduated and moved back to the Bay Area, but my life still feels very much in flux. And after years of moving on from one thing to another, I’m having a hard time settling down in one place.
 
I wanted to settle down before I started pursuing a relationship because I didn’t want to disrupt another person’s life. I thought that it was selfish to start a relationship with someone, only to have her change her plans on my account. That struck me as self-serving and tactless.
 
But then I remember what happened with my parents. When my mom met my dad in South Korea, she had no intention of moving to the US. My dad was coming here to study, and told her that she would have to leave her family, her culture, and her home to be with him. She said yes. Even though she didn’t know the future, she knew that she wanted to be with him.
 
I think about other friends who have had similar experiences, who have changed their plans to be with the ones that they love. While the sacrifice is real, the love makes the sacrifice so sweet.
 
And I realize that I haven’t really changed that much from high school. What I took to be thoughtfulness for others is rooted in a lack of value for myself. I thought that it would be too much to ask someone else to change her future plans for me.
 
I don’t know if my parents’ story will happen for me. I don’t know if I will ever get married. I’m glad that I can say that if I were to stay single, I would be grateful for life. But I’m embracing this truth about myself: I am worth changing your plans.

Anger and Love – Breaking down and building up

A quick thought on anger:
 
Anger is volatile. Anger is powerful. Anger is disturbing. But anger is not inherently evil.
 
I’ve heard it said that anger is “love in motion toward a threat against that which it loves” (attribution: Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church). Think of mama bear and baby bear. When baby bear is threatened, mama bear gets angry.
 
Anger is a useful diagnostic. When you become angry, you can ask yourself what it is that you love. You can then ask yourself if the thing you love is truly under threat. You can further ask yourself whether you are loving that thing more than you ought.
 
For example, it’s natural to get upset if someone insults you. But if you fall into a violent rage when a stranger throws you an unkind comment, then it shows that you deeply love your image. Is your pride worthy of that much love?
 
You can talk all you want about what you love, but your anger says more about your love than words ever will.
 
It’s useful to know that anger and love are connected, because it gives you something to do with your anger. Anger desires to be directed. If anger has nothing to do, it will smolder into resentment and cynicism. Sometimes it’s appropriate to use anger to tear down, break apart, unchain. But sometimes, you can’t do much with anger; the threat is too diffuse, too distant, too intangible. So instead of tearing down the threat, you can channel that emotion into building up what is under threat.
 
If you can’t use anger to fight back the bully, you can use love to build up the victim.
 
I’m not saying people should never become angry. That’s foolishness. I firmly believe that you can’t tell people what to feel. That’s not how feelings work. And anger is just as much a part of life as joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and all other emotions. But anger gets easily corrupted. Anger can turn from love protecting against a threat into hatred smashing down a victim.
 
For each of us, there will be a season to break down, and a season to build up. I hope that all of us would know the season that is set for us.

Charlottesville

I’ve been off Facebook and news for the past two weeks. I wanted to take a step away from everything going on. I can share another time about the experience of unplugging. In short, it was a very necessary break.
 
I returned this morning to hear the news about the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, the violent clash with counter-protestors, the car attack that killed one woman and left multiple people injured, and the helicopter crash that killed two state troopers that were monitoring the demonstrations.
 
It’s a lot to take in after unplugging from the news.
 
So much has been said about what happened in Charlottesville, about the rise of the alt-right and white nationalism, about the response or lack thereof from our civic, religious, and community leaders. So much more needs to be said.
 
For now, let me say that I’m saddened, but not surprised.
 
I’m saddened at the death of Heather Heyer and the injuries of so many others in the car attack. I’m not surprised, because in the senseless violence of bigotry, innocent people become targets.
 
I’m saddened at the racism and hatred displayed by the white supremacists in Charlottesville. I’m not surprised, because such attitudes are deeply embedded in our country, and we are very far from addressing them.
 
I’m saddened because this is not the people that we want to be. I’m not surprised, because this is the people that we are.
 
I’m saddened, but not surprised. But I’m also refusing to lose hope and drift into the numb cocoon of apathy.
 
I can’t do much to change the actions and beliefs of others. So I pray that I would have the strength and vision to do what I can, to stand with those who mourn, to call forth deep abiding hope, and to work for the restoration of the image of God in every person.

Ms. Susan Burton

Today, I got to attend a talk by Susan Burton, the founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project. ANWOL provides housing, legal help, and other support for formerly incarcerated women leaving prison. Ms. Burton started ANWOL based on her own experience as a former drug addict and convicted felon. She start in 1998 by buying a house and inviting women who were just leaving prison to come live with her. Since that time, ANWOL has provided housing and services for over 700 women. Ms. Burton has become a powerful voice for formerly incarcerated people.
 
Ms. Burton was joined by Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children who had also been formerly incarcerated. Their stories emphasize the power of advocacy by people who have been directly impacted. Professionals like myself have an important place as technical and resource experts. Yet we also must join with those who know firsthand the grueling hardships that we work to change.
 
Some people may hear that Ms. Burton had been in prison for possession of crack cocaine, and scoff. They might say that she shouldn’t have used crack, and that it was her fault. Maybe. But Ms. Burton started using crack as a way to self-medicate from the immense grief she experienced when she saw her five-year-old son run over and killed by a police vehicle. The police officer never even got out of his car. Ms. Burton never received an apology or any acknowledgement from the police department. If that were you, reeling from the loss of your son, and someone offered you something that would make you feel better, what would you do? You don’t need to condone her actions. She broke the law. But I hope that we can empathize with her. I hope that we can all applaud how Ms. Burton and Mr. Nunn have advocated for the humanity of formerly incarcerated individuals. I hope that we can see the humanity in everyone who enters prison.
 
Much thanks to The Way Christian Center for hosting the event, and for Karem Lizbeth Herrera and Jennifer Kung for sharing in this experience.

“Don’t people choose to be homeless?”

I was talking to one of my friends about homelessness. She said, “I see folks standing by the side of the freeway asking for money. But they seem fine to me. Don’t they choose to be homeless? Why aren’t they working?”
 
That’s a complicated question with a lot of issues. But one thing I’ll note is that disability can be hidden. Some physical disabilities are not readily apparent. Most mental disabilities are invisible. I’ve met folks who are able to bathe and dress themselves, but cannot work. They may have depression and miss work a couple days a month. They may have bipolar and have a hard time interacting with coworkers or supervisors. They may have schizophrenia and have difficulty concentrating on tasks.
 
Most folks I’ve met don’t want to be relying on government money. The process is bureaucratic. You could get cut off because some government employee makes a mistake or you forget to report a change in your situation. And the amount of money you get doesn’t cover your basic needs.
 
On a deeper level, humans are wired to be productive. We are made to find deep satisfaction in work. Most of the folks I’ve met really want to work, but need some help during their time of need.
 
Sure, some folks are just trying to abuse the system and not do anything. But that’s a tiny fraction of the people that I see. It’s unfair to brand an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.

Reflections from a hearing

I shadowed my supervisor to a hearing. As part of the application process for disability benefits, the applicant may appear before an administrative law judge for a hearing. As far as legal procedures go, it’s fairly informal, but still really important.
 
My supervisor Kyle and I showed up at the hearing office. Kyle’s client was already there. We talked about what to expect in the hearing, including what questions the judge may ask. The client had applied for these benefits years ago. Because of the backlog of cases, hearings take a long time to get scheduled.
 
When we were called, we filed into the hearing room. The judge said hello and started talking about some preliminary matters. The client was sitting next to me. I could hear his breathing get heavy, and looked up to see his eyes tearing up. He was crying.
 
After Kyle gave his opening statement, the judge asked the client a few questions. At one of the questions, the client started choking up. He started sobbing. He has had a really tough life, and had been living with his disabilities for a long time. He had made some mistakes and done some bad things. But he was also trying to turn his life around.
 
The judge commended the client for his efforts to turn a new leaf. He said that he had enough evidence to support a finding of disability, and would grant the benefits.
 
We exited to the hallway. With tears streaming down his face, the client reached out and embraced Kyle. He then embraced me. He thanked us for helping him get this far.
 
I became a lawyer to help people. I wanted to help those in need navigate the byzantine tangle that is our legal system. Kyle’s client did an excellent job advocating for himself. He is strong. But he also needs help. And our system is set up so that those who are disabled have a hard time getting the help they need.
 
This work will be hard. I can tell. But it’s moments like this hearing that remind me of why I do what I do.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington last night for the first time (much thanks to Lauren for the suggestion and the DVD). The basic summary is that a wholesome country man becomes a U.S. Senator and finds himself tangling with political corruption and deceit.

Lauren pointed out that she appreciates the film because of the integrity displayed by the main character, Jeff Smith. He is a man of strong ideals and integrity, whose inherent goodness personifies the best in all of us.

What’s also remarkable is how Jeff Smith’s integrity inspires transformation in others. You can see this most clearly in how his idealism moves his secretary, Clarissa Saunders, from cynicism to hope.

Yet the film also demonstrates that heroes sometimes need to be reminded of who they are. SPOILER ALERT: In a pivotal scene, Jeff Smith is ready to call it quits, but Saunders comes in and lifts his spirits, reminding him of his vision for his people.

All heroes need this kind of reminder. All heroes have moments in which they doubt their ability to make a difference. It is in those moments that heroes need community that can look them in the eyes and say, “You can change things. I’m proof of that.”

July 4th 2017: What does USA mean to me?

What does USA mean to me?
 
USA means home, the place where I was born, the place where I grew up. It informs the language I speak, the values I keep, the ideas I believe.
 
USA means opportunity. My parents came here from Korea and found opportunity for a better life. My brother and I have far greater resources than we would have had we remained in Korea.
 
USA means separation and connection. In pursuing after economic opportunities, my family became disconnected with my extended family back in Korea. I have never celebrated a holiday with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins. Yet in this country, I found others with whom to celebrate, a new extended family.
 
USA means strength in South Korea, in both good and bad ways. The US-South Korean relationship is important, but also complicated. The US played a key role in South Korea’s economic vitality, but also played a key role in the division between North and South (along with others). I still have family members in North Korea, although I have no idea what has happened to them.
 
USA also means tragedy. For some of my friends, their families did not choose to come to the US, but were brought by force. For others, their families were already here, and the US brought disruption and violence. Still others came with visions of opportunity, only to have those visions dissipate in broken promises and broken dreams.
 
USA means contradictions, complexities, and paradox, just like any group of people. It is a people of high ideals and great nobility, but also crass vulgarity and mindless violence. To extol its virtues does not mean neglecting its flaws, and to critique its weaknesses does not mean undermining its strengths.
 
So on this day, I say that I am grateful to live in the USA. I will also say that I will endeavor to make it a more just, merciful, and compassionate place. I hope that others will do the same.