Divorce lawyer Y. Jessie Shaw was standing in a San Bernardino courthouse, waiting for a signed order that would freeze the assets of her client's husband, when she saw the man slip out of the courtroom and sprint down the hall.
She knew the couple had come here penniless from Vietnam, saved up to buy a gas station and prospered. But as divorce loomed, the husband sold the gas station and hid the $400,000 profit. Rumor had him headed back to Vietnam to start a new life.
Realizing her client would never see her share of that money if the husband fled the country, Shaw decided to chase him. In her 3-inch heels, she ran stealthily after him, out the courthouse and into the parking lot. Then Shaw, a brash Taiwanese immigrant who has never let convention deter her on either side of the Pacific, hopped into her car and tailed him to a bank in Redlands.
As she drove, she called the courthouse on her cell phone, only to learn that the judge on her case had left for the day. Somehow, she convinced a clerk to contact the judge on the golf course, and get the court order faxed to the Redlands bank. When Shaw ran into the bank, she found the runaway husband clutching a wad of bills while the teller counted out more.
"Stop," she cried to the startled crowd, and proceeded to explain the situation to bewildered bank officials, who held up the transaction.
It took most of the afternoon, but eventually the judge's fax came in and the bank agreed to freeze the man's funds. In a safety-deposit box within the bank's vault, Shaw and bank officials discovered $350,000 in cash. A checking account held $50,000 more. She had found the missing gas station proceeds.
And Shaw, who had recently opened her own practice but didn't speak fluent English, understand American customs or have much legal experience here, was launched on an exhilarating career.
Ten years later, Shaw is a seasoned litigator with sleek offices in downtown Pasadena. She has come far from the days when she interviewed at blue-chip California firms and was told that she lacked the linguistic and cultural skills to make it as an American lawyer.
"People told me, even though you're smart enough to pass the bar, you haven't been in this country long enough. You have no chance to be a litigator in court," Shaw recalls.
Instead of letting such remarks offend her, Shaw only hardened her resolve.
"I agreed with them," she says. "But I also felt I wouldn't be a real attorney until I stepped into court. I wanted that validation. But it took time, and I had to be patient. In the beginning, when I formulated legal arguments in my mind, I used Chinese and translated back to English as I spoke. I don't know when the wall came down, but now I can speak directly in English."
Far from being a detriment, her Chinese heritage has become an asset. The growing number of Asian immigrants in Southern California has created a larger pool of people seeking a divorce lawyer like Shaw, who not only shares their language and culture, but can explain how American laws differ from those of home.
Far from being a detriment, Shaw's Chinese heritage has become an asset. "They feel comfortable seeing an Asian woman who understands their values and their morals," says Shaw, a poised woman of 39.
About 80% of Shaw's clients are overseas Chinese (people from Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora, such as ethnic Chinese from Malaysia) and 15% white. The balance is Latino. She does a handful of pro-bono divorce cases each year for those who can't afford divorce lawyers.
Shaw's been in the trenches a long time, and like most divorce lawyers, she's seen every kind of bad behavior: adultery, substance addiction, gambling and even murder. But in Shaw's view, her clients' human foibles are compounded by the difficulties immigrants face in a new country, culture and language. There are often long separations, as husbands toil in Asia at family businesses while wives and children remain here.
So Shaw, who recently completed the requirements to be certified as a family law specialist, finds herself playing therapist, and parental and financial advisor to immigrants bewildered by the legal system and customs of their adopted land.
Representing the 'Second Wives'
She represents husbands as often as wives, sometimes even mistresses, whom she calls "second wives." Many have long relationships and even children with the married lovers who have brought them from China.
"Before I met them, I thought they were frivolous creatures with pretty faces," Shaw says. "But many are smart. They helped the men set up businesses in China. But they also know that if they lose their looks, the man will leave. They come to me and want to know how they can safeguard their assets. They are worried for their children."