The Pro Bono Spotlight honors volunteer attorneys and the important work they do to help Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA fulfill its mission. This month, we recognize Cyndie M. Chang, a partner at the Los Angeles office of Duane Morris, LLP. Cyndie litigates complex business and commercial disputes and serves as her firm’s office pro bono coordinator. Also a leader in the legal community, she is currently completing her term as president of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association (SCCLA) and serving as an executive officer of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA).
Cyndie and Duane Morris provided critical pro bono support to Advancing Justice - LA’s advocacy for diversity and inclusion in the San Gabriel Valley. The City of Monterey Park was considering a proposed ordinance that would require the use of “modern Latin alphabet” on business and commercial signs. Concerned that this law would have a disparate impact on certain Asian businesses and communities, Advancing Justice - LA asked Cyndie to help us research the issue. She and her team at Duane Morris – Paul Killion, Wayne Mack, EJ Kim, and Meredith Carpenter – prepared a legal analysis of the proposed ordinance, finding that it was likely unconstitutional on several grounds, including free speech, equal protection based on national origin, and due process.
The Monterey Park City Council rejected the ordinance at a meeting on December 4, 2013, after hearing from a multiethnic, multiracial coalition of community members and organizations that the ordinance was neither needed nor wanted, and was unconstitutional.
We asked Cyndie to discuss her prop bono work with Advancing Justice-LA:
How did you learn about Advancing Justice - LA?
I am active in local and community organizations that have a longstanding relationship with Advancing Justice - LA, formerly the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC). I see Advancing Justice - LA as a leader and partner to many significant programs and organizations that benefit Asian Americans and the greater community. For instance, as the current president of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association (SCCLA) and an officer of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), I have come to know Advancing Justice - LA as an organization that is extremely valued, respected, and honored for preserving and promoting the rights and interests of Asian Americans.
What prompted you to get involved?
I have always been passionate about community service. Luckily, my firm Duane Morris values pro bono work and provides a number of resources to its lawyers to find pro bono projects that match their legal experience and interests. The firm does so because it knows that its attorneys become better lawyers from the experience. In fact, I serve as my Los Angeles office’s pro bono office coordinator, where I help and encourage other lawyers in my office to engage in pro bono service. In turn, I lead by example. I have also seen firsthand how pro bono experiences can be professionally and personally gratifying to a lawyer. It is rewarding to see my colleagues resolve various matters for clients in need on a pro bono basis.
What have you learned or how have you been personally affected by your experience as an Advancing Justice - LA volunteer?
I witnessed how Advancing Justice - LA could mobilize and rally support from varied communities around a certain issue. The organization is resourceful, well-connected, creative, and visionary in its approach to tackling community issues. During my collaboration and partnership with Advancing Justice’s staff and attorneys, I have personally learned a lot about community outreach and mobilization. My team and I helped the organization provide analysis of a set of legal issues in a manner aimed at benefiting the greater community, but Advancing Justice’s contribution to the community was much greater. It took our research and used it to orchestrate a multi-faceted approach to resolving a significant community concern. For example, Advancing Justice - LA reached out to a variety of stakeholders, including young students, business owners, community leaders, and politicians, and brought them together to work toward a resolution.
Do you have an inspirational story you can briefly tell about your experience working on the Monterey Park matter?
I was extremely honored that my firm and I were asked to perform a significant legal analysis with regard to a controversial sign ordinance proposal in the City of Monterey Park. This was a unique opportunity for me to lead a team of five lawyers to provide legal research and analysis on this high-profile and highly sensitive project. The City of Monterey Park considered passing an ordinance requiring all business owners citywide to display the modern Latin alphabet on their business signs (e.g., English), in addition to any other non-alphabet languages displayed (e.g. Chinese). Our constitutional analysis found that, among other issues, the proposed ordinance raised free speech and equal protection concerns.
I was personally vested in this project because I have grown up and continue to live in the San Gabriel Valley (which includes Monterey Park) my whole life, and I was very familiar with the historical background of the city. I understood that Monterey Park has a large Asian American population, and that there were controversial incidents in the past in the city that may have been caused by racial tensions or the large influx of Asian immigrants in the area. The proposed ordinance somewhat re-visited those old wounds, but as a result of the efforts of Advancing Justice - LA and many other parties, the city as a whole came out on top. The city council did not pass the proposed ordinance and, in fact, the city’s leadership has embraced and underscored its desire to support diversity and inclusion efforts. There was also a recent celebration of leaders of the city and community members coming together for a harmony celebration.
What advice would you give other attorneys who want to participate in pro bono work?
The law is complex and there are many people out there who need assistance in navigating it. Many do not have the ability to obtain justice due to their limited financial means. The resources that are available to the public are insufficient to satisfy the overwhelming need. As lawyers, we are invaluable resources to the community because of our experience in and knowledge of the law. Therefore, it is important that lawyers give back to the community with their special skills, to serve the greater good.
From my involvement in bar associations, I know there are many local agencies and programs offered by the bar and community groups, such as local pro bono clinics and online resources. If a lawyer wishes to contribute to these organizations in a pro bono capacity, they can and should reach out to the pro bono coordinators at their own firm or seek out these programs online.
To learn about volunteer opportunities for attorneys at Advancing Justice - LA, contact Nisha N. Vyas, director of Pro Bono Programs.