On Episode 15 of Decision Dialogues, Mark Willoughby and Mindy Neira speak with Cyndie Chang, Managing Partner of Duane Morris’s Los Angeles office. Cyndie talks about her trajectory in law and her creative approach to solving problems for businesses. She discusses her passion for diversity and inclusion work and shares insights about mentorship, decision making, and more.
The summary below has been created by a professional transcription vendor upon review of the recorded presentation. Please excuse any typos as well as portions noted to be inaudible.
Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, and I’m a Principal, Wealth Manager, and Chief Operating Officer of Modera Wealth Management LLC. Today, my colleague Mindy Neira, Senior Financial Advisor from our New Jersey office, and I will be chatting with Cyndie Chang. Cyndie Chang is the Managing Partner of Duane Morris’s Los Angeles office. Duane Morris LLP, a law firm with more than 800 attorneys and offices across the United States and internationally, serves a broad array of clients. Cyndie litigates complex business class action and commercial disputes involving contracts, products liability, product safety and recall, business torts and fraud, insurance coverage, trademarks, and real estate. Welcome, everyone, to the show. And I will hand it over to Mindy now.
Thanks, Mark. And Hi, Cyndie. Welcome. Thanks for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
So we can jump right into it, you have quite an impressive resume. So we have a lot to talk about today, I think. We could get started with, you know, I’d love to hear how you chose the law profession, or rather how law chose you maybe?
Sure, I went to law school to try to find myself because I knew I liked debate and political science. But I honestly didn’t really know what I’d end up doing or what I was getting myself into. In fact, I liked writing a lot. And I thought I’d be a journalist with a law degree under my belt. When I went to law school, I ended up going through the general influence of working for a law firm and so forth, and got veered into working for a law firm in private practice.
Wow. So have you been able to incorporate some of that journalism into what you do now?
Well, yes, writing and analysis is really integral to my practice.
That’s great. So how about the journey from when you started to now you’re a partner of the firm?
Yes, it’s been a long journey. And to be honest with you, it’s not been an easy one. I can tell you that my first year as a lawyer, I almost fell out of the practice of law. I was a litigator, and I wanted to become a trial lawyer and the firm that I was working at, the major law firm partner there, whose name is on the letterhead, told me I’d never be a trial lawyer because he thought I was meek and soft spoken. And I don’t know if I really was — perhaps there was some unconscious bias as to me being an Asian American lawyer and a female. In my first year of practice, I went home really stressed because not only the practice of law is very challenging in and of itself, especially as a litigator when you’re in a very adversarial type of practice. And you’re working with people who are really stressed out with egos, and a lot of pressure. And I really questioned whether I wanted to continue with the law. But luckily for me, I continued on. I moved law firms, and I had to move several times until I got to my ultimate law firm right now. And I really started to get into the groove once I found a place that I could thrive, and really established what it means to be a lawyer, which is helping people and advocating on what you think is right.
So tell me more about the type of law that you do. I know Mark just listed off the type of work you do. But what does that all mean?
I think of myself as a problem solver for businesses. I’ve been fortunate enough to handle a large variety of issues and disputes on behalf of small to very large companies. And they can range from issues involving contracts, real estate, securities, fraud, employment, intellectual property, trade secrets, and even if I don’t have a particular specialty for the need, I get a subject matter expert to help, be like a subject matter expertise in tax or bankruptcy in corporate. So I’m somewhat of also a project manager and think of myself as very extremely resourceful. I can get calls on a daily basis about some situation. An employee has stolen the trade secret or there is a problem or defect with the product and how do we minimize exposure? Or we have a dispute with a vendor who’s not paying us, or there’s goods stuck somewhere with governmental authorities, and how do I get them out? I had a call recently, a client who said they have a data breach, and what do I do? People come to me with a business problem. It’s not necessarily a lawsuit. And although it can be, I try to get it resolved in a creative fashion. And I can take cases to trial. And that’s what we all know about before, you know, a judge or jury. But litigation can be very expensive. And so I try to very much look at the big picture. For example, while you can win on the merits of the lawsuit, that actually might not be a win, if you realize how much you actually spent — time and money and resources expended. And so it may not really be a win from a financial perspective. So I really need to figure out what the client wants. And the goals are different from company to company, from startup to public company.
Wow, that’s a lot to manage and it sounds like you’re prioritizing for your clients, you’re helping them think through the different creative solutions, not just going right to trial at the start. So going back to the first law firm you spoke to who told you that you couldn’t be a trial lawyer and that unconscious bias. What type of advice would you have for anyone joining the industry now or joining the profession who wants to become a partner and faces some of these biases that might impact their future, or what they might believe is a bias?
There is unconscious bias that exists not just in the legal profession, but everywhere. And speaking from my own personal experience, which is in the legal profession, the challenges that I’ve seen are the institutional barriers for women and minorities, especially in a very male dominated profession. And to be honest with you, the law and handling a legal issue, you can research it, you can analyze, you can strategize with a team — that’s actually not that hard. Once you figure out, you can find the resources to get what the law is. So that hasn’t been a problem. And actually, I love figuring out the legal solution. The problem and the challenges has really been dealing with other people and the institutional barriers. Just speaking a little bit more about the experience, is that often as a woman, even as a woman of color, we’re often mistaken as the legal assistant or the court reporter, and not necessarily the lawyer. And there are many times in a situation where you can be even with someone who knows that you’re a lawyer. Either you’re undermined, you’re underestimated, disrespected, talked over or talked down to, or someone’s taking credit for something you did. And so this has been a passion for me to speak out, and mentor and help women, especially women of color in the profession in trying to find their own voice and their own style and navigating this profession.
That is great to hear that you’re doing that. And very important. You’re right, it’s across many, if not all professions that we see this type of thing. To that end, I know that you are a frequent speaker on the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion. Could you tell us more about your passion in this area? I think it’s great that you’re mentoring women and women of color in your field. What about some of the organizations you’re with?
Yes, I’ve had the privilege and honor to work and lead an organization as President of NAPABA. The acronym stands for National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. And I served as president of another local bar association in Los Angeles and have been in leadership for many other organizations and nonprofits, including currently serving as a commissioner on the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. And that work, as I was talking about before, has been my passion. It’s promoting and advocating for women in the profession and minorities in the profession. And with that work, not only do we do things like advocate for diverse judicial appointments, including talking to the White House, and talking to senators. We’ve also filed amicus briefs all the way up to the US Supreme Court on positions that we think are important to our groups. We’ve worked and partnered with many other racial and ethnic groups and other underrepresented groups like LGBT lawyers and lawyers with disabilities. And we find that having a united voice on these issues has really helped move the needle.
And as I was saying before, it’s just so important to me that women, especially women of color, develop their own voice and style. For a long time, the traditional notion of a lawyer is a tall white male representing you, again, as a very male dominated profession. But why is it that women and minorities have to try to get in and fit in this old boys’ club? And so instead of trying to overcome and climb barriers that have been put before them, instead, let’s work on tearing down those barriers, and redefine what a modern lawyer looks like.
I’ve been talking about diversity and inclusion for many years — since the start of my career, almost two decades ago. Unfortunately, progress has been very slow. But I’m very hopeful that recent developments in our world are getting more people to be cognizant of these issues. And gone are the days of, I think, a very competitive environment, especially in the legal profession where I recall women elbowing other women, because of the perception that there’s only one seat at that table for females. We’re all in this together. When you get that seat at the table, how are you going to create another seat for the next woman or minority? Because that only strengthens the organization and amplifies your voice there.
Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s not about filling someone else’s seat at the table, but pull up another chair and join the table, join the conversation, and having room for that. So that’s just wonderful to hear that you’re doing this work. I want to go back to some of the law that you practice. I know I’ve also seen that you advocate for the American Disability Act. Is that a big part of what you do? How often are you seeing cases like this, or what usually comes from it? I’d love to hear more about that.
Yeah, it’s a part of my practice. I have clients on both sides, mostly on businesses that I represent, where they are doing the best that they can, and trying to accommodate and make their business as open and accessible to consumers. And, you know, it’s good work that I’m proud of.
That’s great. One of my areas of focus in financial planning is disability. So it’s very intriguing to me. So I love to hear about it. Thinking about financial decisions that you make, what type of personal or financial decisions, maybe difficult decisions that you’ve had to make over your career, the beginning up to becoming a partner.
So currently, I’m single, and I have two young kids. And I have to do that along with being a leader of a major law firm and some community organizations. And it’s been very hard to balance all of those different things. That’s been a challenge and trying to figure it out, and doing it at different rates at different times. The most challenging decision that I’ve had to make personally is probably having to go through a divorce. And that was a very difficult and emotional challenge that I’ve had to overcome. And that divorce has an impact on everything, your family, your friends, social circle, and your finances.
As to the financial aspect of that, I’ve had some very hard lessons. To be honest, when I was working really hard during my rise up the law firm ladder, and doing long hours to make partner, I really wasn’t paying that much attention to my financial situation. I just assumed things were good. And I relied on someone else to manage things. After I got divorced, I realized that I had significant credit card debt and other debts that were really overwhelming and astronomical. It was a pretty low point for me, I didn’t really know what to do. I had to, you know, get it together and seize back control and get visibility on my finances. And I’m longer in debt — paid every cent off. I never want to go to that place again. It does feel so much more freeing and empowering.
Wow. Wow. I mean it’s just great that you overcame that struggle being in debt.
Cyndie, knowing what you know now, what would you say to your younger self?
Yeah, I would say, get a financial planner or advisor and look to the future and have visibility. And do not rely on someone else. I mean, you really need to be personally in the know of what is going on as to your personal finances.
Great advice. In approaching decisions in general, what is your best advice on how to approach a decision?
As a leader of my law firm and a leader of some organizations, it’s always been integral to me to do one simple thing. And I use this everywhere, which is I listen to all perspectives before making a decision. There have been many times where I could have easily rushed to judgment and get emotional about certain issues. But when I take a moment to step back, and just think, how does the other side feel? Or what is this other person’s side of the story? Am I really listening to what’s going on here, other than jumping to my own conclusions, or my own unconscious biases? That has helped me in making so much better decisions. That extra step or moment has probably stopped me from pushing send on a particular email that I would have regretted later. And I think that that has demonstrated my leadership to others, because I think, you know, I’ve been very deliberate and insightful and thoughtful when I make a decision.
Thinking about your practice now in the way it’s structured. You mentioned mentoring. Do you have a formal mentorship program within the firm. Is that something that junior partners or junior lawyers can take advantage of?
Yes, we have a formal mentoring program. That’s very common in large law firms. But I actually am a big proponent of informal mentoring. I think a lot of great relationships are formed organically, when you have some real synergistic relationship with someone that you’re getting something out of that relationship, and the other person is getting something out of it. It’s a mutual relationship, where there’s a give and take and interests that are aligned. And so I just have a lot of mentoring relationships organically, because there’s some people that I really like, and they really like me, and we get along great. And they’ll call me, and I’ll call them too when I need advice.
What would you say to a young person joining, maybe a young female, and how they would find a mentor or develop that mentor relationship if they don’t have a formal program, or maybe going around a formal program and becoming more informal?
Well, what I tell young lawyers is just don’t put your head down and just focus on the work. You actually have to know the organization and get outside the office and meet people. And there are different personalities in our organization, and you might not get along with everybody. So they really just do have to get out of there, network. We have multiple offices and find someone that you have, you know, some synergy with.
That’s great. Okay, so last question. This is a fun one. What is the last decision you had to make today? And it could be non-financial.
Okay, well, first, since we’re in the pandemic, and I’ve been working remote for over a year now, I guess the fun, or the funny response to this is I have to wake up each day deciding whether I’ll wear sweatpants or yoga pants, or business attire for the day. And that usually depends on whether I’m going to be on video or not. But I guess when you ask that question more seriously about, you know, making decisions, I also think about my mindset and decision making. And for example, today, I’ve had a lot of things to do on my “things to do” list. And they’ve been getting lower on my list because I kind of put them off and feel like I have to do this today. But I realized, I don’t have to do anything. Instead, I get to do these things. And because I get to do this, I remind myself of how grateful I am and the blessings that I have in this really robust and exciting career. And I get to help clients solve problems, and they call me to get it done.
Just that simple reframing of the thought — that’s impactful. Thank you for sharing that.
And thanks very much to Mindy Neira and to Cyndie Chang for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.
Cyndie Chang is Managing Partner of Duane Morris’s Los Angeles office, where she formulates creative solutions to business’ problems. She manages complex business class action and commercial disputes involving contracts, products liability, product safety and recall, business torts and fraud, insurance coverage, trademarks, and real estate, with her services spanning numerous industries.
Cyndie is committed to advancing minorities and women in the legal profession and is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion. A leader in numerous capacities, Cyndie is a Commissioner on the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, a Board member of the National Association of Women Lawyers, a member of the Board of Directors of Loyola Law School, LA, a past President of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and a past President of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association.
Cyndie graduated with Bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Psychology from Johns Hopkins University in 2000 and earned her Juris Doctor from Loyola Law School in 2003.
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