Q&A With The Neighborhood Lawyer

I am known for saying “lawyers are assholes,” but I make a conscious effort to include the word “most” before the phrase. Some of us are creative, some of us are virtuous, and some of us are simply amazing people.

As I often lazily do on lazy mornings, I was browsing through a jumble of news articles when I came across Ms. Miyoun Lee’s story. Two things hit me. First, she’s a lawyer, but her office is combined with a café. Mind blown. Second, she’s a young, solo practitioner, and her practice focuses on sex crimes in Korea. As I read through a myriad of interviews (all by Korean media), I knew I had to contact her and interview her myself, in the hopes that her story would spread further than the natural borders of the Korean peninsula. So I did that.

In a maiden Q&A for i am not a lawyer, I conversed with Miyoun on her creative venture, her passion for helping victims of sex crimes, and why she does what she does – in the small town of Euijungboo on the outskirts of bustling Seoul. Affectionately known as the “Neighborhood Lawyer,” her true colors shine from start to finish. The following is a translation of the original interview, which was conducted in Korean. Thank you Miyoun for taking the time to do this. It was definitely a meaningful opportunity for me, and I know it will resonate in the hearts of many, lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

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INL: A law office and a café. This is a breakthrough combination. As a total coffee addict myself, and as this blog contains many essays on coffee, I’m curious about your coffee preferences and patterns. When and how do you drink coffee throughout the workday? Do you brew your own or have preferences?

Neighborhood Lawyer: By no means am I a coffee connoisseur or snob. I know just enough to detect whether the coffee is weak or strong, burnt. I prefer stronger coffee and don’t really have a preference. As soon as I reach my office in the morning, my sister brews me a strong Americano, and I usually drink about three cups a day.

INL: “Law” and “law firm” sound stiff by nature, which makes the convergence of the law with coffee more intriguing. What prompted you to come up with such a unique combination? Do you take part in running the café?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I couldn’t stand structured bureaucracies, so I didn’t want to work in an established organization. A good thing about being a lawyer is that you have the option to open up your own shop and go solo if you wanted to, and in doing so, I wanted to create a workspace that personally appealed to me. “General Doctor” in the Hongdae area in Seoul is a neighborhood hospital mixed with a café. I was intrigued by that concept and thought, if a hospital can be run like a café, why not a law office? So I discussed the idea with my sister, a gifted craftswoman, and devised our café-like law office. My sister is in sole control of running the café. But at the moment, it’s such a small operation in a small town, so I’m supporting the café financially through my practice.

INL: As I read through the “Neighborhood Law Firm” blog, I hinted a level of pride in the cookies and pastries offered at your café. Do you have any particular treats you’re fond of? Are all the pastries baked in-house at the café? Where do you purchase your coffee? Any special drinks you’re particularly fond of?

Neighborhood Lawyer: My talented sister does all the baking herself. Personally, the carrot cake and peanut butter cookies are my favorite. As for the coffee beans, we purchase them from a small local roaster we frequented before we even opened the café. Our coffee is good, but I’d also recommend our seasonal beverages, including our in-house ginger ale and lemon tea. Delicious!

INL: It’s interesting that your office is right in the middle of a traditional outdoor market in the small town of Euijungboo. Why did you choose Euijungboo over Seoul, and why did you choose a marketplace? Could you tell me more about the market? I’m also curious as to how you found your current building, and how you went about remodeling your office space and café. What are some pros and cons of opening your practice in an open-air market?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I was born and raised in Euijungboo, so returning here for my practice made sense. While many law firms in Korea are located near courthouses and other official buildings, I didn’t want to follow that path, so I expanded my search beyond the usual legal and business districts. I’ve walked these streets in my youth, so choosing Euijungboo came naturally.

My office is in the midst of a traditional outdoor market, known as “Cheil Market.” It’s fairly big, and the “ddukbokki” [Ed. rice cakes, fish cakes, lettuce, and other goodies smothered in smoltering gochujang sauce] is incredible. Everyone in the market is warm and welcoming.

Euijungboo is a relatively small city, with many older buildings still standing throughout the market. Many of them don’t even have elevators. After a long search, we luckily found one renting its second and third floors, perfect for our dual-concept approach. And the landlord cut us a great deal on the rent, which never hurts.

In terms of design, my sister and I researched the layout and interior of several cafes we liked and remodeled our space accordingly, and more importantly, we had to stay on budget. My sister hates dainty things, and I also felt that we could slowly fill the space out, little by little. So our café has a lot of intentional “empty” space.

The "Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe" is on the second and third floors of the building in the forefront, in the middle of the market.

The “Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe” is on the second and third floors of the building in the forefront, in the middle of the market.

INL: Given the location of your office, how would you describe your client base? What were some memorable cases you had this past year?

Neighborhood Lawyer: Even in small Euijungboo, there are many chain cafes around the central downtown area, where my office is located. Most of our café customers prefer our atmosphere over those of the chain shops, and we have regulars who camp down for hours with a MacBook, enjoying our space.

My clients are as varied as the market itself. Some clients stop by while strolling through the market. Others were dissatisfied with the legal service they received at other firms and intentionally looked me up to change lawyers.

Given the type of work I do, I’m frequently asked about the most rewarding cases or memorable moments. To me, every case is worthwhile and meaningful, and every case and client has been memorable. I’m still a young lawyer, so everything is still new, offering valuable learning opportunities at every step.

INL: Why did you choose the law? Did you have any different plans or goals while growing up?

Neighborhood Lawyer: My father suggested that I choose law as my undergraduate major. As a law student, I assumed everyone had to take the judicial exam after graduation. If I’d known how tough that exam was beforehand, I wouldn’t have even started. I spent about five years preparing for the exam. After I failed the first round, I quit, and wanted to write fiction or take up photography for a living. I felt groundless, lost.

INL: Taking the bar exam here was a pain. I’ve heard horror stories about the Korean examination process. Could you tell me more about the exam, the preparation, and what happens after you’ve passed it?

Neighborhood Lawyer: The Korean judicial exam is comprised of three stages. The first round is all multiple choice, the second is a series of essays, and the final round is an in-person interview. If you pass the first round of multiple choice questions, you are granted two opportunities to take the second round of essays. The multiple choice questions cover four subjects − constitutional law, civil law, criminal law, and an elective of your choosing. The essay portion cover seven subjects − constitutional law, civil law, criminal law, civil procedure, criminal procedure, administrative law, and contracts. The essay round goes on for four days, a true killer. Two subjects a day, for four days. I don’t even want to think about it.

If you pass all three rounds of the judicial exams, you now enter what’s called the “Judicial Research and Training Institute,” where you take part in practical training for two years. Specifically, you practice writing judicial opinions for civil and criminal trials, and receive practical training for civil and criminal defense. The first year is mostly spent in the classroom, learning theory, while the second year is spent in real world of courts, prosecutors’ offices and law firms.

Ever since Korea adopted the law school system four years ago, the judicial exam and “bar exam” are being used concurrently. In the law school system, you take a grad school entrance exam, and upon graduating, you take something similar to a U.S. bar exam to earn your license.

INL: Compared to the bar exam here, your judicial exams and the two additional years of training sounds tough. So instead of choosing the big law pay check or a comfy judicial post or prosecuting job, why did you decide to open a solo practice? What were the difficulties of going solo, and what were the rewards of working alone?

Neighborhood Lawyer: As I mentioned, I wasn’t made for structured organizations or bureaucracy. I didn’t think I would be happy in any of those.

Financing was the toughest part of opening a solo practice. I was constantly worried about whether I would earn enough to even keep the office running. My goal wasn’t to make the big bucks, but rather, I wanted something more sustainable for the long run.

Working alone is a perfect fit for me. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I’m not good at distributing work to others. And I really hate people nosing around in my work [laugh]. These traits totally make me sound like I have a personality disorder or something (just kidding, I’m fine).

INL: I’ve heard that you specialize in representing victims of sex crimes. Is that your sole practice, or do you take on other cases as well? What sparked your interest in sex crimes? In terms of client interaction, what’s different about representing sex crime victims?

Neighborhood Lawyer: During my second and final year at the “Judicial Research and Training Institute,” Korea initiated a public defender service program for victims of child sexual molestation. Within the confines of Korean criminal procedure, the victim is usually left out of much of the process. However, in sexual harassment cases, the victim’s testimony is often the most critical piece of evidence, or sometimes the only credible evidence. Taking this into account, there was a great need to assist the victims in the process.

The problem was that, while the victims were getting assistance during the trial, they were actually re-victimized by unrelenting and insensitive government agencies, lawyers and other arms of the justice system. The press certainly did not help protect the victims, either.

So when I started my own practice, I was determined to focus on sexual harassment cases, to make sure that the victims were fairly protected throughout the entire trial process, and not seen as mere nuggets of information. Of course, to pay the bills, I regularly take on other civil and criminal matters as well.

I was first interested in victims of sex crimes in college, when an upperclassman introduced me to some women’s study courses. There were a myriad of different areas within women’s studies, but given my law major, I was more interested in sex crimes. As I researched the issue in depth and read through critical court opinions, I noticed something wasn’t right. So before I started studying for the judicial exam, I spent more time delving into books and documentaries focusing on women’s issues.

In terms of approaching sex crime victims, there isn’t one clear method or checklist. Victims come from different age groups and professions, and the degree of victimization and relationship to the assaulter vary greatly. Also, approaching a client with special needs presents a new situation as well. However, even with innate differences, there are a couple of key things to watch out for. First, to maintain the integrity of the victim’s story or statement, I try to stay away from leading or suggestive questions that would embellish or alter the facts in any way. I also try not to prejudge anything in favor of or against the client. Second, keeping my emotions in check is important. I can’t afford to be too emotionally attached to the victim’s story.

INL: I’d like to ask you about sex crimes and cruelty against people with special needs in Korea in general. What’s behind the never ending news on these horrific crimes? How can Korea, or society in general, solve these issues?

Neighborhood Lawyer: Sex crimes and cruelty against people with special needs can be categorized as “power crimes” aimed at socially vulnerable individuals. The greatest problem is that our society in general is losing sensitivity towards socially weak and vulnerable groups. The current education system, only rewarding “first place” achievers, is also a problem, along with the common recognition that only praises and encourages success in terms of monetary gain or political influence.

There are too many issues, and they cannot be solved at once. To implant a sense of community and care for the socially vulnerable groups, the most important thing is to educate our children in that manner from a very young age. But to correctly educate our children, the parents’ values need to change first. Because of the interconnectedness of the issues, no one educational program or simple approach will present a cure. I constantly worry about these issues, and yet never come up with a clear solution.

INL: Whether in Korea or here in the U.S., I think lawyers are in a tough spot financially, as there are fewer opportunities. Any words of advice for current or future law students, and practicing lawyers who are concerned about their career path? How did you overcome your financial difficulties and expectations of others? Now that you’ve been going solo for almost two years, what are your dreams and goals, both personally and for your neighborhood law firm café?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I’m in the same boat as other young lawyers, with financial debt and a practice that doesn’t yet rake in the cash. I guess I’ll be able to pay off the loans at some point. I try not to let the finances get too much in the way of having fun, though. Getting through school was tough, and studying for the judicial exam and completing the two years of practical training was worse, and I basically sold my happiness throughout those years. I thought I’d be happy after I passed the exam and became a lawyer, but that wasn’t necessarily true. So instead of choosing a particular “job,” I honestly asked myself what it is I wanted to do, and opted to choose a path that was centered on allowing me to pursue what I truly wanted to pursue. I found something that would make me happy in the long run, and I am glad and thankful to be doing that now. My true passion is helping victims of sex crimes, but I also have to take on other cases to keep that passion a reality. Because I know that all of my cases fuel my true passion and calling, every day on the job is fun and meaningful. I am now thoroughly convinced that doing what you love for a living is the greatest blessing of all.

My dream is to stay put in Euijungboo as its neighborhood lawyer, for a long, long time. There will undoubtedly be obstacles along the road, but I will never quit trying.

Ms. Miyoun Lee and the Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe own all the rights to the images incorporated into this interview.

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