In Korematsu Lecture, US Attorney Byung Pak makes a pitch for careers in public service

Delivering the Fred T. Korematsu Lecture, Byung Jin “BJay” Pak, US Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, urged law students to build careers that include work in the public interest. The annual event, hosted by the Asian-Pacific American Law Students Association, is named for Fred Korematsu, who challenged the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

BJ Pak giving the 2019 Korematsu Lecture at NYU Law
Byung Jin Pak

Pak, who emigrated from South Korea as a child, recounted how the 9/11 terrorist attacks inspired him to leave a job in Big Law to become an assistant US attorney in Atlanta. “Representing the United States was the greatest honor of my life,” he said, “and ever since then I have been hooked on public service.”

After returning to private practice, Pak served in Georgia House of Representatives from 2011 to 2017, the state’s first Korean American legislator. He became US Attorney in 2017.

As an Asian American in politics and law enforcement, Pak said, he has been able to bring a perspective that might not otherwise be heard. Responding to audience questions, he offered his thoughts on how Asian American lawyers can increase their numbers in the highest tiers of the legal profession.

Selected quotes:

“I always thought that the voters of the district would not accept me because I’m Asian, I always feared that.…Door after door, you knock, and then you don’t see Asian American voters coming out to you, and I always thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how am I going to earn their vote? Will they treat me differently? How will they know what I stand for?’ I was very timid in knocking on doors asking for their vote…After a while, I realized they really don’t care what I look like. They only care about what I believe in.”

“People talk about diversity and inclusion. I don’t really care about diversity, I care about inclusion. You know why? Because you get included, you get a seat at the table.”

“What I told [the hiring committee at the US Attorney’s Office] to look for is grit. Grit is something that you demonstrated by things that you stick with, things that you’re passionate about it, things that drive you.… I just hired an AUSA that tried nine times to get into the office. Every single time, she said, ‘If I don’t get this one, I’ll be back.’ So I knew she had grit.”

“When you go to your large law firm, you’ll be working very, very hard, and you’ll probably eat lots of lunches at your desk. I think that’s a critical mistake. I think you should take your lunch hour, go meet someone outside the law firm or even inside the law firm, take that hour to network, learn about their work, tell them about your interests. Because eventually your network will grow, and then when there’s an opportunity that’s open, that person you had lunch with will say, ‘Hey, Janice will be great for that position.’ Most jobs come that way. Promotion the same way.”

“We [Asian Americans] are programmed culturally not to boast about ourselves. Success…in American society in particular is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If you don’t brand yourself as someone who does excellent work and is interested in taking on more responsibility, who’s going to do it?”

Posted April 12, 2019