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Donald Tamaki wants people to know that his law firm cares about money. “We work for free, and we only represent Asian-Americans. … Those are two misconceptions we want to blow up,” said the managing partner of Minami, Lew & Tamaki, an 18-lawyer firm in San Francisco whose nine partners practice employment, immigration, entertainment, criminal, business and family law. Renown for social responsibility has come easier than a reputation for piling up billable hours at the firm. Nearly all its best-known cases are pro bono efforts, from representing Japanese-Americans victimized by World War II internment camps to defending Patrick Hayashi’s claims for ownership of a Barry Bonds home run ball. The partners have spent the past three decades developing a firm that, Tamaki emphasizes, is profitable in a wide range of practice areas. It has tripled in size since 1990, expanding its partnership ranks both from within and through hiring accomplished laterals from much larger firms. Still, it’s the pro bono work and Minami, Lew’s stature as one of California’s largest minority-owned law firms that outsiders — and the partners themselves — talk about with passion. “First and foremost, Minami, Lew & Tamaki is a public interest law firm that happens to be private,” said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, one of a small crowd of former Minami, Lew summer associates now in government and public interest law. It’s a formula, suggests Minami, that creates constant challenges. ‘ASKING YOU TO WORK FOR FREE’ Minami, Lew has striven to balance public interest law with profitable work since 1974, when Dale Minami left his job as director (and co-founder) of the Asian Law Caucus to join Tamaki in private practice. “We wanted to play a role in who got elected to the bench and be active politically, and we felt we could do that better if we started our own firm,” Tamaki said. But the firm brought in less than $20,000 in its first three years, Minami said. After that, he said, “We decided to learn how to make money.” The firm’s creation was a major step, said Adachi, since Asian-American law school grads in the 1970s had a hard time getting work at large firms. Generally, they ended up “taking whatever came through the door” in individual practice or working for government, Adachi said. “Asian-Americans were not seen as a force in the legal profession,” said Adachi, who credits Minami’s “Asian-Americans and the Law” class at UC-Berkeley for inspiring him to become a lawyer. “They were not seen as trial lawyers, they were not seen as able to present themselves as a force in the legal profession.” Since then, the firm has grown using the same basic business model as when it started, expanding by hiring lawyers who want to balance for-profit work with public interest law. “The more standard billing practices — the fixed fees — establish a stream of revenue that allow us to take on the other work,” said partner Roy Ikeda, who brought his business and real estate practice from the now-defunct Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May in 1995. Tamaki said there is little overlap between profitable and pro bono practices, since the good publicity from public interest work does not attract paying clients. “You just get more people calling and asking you to work for free,” Minami agreed. He can name only one paying client, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, who came as a result of pro bono publicity. Her mother, a longtime Minami family friend, had read that Minami and Tamaki had persuaded a Northern District of California judge to vacate Fred Korematsu’s 1942 criminal conviction for failing to report to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. Everyone who talks about Minami, Lew brings up Korematsu v. United States, 584 F.Supp. 1406; the 1984 decision was a landmark ruling that “set the stage for the redress and reparations” for internees, said Jacquelyn Maruhashi, a former Minami, Lew clerk who’s now managing attorney at the Asian Law Alliance in San Jose. More recently, the firm drew notice for its role in the 2002 settlement of Soko Bukai v. YWCA, which resolved a charge by a group of Japanese churches that San Francisco’s YWCA had attempted to sell a building it had been holding in trust since 1912 for a group of Japanese women precluded from ownership by alien land laws. UNUSUAL BUSINESS MODEL Partners say victories like Korematsu and Soko Bukai were made possible by an unconventional and egalitarian business model. Despite partners’ disparate practice areas, each works 2,100 hours a year and takes an equal share of profits. Tamaki said that in most years, revenue is evenly divided between hourly fees from areas like Ikeda’s business practice and contingencies, largely from employment and personal injury work. This mix provides a cushion, said partner Jack Lee, that allows him to pursue labor-intensive employment class actions whose potential paydays lie beyond the horizon. These have included an overtime suit on behalf of census workers and sex discrimination suits against both the U.S. Forest Service and clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. Partners say the range of practice areas has become a strength, but it also presents challenges. “We’ve undergone growing pains, and one of the things we’ve grappled with is how to be one firm,” said partner Minette Kwok, who specializes in immigration law. “Lawyers doing contingency and hourly think differently. � It’s not always been easy to keep the firm together,” said Minami. In fact, former partner Michael Lee left the firm to go solo in 1993. “We’re better as friends than as business partners,” said Minami. Lee still shares clients — and office quarters — with the firm. Minami, Lew addressed management issues last year by forming a three-partner management team to facilitate less contentious decision-making. “Things move a lot quicker now,” Minami said. CARVING A NICHE Over the past 10 years, Minami, Lew has worked to develop strengths different from those of big firms. In entertainment law, this has meant a specialty in representing newscasters. In business and real estate, Ikeda’s fluency in Japanese has attracted clients like Japan’s government and large Japanese corporations. The firm has tried to move quickly to capitalize on legal trends prompted by shifts in the economy. During the tech boom, Kwok built an immigration division, hiring a new associate to work with clients, including Google, that sought to hire foreign workers. Since the economy soured, her work has moved toward individual clients. The bust created opportunity for Garrick Lew, who handled a wave of fraud defenses. “There’s health fraud, tax fraud, loan fraud,” said Lew, who raised the firm’s profile in the 1970s and ’80s defending serial killer Charles Ng and Symbionese Liberation Army activist Wendy Yoshimura. “During the downturn in the economy, fraud was kind of a growth industry.” But with criminal defendants often unable to pay his fees, Lew says he has begun practicing more family law. The firm devotes the greatest share of resources to its plaintiff practice. The 1998 addition of partner Jack Lee, who litigated large class actions with Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller (now Goldstein, Demchak, Baller, Borgen & Dardarian), bolstered the group. It now has four partners and three associates focusing on employment class actions, personal injury suits and civil rights claims. One competitor credits the firm with an attention to detail and business acumen rare to small firms. “They’re very focused on getting a successful result, not just for their client but for everyone,” said Gary Benton, a Coudert Brothers partner in Palo Alto who has worked opposite Tamaki on complex venture capital deals. CHOICES AHEAD After three decades, Minami, Lew’s founding partners are trying to figure out what will happen to the firm after they retire. As first steps, they have worked to characterize the firm’s culture and identify comparable firms. But the partners have had trouble finding other firms with similar practice areas, similar size and a shared value for pro bono work. Moreover, they seem uncertain about the firm’s goals. The partners want the firm to remain focused on new cases that, they hope, will bring judgments with large social and financial implications. Yet, they have struggled with basic questions such as just how big they want the firm to grow. “We never wanted to be a small version of a big law firm. � But we’re not looking to acquire practices to get bigger and bigger,” Minami said. Clearly, the partners value the firm’s distinctive identity. Yet, they are willing to sacrifice some of that distinctiveness in order to thrive. “We’re leaning toward a more multi-racial firm that’s more representative of the population,” Minami said. In 2001, employment specialist Lisa Duarte became the firm’s first non-Asian-American partner. While the firm’s distinctive mission has created its share of challenges, Minami identifies the firm’s most pressing question in terms familiar to any small firm: “How do you succeed yourself in a practice of this size?”

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