Susan C. Yu

of Mesereau & Yu, LLP

20 Questions with California Fellow 

Cite as 6 Litigation Commentary & Rev. 70 (November 2014)

1. High-profile cases, movie stars, rock stars. Those things come to mind whenever one thinks of Mesereau & Yu, LLP, but the practice you and Tom have developed is much broader than that. Please tell us about it.

That is correct. Many people assume that we represent primarily celebrities, but that is not true. Our practice is very diverse. For example, I have represented many corporate clients and high-ranking government officials’ family members from foreign countries in high-stakes criminal and civil cases. I have also represented many physicians in California Medical Board’s license revocation proceedings. And I have represented many individual clients in pre-indictment criminal investigations at the city, county, state, federal, and even international levels. The best part of having a diverse practice is you never get bored.

2. I remember from conversations with you that your father was a big influence in your life, particularly early on. Can you tell us how his wisdom influenced your path to success? 

You have great memory. Both my parents had a great influence in my life. My mom (who passed away three years ago) was a life-long Democrat and feminist, whose views were shaped by her own unique life experiences. Her father (my grandfather) was a socialist and feminist during the 1920s, married my grandmother (who was Japanese), led various political movements in Japan, and served as Governor of a province in South Korea. He was a fascinating man, very much ahead of his time. My mom’s political views were most definitely a product of her father’s ideologies.

By contrast, my dad is a staunch (or pragmatic, as he would put it) Republican. He fits the quintessential Horatio Algier’s rags to riches paradigm. He worked as a newspaper delivery boy, put himself through school, served in the military, and became a prosecutor in South Korea — all during the war periods. He lived through and survived the Japanese occupation of Korea, the World War II, and the Korean War, only to emerge as an incredibly strong person.

My dad was a warrior. There was nothing he could not do. No one has his discipline, drive, selflessness and strong will to survive. He is a real fighter. I definitely have my dad’s core values. I see myself as a warrior.

3. As the mother of a teenage son, is it difficult seeing or representing the youth of Los Angeles who have traveled down the wrong path or who manifest traits that might otherwise threaten the personal safety of someone like your son in the community?

I have tremendous empathy for the youth in Los Angeles. Many of these kids bring back memories of my own childhood. I went to three segregated schools in San Francisco. One consisted of virtually all Asian in Chinatown, another almost all Black in the Inner City, and another predominantly White in an affluent suburb of San Francisco. But guess what? To me, kids at these schools were all the same. They were cruel no matter what color they were. Physical violence in the Inner City was not worse than mental violence in Chinatown. And it certainly was not worse than elitism in the rich white suburb. Conflicts existed everywhere. Bullying, verbal threats, physical assaults, power struggle, racism, sexism, and homophobia – no school was immune.

I meet many teenagers today who come from diverse backgrounds in Los Angeles who unfortunately end up in the criminal justice system. The sad reality is many kids are charged with serious crimes just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. And imagine what the parents must go through. I have had a quite a number of these cases, and it is always heartbreaking to watch families go through enormous pain and suffering. Fortunately, I was able to help them survive these ordeals.

4. Southern California is blessed with incredible natural beauty, from the Pacific coast to the mountain lakes to the Sequoia redwoods. To what destination do you travel to find your own version of solace?

I love to go hiking in the Angeles National Forest, which is about 45 minutes from Los Angeles. It is beautiful, quiet and peaceful – a great escape.

5. What do you see as the challenges facing lawyers who are women and what residuals from the “good-old boys club” continue to create those challenges? Do you think L.A. is ahead of the curve in leveling the professional playing field among the sexes?

Do you want a woman lawyer who worries about being a woman or do you want a woman lawyer who wants to fight for you? Nothing in life comes easy.

6. At what point in your life did law become an interest or goal?

In college, I thought I would end up becoming a professor in Soviet Politics and Military Strategies. I was fascinated with ideologies that transformed classes and masses. Feudalism, capitalism, imperialism, communism, socialism, and totalitarianism – all manifested themselves as powerful institutions.

But, as you know, the Soviet Union disappeared when Mikhail Gorbachev got rid of it. So, I asked myself, what do I do with my life? Well, one thing led to another and here I am.

7. What was your evolution toward litigation, and did it begin before, during or after law school? That is, did you want to be Amanda Bonner in Adam’s Rib growing up, or did you want to become a trial lawyer after getting out of law school and reading contracts all day long for the first six months of your career?

I went to law school knowing I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I have studied people virtually all my life. I have experienced many types of people and conflicts from all facets of life. I learned early on that life is full of surprises and never black or white. There are many shades of grey. And, interestingly, many times truth is stranger than fiction.

Litigation and trials have similar life ingredients. Unpredictable twists and turns, emotional roller coaster rides, and misunderstandings – all end up on my lap. The complexity of solving problems is a challenge I really enjoy.

8. What impact do you think the discovery process has had on the number of cases being tried?

In today’s highly digitized world, we see more and more electronic evidence in both criminal and civil cases. Emails, text messages, instant messages, social media communications, and video and audio recordings from smartphones and tablets, all end up in discovery. The sheer volume of digital discovery poses a real time management problem for the litigants and the courts. The process of reviewing, analyzing, and identifying relevant, admissible evidence from digital discovery can take years. This means trials will get delayed. And, the cost of litigation will only increase for all parties. Not good.

9. What do you consider your most unusual accomplishment?

Making 60 matzo balls in 90 seconds at a Jewish deli my parents owned in San Francisco.

10. Litigators tend to travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite cities or places, and what fascinates you about them?

I love New York City. The energy, architecture, theater, museums, food and the impatient people – all invigorate me.

11. Have you ever had a case in which your opposing counsel went over the line ethically in representing their clients’ interests? How did you deal with it?

Yes. Most prosecutors I have experienced were highly ethical and professional. Unfortunately, I have come across a few unethical prosecutors (more at the federal level) who decide to put their self-interest ahead of justice and withhold exculpatory evidence. Winning a case translates into promotions within the U.S. Attorneys’ Office and recruitment to high-paying jobs at a big civil law firm. For example, I had a situation in a federal case where the prosecutors withheld Brady (exculpatory) material. It required a dismissal and sanctions threat to get the Brady evidence. It is unfortunate that a few bad apples in the Office can make all apples look rotten.

12. How do prior generations of trial lawyers differ from today’s trial lawyers?

There are two main differences: diversity and technology. In prior generations, the trial bar across the country consisted almost exclusively of White men. And there was no such thing as E-discovery. Today, trial lawyers come in many shapes and colors, armed with high-tech devices.

Even the jurors who show up in courts today are tech savvy. And, many come from multi-cultural backgrounds (well, at least here in Southern California) with a pretty good understanding of how the justice system works. Many jurors have watched trials on television and are not at all intimidated by the judicial process.

I think the biggest problem facing the older generation of trial lawyers is adjusting to this brave new world of diversity and technology. What worked in the past no longer works in today’s courtrooms. Aggressive tactics may have mesmerized jurors in the sheltered world of yesterday, but not anymore. The older generations of trial lawyers need to keep up with change.

13. You have been appointed to the California State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation for 2015. Without divulging the confidential nature of the Commission, what type of applicants do you hope will seek the bench?

Applicants who are hard-working, balanced, and wise with no anger issues or baggage.

14. What is your greatest extravagance?

Organic food.

15. What object in your office serves to re-energize you when your mood needs an adjustment?

A photo of my family.

16. If you could meet anyone from history, who would it be, and why?

Living:
Dalai Lama. The greatest spiritual leader in the world. He embraces everyone and all religions. His teachings and message of peace and kindness are profound. It would be an honor to meet him in person.

Deceased:
Bruce Lee. The greatest icon of martial arts in history. He was a “real” fighter.

Hannah Arendt. One of the most powerful minds in the world. As a young adult in college, I was obsessed with her writings and thoughts. The Origins of Totalitarianism, which examines human conditions, the rise of anti-Semitism and the evolution of totalitarianism, is just a masterpiece.

17. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA’s mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review, as well as the Diversity Law Institute’s new website. In a word, sentence, or paragraph, what, in your opinion, is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?

We need leaders who will unite, not divide.

18. What trait do you most value in your friends?

Loyalty.

19. If you could not be a lawyer, what would you like to be?

I haven’t thought about it.

20. What is your motto?
Don’t give up.

By G. Steven Henry