My father was admitted to the New York State Bar on December 9, 1959. He worked incredibly hard to get to that point. He first put himself through Syracuse while working three and four jobs, and graduated after two years because got accepted early to New York Law School. After he graduated from law school, he came back to Albany, worked for Benjamin (“Ben”) Ungerman for one year, and then went out on his own and never looked back. His work ethic is instilled in me.
Besides summer jobs, I’ve only had three jobs in my adult life, two of which I still hold. (When’s the last time anyone has seen a short resume devoid of job changes every 6 months to 2 years?) My first adult job came out of an internship I had during graduate school with U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato. At the end of the internship, Sen. D’Amato hired me full time. I worked for him for ten years. At the time he lost his bid for a fourth term, I had just been admitted to the bar myself. I started practicing with my father on June 24, 1997, the very day I was admitted to the bar. I worked for and with my father for 24 years. Three years after I was admitted to the bar, in July, 2000, I was asked to open a pro bono immigration office at Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Albany. I have now worked for Catholic Charities for 21 years.
My father would tell you that his very first client was a gentlemen named “Howard” Hui. (“Howard” was his Americanized name.) Howard was trying to get his family out of what was then referred to as “Red” China. My father would also tell you that he knew nothing about immigration law. So he went down to the local Albany office for what was then called the Immigration & Naturalization Service (“INS”), then located at the post office on Broadway in downtown Albany, where he made a connection with an INS employee who successfully mentored him through the entire process of getting Howard’s family from Red China to Albany. My father learned his little slice of immigration law from the ground floor. He also took to heart the importance of mentoring and became mine later on.
Similarly, when I started working full-time for Sen. D’Amato, I performed immigration casework for his constituents, first out of his New York City office and then later on in Albany. I knew nothing about immigration law. So what did I do? I introduced myself to the congressional liaison at what is now known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) in New York City (then Toni Morgan and her assistant Shyconia Burden), and they gave me my start in the immigration world, also from the ground floor. I later took that knowledge into private practice.
Before I came into the practice with my father, he would probably tell you that he was ready to retire, but my decision to go to law school (later as it was), and to come back into practice with him, energized him anew. Although my father’s first case was an immigration matter, it was probably the only immigration matter he ever handled. When I entered the practice, however, he encouraged me to practice in areas of law that I was passionate about. We all know how that turned out.
Up until a few weeks ago my father was still going to the office several days a week, meeting with the occasional client, and, as most of you know, performing all of the administrative tasks of running a law office which allowed me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do, which is to actually practice law, and spend nights and weekends with my family.
My father practiced law in a very different time than I do today. And while the law has changed dramatically from when he started practicing to when I came into the practice, what never did change was his ability not only to practice law, but also his ability run the law practice. He did not have to pass on his passion for the law to me. It’s why I went into the law in the first place. But he was an excellent mentor on just about every aspect of practicing law and, perhaps more important to someone in a solo or small firm, running a law practice (something they never taught us in law school).
No one wants to go see their lawyer. If you do, there’s usually (although not always) a problem. Lawyers can be expensive. I remember sitting in on meetings with my father and clients or prospective clients early on. He had a way of making people feel completely at ease. Anyone who knew my father knew he was a talker. That talking could do a lot of things, and the one thing he did in those moments is put people at ease. Of course every client has a different tolerance for small talk, but I try to emulate my father in this small way, and I think the vast majority of clients appreciate it. I think it shows them you care.
My father was also very strong-willed. If he had an opinion, you certainly knew what it was. He had virtually no filter. He could also be incredibly stubborn. (The apple does not fall far from the tree.) That said, as challenging as some may have thought he was to work with or for, he was blessed over the years to have attorneys and administrative staff work for him that came and never left. 32 years. 30 years. 25 years. That’s a testament to him. That’s also incredibly rare in any day or age, particularly today.
Thus far, I too have been blessed with colleagues who have come to our firm, and stayed. If history judges me to be half the lawyer that my father was, I will consider that to be a huge compliment.
My father passed away on October 12, 2021 from Covid pneumonia. He was 86 years young. Literally until the day he passed, he was still running the office, albeit then from a hospital bed, and only by texting and emailing. My father was an incredible lawyer and a great mentor. I was blessed to be his partner (and mentee).