Two Korean immigrants who came to the U.S. to become lawyers face discipline for practicing for a sham firm run by the nonattorney who sponsored their applications for permanent residence.
Dong Sung Kim and Na-Kyung Kang “engaged in conduct involving a lack of candor or dishonesty to hold onto their employment and to secure their visa status,” the Disciplinary Review Board said.
“It is true that their actions were controlled by an unreasonable and threatening employer,” but “nothing less than a reprimand would be adequate to address their misrepresentations,” the board said in Matter of Kim, DRB 12-188, and Matter of Kang, DRB 12-189.
Each respondent graduated from Michigan State Law School: Kang in 2007, Kim in 2008.
Kang was 27 when she was admitted in New Jersey. Kim is a few years older, having come to the U.S. at age 30 before attending Michigan State.
On the same day in January 2009, both were hired to work at Jacob, Ben & Young LLC, one of several businesses catering to Korean immigrants owned and operated by Jacob Kim.
Jacob’s clients typically received credit counseling and other services, but were also provided legal counsel through staff attorneys if needed.
Kang, who already was an attorney as of June 2008, understood her position to be in-house counsel for a financial consulting firm.
Kim, who had yet to pass the bar, came on as a loan modification specialist, but did perform some legal services at Jacob’s direction. Kim passed the bar in June 2009.
Jacob — who’s apparently not related to Dong Sung Kim — became each one’s immigration sponsor.
Jacob and his wife, Yoon Hee Kim, handed clients directly to their staff attorneys, and directed the lawyers to “ghostwrite” answers to foreclosure complaints to make them appear pro se.
Even though the answers were prepared using a sample form, Jacob charged $500 to $1,500 per client. Fees were paid directly to Jacob, not the lawyers.
The attorneys informed the clients they were providing limited services, and did not make court appearances unless paid extra.
In one foreclosure matter, the defendant advised Superior Court Judge Ellen Koblitz — then presiding judge of Hudson County’s Chancery Division — that Kim was her attorney but would not appear. When questioned by Koblitz, Kim said he was a financial adviser and did not admit that he prepared the client’s answer.
At Kim’s suggestion, Jacob directed creation of a separate entity to perform legal work.
Kang prepared incorporation papers and later said she believed the firm would be independent and only related to Jacob through a sublease. But Jacob retained control and things remained the same, aside from the firm name — changed in June 2009 from Jacob, Ben & Young to the “Kim & Kang Law Office.”
Kang believed the name referred to her and Kim as partners, though Kim did not sign the incorporation papers, was not a trust account signatory and later claimed he believed the name referred to Jacob as the second partner.
Kang and Kim both claimed later that they were uncomfortable with Jacob’s impermissible assignments, including giving false testimony in a civil suit lodged against the business.
In January 2010, Kim said he would quit, but stayed on three more months after Jacob threatened him.
Kang — too afraid to confront Jacob in person because of his regular yelling and screaming — enlisted her husband to resign on her behalf, after which Jacob and his wife sent messages threatening to report Kang to immigration authorities or file a lawsuit.
Kang and Kim left the business in March 2010, and Kim & Kang dissolved.
In considering a grievance filed against Kang and Kim, the District XI Ethics Committee found that they were, as they claimed, controlled by Jacob, but still violated ethics rules and were deserving of reprimands.
The DRB agreed in a Nov. 30 opinion. “By all accounts, Jacob Kim was a tyrant, who intimidated his staff and held respondents’ immigration status over their heads, in order to have them engage in improper conduct,” Chairman Louis Pashman wrote.
But Kang and Kim — having engaged in misconduct to protect their visas, which depended on being in Jacob’s employ — may have been less than forthright with the DEC too, to protect their licenses, the DRB said.
The DRB dismissed many of the charges — including for sharing fees with a nonlawyer. But it found that Kang violated Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(b), by failing to communicate the basis of the fees to Kim & Kang clients, and that Kim violated the same provision, as well as RPC 3.3 (lack of candor toward a tribunal) by keeping from Koblitz information about the foreclosure matter and from ethics authorities information about the structure of Jacob’s business.
Aside from the reprimand, the DRB also urged that each lawyer be required to complete six hours of professional responsibility courses and to practice under a proctor’s supervision for two years.
Final discipline is to be determined by the state Supreme Court.
Clifton solo Santiago Orozco, who prosecuted the case, notes that it was Koblitz who brought the case to the attention of ethics authorities. “What they did was wrong … but at the same time, no actual individuals from the community reared their head as a grievant,” he says.
Kim and Kang waived their right to appear before the DRB.
Kim is now with Kim Choi Kim in Fort Lee. He declines comment.
Kang became a Fort Lee solo. Two listed numbers for her — in the Lawyers Diary and the judiciary’s online attorney registry — were disconnected.
Kang was admonished earlier this year for lack of diligence and failure to communicate with a client in a divorce matter. Kim has no disciplinary history.