Updated: Jan 8, 2021
The CWBA celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Deborah Yim is the founder of Primera Law Group, focusing on employment, civil rights, and consumer law. Prior to starting her own practice, Deborah was an Assistant U.S. Attorney, an attorney-advisor with the U.S. Department of the Interior, and in private practice as a corporate litigator. She is part of the second cohort class of Legal Entrepreneurs for Justice, “a legal incubator for law practitioners striving to build socially conscious law practices addressing the needs of the underserved in Colorado.” She is also a board member of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Colorado and APABA’s representative to the CWBA. I had the opportunity to ask Deborah a few questions and learn more about her distinguished career:
Have you always wanted to be a lawyer? What inspired you to become a lawyer?
In college at U.C. Berkeley, I was on a communications track and working towards a career in journalism. I didn’t know any lawyers and didn’t think I had what it took to be a lawyer. In my junior year, I ended up taking a pre-law course taught by constitutional law scholar William Bennett Turner. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed learning about the law, analyzing cases, and even being grilled under the Socratic method. At the end of the class, Professor Turner asked me why I wanted to be a journalist, and I told him it was because I liked telling stories and reporting the truth. I will always remember his response to me: “You can still tell a story, you can still tell the truth, and you can have even more fun as a lawyer, advocating for what’s right. . . . You have what it takes. Forget journalism, go be a lawyer.” His words inspired me to consider a career in the law.
Who has been most influential in your career? Who was your greatest mentor?
I have had so many wonderful mentors in my career that I simply cannot name them all, but two individuals come foremost to mind as I think about those who have influenced my career most greatly. The first is Felicia Yu, who I met in private practice. She herself was a young lawyer at the time and then a new mom of twins, but she took me under her wing and taught me everything I should know about practicing law, down to how to ask the right questions, how to write a winning legal argument, how to behave with clients, how good, thorough research and hard work is more important than bombastic argument, and even how to overcome biases about Asian women in the workplace. She showed me it is possible to be a good lawyer and a good friend, spouse, and mother without losing your decency and humility. I was also lucky enough to be mentored by John Petrullo, who guided me through my first trial and taught me that showing your humanity and good humor in the law may sometimes be just as important as reciting rules and statutes. I’ll always be grateful for his support and encouragement throughout my career, even inspiring me to start my own practice. Finally, I cannot forget to thank my husband, Tony Yao, who has always encouraged me to step outside the box, to continue to learn new things, and to not fear starting over. It is because of him that I took pivotal new steps in my career.
What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of in your career?
I am proud that during my twelve years in federal government service, as an Assistant United States Attorney and attorney for the Department of Interior, I was able to take on and directly address cases of consumer fraud, as well as employment discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. With the help of amazing staff, agents, and investigators, I was able to resolve and bring justice to the United States and accountability to the government.
What has been the greatest challenge in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Definitely taking the big step to leave government practice and to start my own law firm. There was a lot of fear of the unknown and worries about being able to succeed in this competitive market, but I’m grateful for the advice and encouragement of many fellow attorneys and mentors who inspired me to take the big step.
What led you to focus your practice on civil rights, employment law, and consumer issues?
As a female, minority, and immigrant, I know firsthand what it feels like to be marginalized in school, work, and society in general. I have seen people being victimized by their employers and big corporations and entities but who are unable to fight back because of a language barrier or lack of resources. This spurred me to focus my practice on civil rights, employment, and consumer law. Employment, civil rights, and consumer issues have a profound impact on our lives, and a person whose rights in these areas have been violated could suffer from devastating and long-term injuries as a result. My ultimate goal is to ensure that these individuals’ rights are protected, that they will feel safe and empowered, whether it is at work or outside of work, and that they are treated fairly and equitably. My hope is that each case, each client I advocate for, each positive result we reach, brings us that much closer to systemic change, equality, and justice.
What advice would you give someone about starting and running their own firm?
Talk to as many solo practitioners as you can to really understand the pros and cons of starting your own practice. You will be surprised how many people will just sit down and talk to you about their experiences and to offer invaluable advice. I’m thankful to people like CWBA board member Kelli Riley, who was willing to take the time to share her practical experiences as a solo. Also, do you like business and marketing, or is it something you have no taste for? The business side of running a law firm could sometimes take more time than actually practicing law and is even more substantial when you’re starting up. You have to be prepared for that and have a financial cushion of at least a few months as you may not be bringing in much revenue your first year.
Can you talk about your experience with the Legal Entrepreneurs for Justice?
LEJ (www.lejco.org) is a legal incubator started by our very own Colorado Supreme Court Justice, and CWBA member, Melissa Hart. LEJ trains lawyers to build law practices that specifically meet the needs of the underserved in Colorado. Its motto is “doing well by doing good.” I’m proud to have been accepted to its second cohort class. My goal always has been to serve the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our community, but these are often the people who cannot afford the traditional law firm hourly rate model. LEJ has provided me the mentorship and training to think outside the box in representing the most underserved members of our community.
You mention in your bio on your firm website that you are an immigrant and first-generation college graduate. Can you describe that experience and what it has meant to your career?
I am grateful for all the opportunities I have been given as a result of the compassion and generosity of mentors and the support of the community — allowing me to become an American citizen, graduate from college and law school, and become a lawyer. It is because of this that I’m deeply committed to giving back to my community and ensuring that those who are underserved are protected and empowered.
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. What does Asian Pacific American Heritage Month mean to you?
More than ever, during this time of COVID and the resulting racist rhetoric and hate crimes against Asian Americans, I am reminded of how important it is for the Asian American community to stand firmly together and fight against racism and xenophobia. Although in Colorado, Asians make up less than 3 percent of our state’s population, we nevertheless have a strong voice and we should not be afraid to stand up and be proud of who we are as Asian Americans and all that we have accomplished as Asians and as Americans, our diverse culture and people, and the fact that we are an important part of the American story. This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I am proud to be an Asian American here in Colorado, where so many Asian Americans are standing up, fundraising for our frontline workers and those in need, and just making a difference in our community.
What influence has your involvement with APABA and the CWBA had on your career?
I am so proud and humbled to be a part of APABA and CWBA. These two organizations are seriously powerhouses in the way they, echoing CWBA President Miranda Hawkins’s theme for this year, “lead beyond.” The leaders of these organizations encourage me with their fresh and innovative ideas, desire to give back to our community, and strength in connecting our members in a meaningful way. I am inspired and motivated by their work to ensure that I continue to think of our community in both my personal and professional life.
Kate Noble is a CWBA Publications Committee member and a legal editor with Colorado Bar Association CLE, the nonprofit educational arm of the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations.