For example, businesses have to register with the Chinese government and in many cases, especially joint ventures with an American partner, must report their investment capital, projects and profits. Tax returns offer a mother lode of information. "I'm probably not able to put the whole puzzle together," Shaw admits, "but I find some of the pieces. To demolish a house, you only need to take down a few corners. Then the judge starts to believe you. You have to be very creative."
But each case brings its own drama and tragedy. For one long-suffering wife Shaw represented, the final straw came when her husband suggested that since their own children were grown, the wife could care for the young children he had with his mistress. Another woman, who had a San Marino mansion and eight cars parked in the garage, wanted out of an arranged marriage.
"She's very patient and diligent and understanding," says Wong Park, a Korean American lawyer who knows Shaw and has argued opposite her in court. "She tries to find the right solution depending on the person's background. For some, because of their culture, it's more important to go after custody. For others, it's the money. She's able to read between the lines."
Time Resolves Some Problems
Likewise, Shaw has found over the years, opponents can soften and intractable situations can suddenly work out. That's what happened when she represented a white American woman married to a Chinese businessman she had met while teaching English in China.
They had several children, but the husband had affairs and bragged that he would buy off the judges to gain custody and take all the money if she divorced him.
The woman hired Shaw anyway. During a court recess, Shaw got permission from the husband's attorney to talk to the husband in Chinese. No important words were exchanged, but Shaw thinks the informal chat in his native tongue didn't hurt: He later agreed to a better financial settlement as well as giving his wife custody of their children.
That was a relief, because Shaw has handled many cases in which one parent flees with the kids to another country. The remaining parent isn't even certain of getting a U.S. court to order the return of children, she says. In one of Shaw's saddest cases, an Indonesian husband fled with the children back to Indonesia. The wife, an ethnic Chinese Lao, couldn't get permission to follow.
Shaw says she often coaches clients on how to act in court, such as answering questions directly, which can be considered rude in China. Likewise, she says traditional Chinese parents who stress obedience and academic excellence above all else can come off badly in custody evaluations.
"In their hearts, the parents are trying to do the right thing," Shaw explains. "But they look very uptight, nervous and inflexible. I tell them they have to be more polished, more relaxed, but it's hard for them. Often the parent who lives the more Americanized life wins custody."
For Shaw, this is a sensitive cultural problem that is not adequately addressed in American courts. "I'm not saying the judge is right or wrong, but I think they should give some more consideration to the struggles that immigrants face, that these are their values," she says.
Straddling two cultures, she knows this firsthand. Shaw appreciates the freedom and the challenges her new life have brought her. And she hasn't lost her sense of humor, even when she is mistaken in court for the husband's mistress instead of the attorney arguing the case.
"I don't have a lot of anger. I'm just an immigrant, and you have to be patient and persistent. But I've been lucky. I never would have reached my potential if I had stayed comfortably in Taiwan.
"But here I'm challenged. If a girl like me can make it here, then anyone can."