2023 SCHOLARSHIP WINNER: ERIC LAU
My inspiration for going into the legal profession is fueled greatly by my parents’ experiences as immigrants and my own experiences growing up.
At the height of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, my parents were out in the crowds with other students demanding political reform and freedoms in China. In response, military and police personnel beat them senselessly. Years later, they would flee to the United States with nothing but the clothing on their backs. And decades later, even after working many part time, odd jobs to make ends meet, my mother became a victim of unnecessary assault, verbal harassment, and spitting by strangers on her regular quiet metro ride home.
My parents did not have much at all when they immigrated to California. The once-modest amount of money that their own parents had back in China, in the form of my father’s family’s soy sauce factory and my mother’s family’s jade industry, were all stripped away by Communists. Despite this, both of my parents certainly knew that it took a lot of hard work to give themselves, my brother, and me an opportunity for a better life. My mother went to a community college to study accounting and my father attended a local university for a degree in computer science. Both my parents took out thousands in loans to afford their education, and my mother even applied for scholarships to offset her own costs. They took out these loans to pay for majors that were far different than the majors they were passionate about back in China, but they saw this a worthy investment for their children. They took and still work in careers that they had to work in to make a living and get by.
For a few years after my brother and I were born, my family lived in a small, cramped apartment in South Sacramento. Growing up there was a harrowing, humbling experience. One of the first sounds I remember was gunshots. One of the first sights I remember was used needles scattered on the street. Out of that dirty, cramped apartment that I lived in with my parents, I saw countless acts of desperation by communities that remain underserved today. Though I eventually moved out to a safer place, I never forgot the time I spent in those underprivileged areas of Sacramento.
Though the efforts to address homelessness, poverty, and violence have ramped up in my home city, one area of well-being continues to be neglected: mental health. In high school, I founded a club that promoted mental health advocacy for all, and even returned to those same blocks I grew up in to speak with ex- convicts and inmates, people whom the rest of society had automatically assigned judgment and labels. But you would be surprised at how much you could learn about humanity if you just sat down and listened. I heard stories of unnecessary police brutality. Stories of wrongful arrests because of one’s skin color, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stories of children being punished for life for careless mistakes. Stories of people who looked like me who were assaulted and ran into trouble with the law for trying to defend themselves. And though I thought I was making a difference back in high school, I realized that I needed to learn more and do more rather than just listen to these stories. I wanted to become someone who passed legislation and actively worked to make sure these stories did not repeat themselves. I knew I had to make this my goal for my postsecondary education.
In college, I chose to major in psychology and focus on developmental research to better understand how the brain and psyche evolved. I knew I wanted to work more as an advocate, so I prepared for and applied to law school with the hope of one day becoming a public defender or private defense attorney. I wanted to put myself in a position to be equipped with the doctrinal and litigation knowledge to fight in courts for these underrepresented communities. I wanted to give life, to give voice to stories that many people, jurors, and judges may otherwise not care to hear or never have the opportunity to hear. I wanted to bridge the access to justice for those underserved communities in Sacramento and all across California.
In my first year of law school at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Boyd Law), I participated in a semester-long fellowship focused on bridging the access to justice gap. Every week, I spent hours learning and practicing how to use a variety of legal tools (such as Gavel, Softr, and Thinkific to name a few of many) to help disabled veterans, indigent clients, and many others from underprivileged communities that lack legal representation. I also made sure to volunteer actively with the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) at Boyd Law. Our organization won best student organization of the year as a result of our tireless efforts in providing far more than the required volunteer hours at food fairs, conferences, and networking events, as well as providing free headshots for any interested student at Boyd, which drew great interest. We also hosted multiple speaker panel luncheons and met frequently over the course of the year to discuss new legal developments in the Asian lawyer sphere of Las Vegas, as well as recent anti-Asian hate legislation and crime.
As a transfer 2L law student to UCI Law, I continue to involve myself in activities to bridge the access to justice gap. So far, I have worked on two major pro bono projects in fall semester: one helping homeless citizens in San Francisco through a phone-in legal clinic called GLIDE, and the other being a “Street Law” program where I coordinated with fellow peers and an in-house lawyer to prepare materials on Alternative Dispute Resolution to present to local high school students in Newport Beach over my fall break. In addition to this, I work on a contractual basis for gigLAW, an online legal service provider, where I use the skills I learned from the fellowship earlier in the year to help clients with a variety of needs, including automating questionnaires and other forms to fill in documents and converting those documents across multiple file types.
One of my main motivations in becoming a lawyer is to help bridge the access to justice gap that immigrants like my parents continue to face. I want to put myself in a position to be equipped with the doctrinal and litigation knowledge to fight in courts for these underrepresented communities. I want to give life, to give voice to stories that many people, jurors, and judges may otherwise not care to hear or never have the opportunity to hear. I know too well from my own family’s experience that it is already very tough being poor in an unfamiliar country and even tougher when you do not have the same resources solely because of your socioeconomic conditions. My parents may have been able to claw their way to where they are now, but many immigrants across the United States continue to face these obstacles to proper legal representation.
After law school, I am hoping to take on projects that meet my goals of providing procedural justice and relief to clients and victims. Though I am not dead set on a field of focus, I want to expand my expertise to be able to help those wrongfully convicted in criminal defense and those facing citizenship troubles in immigration law, as I sympathize with the same struggles my parents faced when they first came to this country. I also want to focus on helping victims of natural disasters, especially wildfires, considering that
California has been prone to many in the last decade (such as the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, which affected me personally in high school as Sacramento was proximate to the wildfire). In addition to this, I would like to continue taking on pro bono projects on the side to further assist those I normally would not be able to help in my line of work. This means coordinating with various legal clinics across the country, volunteering for legal aid hotlines, and lending my document automation skills to streamline processes for various business clients as well as curate personalized websites for them. Of course, I can also apply those skills to whatever firm I end up working at as well.
As much as I believe in this investment into legal education, it is a very expensive one. I will be incurring over six figures in debt from taking out federal loans to pay for law school. I try to save in whichever little way I can now, but it is no easy endeavor with interest rates at all-time highs. Receiving the John F. Renner, PC Scholarship would not only be a significant step towards paying off those debts but also an invaluable investment into service for those underserved communities I plan to help. I am humbled to be considered among many others for this scholarship.