Divorce lawyer Y. Jessie Shaw was standing in a San Bernardino courthouse, waiting for a signed order that would freeze the assets of her client's husband, when she saw the man slip out of the courtroom and sprint down the hall.
She knew the couple had come here penniless from Vietnam, saved up to buy a gas station and prospered. But as divorce loomed, the husband sold the gas station and hid the $400,000 profit. Rumor had him headed back to Vietnam to start a new life.
Realizing her client would never see her share of that money if the husband fled the country, Shaw decided to chase him. In her 3-inch heels, she ran stealthily after him, out the courthouse and into the parking lot. Then Shaw, a brash Taiwanese immigrant who has never let convention deter her on either side of the Pacific, hopped into her car and tailed him to a bank in Redlands.
As she drove, she called the courthouse on her cell phone, only to learn that the judge on her case had left for the day. Somehow, she convinced a clerk to contact the judge on the golf course, and get the court order faxed to the Redlands bank. When Shaw ran into the bank, she found the runaway husband clutching a wad of bills while the teller counted out more.
"Stop," she cried to the startled crowd, and proceeded to explain the situation to bewildered bank officials, who held up the transaction.
It took most of the afternoon, but eventually the judge's fax came in and the bank agreed to freeze the man's funds. In a safety-deposit box within the bank's vault, Shaw and bank officials discovered $350,000 in cash. A checking account held $50,000 more. She had found the missing gas station proceeds.
And Shaw, who had recently opened her own practice but didn't speak fluent English, understand American customs or have much legal experience here, was launched on an exhilarating career.
Ten years later, Shaw is a seasoned litigator with sleek offices in downtown Pasadena. She has come far from the days when she interviewed at blue-chip California firms and was told that she lacked the linguistic and cultural skills to make it as an American lawyer.
"People told me, even though you're smart enough to pass the bar, you haven't been in this country long enough. You have no chance to be a litigator in court," Shaw recalls.
Instead of letting such remarks offend her, Shaw only hardened her resolve.
"I agreed with them," she says. "But I also felt I wouldn't be a real attorney until I stepped into court. I wanted that validation. But it took time, and I had to be patient. In the beginning, when I formulated legal arguments in my mind, I used Chinese and translated back to English as I spoke. I don't know when the wall came down, but now I can speak directly in English."
Far from being a detriment, her Chinese heritage has become an asset. The growing number of Asian immigrants in Southern California has created a larger pool of people seeking a divorce lawyer like Shaw, who not only shares their language and culture, but can explain how American laws differ from those of home.
Far from being a detriment, Shaw's Chinese heritage has become an asset. "They feel comfortable seeing an Asian woman who understands their values and their morals," says Shaw, a poised woman of 39.
About 80% of Shaw's clients are overseas Chinese (people from Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora, such as ethnic Chinese from Malaysia) and 15% white. The balance is Latino. She does a handful of pro-bono divorce cases each year for those who can't afford divorce lawyers.
Shaw's been in the trenches a long time, and like most divorce lawyers, she's seen every kind of bad behavior: adultery, substance addiction, gambling and even murder. But in Shaw's view, her clients' human foibles are compounded by the difficulties immigrants face in a new country, culture and language. There are often long separations, as husbands toil in Asia at family businesses while wives and children remain here.
So Shaw, who recently completed the requirements to be certified as a family law specialist, finds herself playing therapist, and parental and financial advisor to immigrants bewildered by the legal system and customs of their adopted land.
Representing the 'Second Wives'
She represents husbands as often as wives, sometimes even mistresses, whom she calls "second wives." Many have long relationships and even children with the married lovers who have brought them from China.
"Before I met them, I thought they were frivolous creatures with pretty faces," Shaw says. "But many are smart. They helped the men set up businesses in China. But they also know that if they lose their looks, the man will leave. They come to me and want to know how they can safeguard their assets. They are worried for their children."
In general, she says, mistresses have few rights. In case of divorce, wives can even demand the return of gifts bestowed by the straying husband. The most mistresses can do is get support for their children, if they can establish paternity.
Shaw has better luck helping wives, such as Maggie Liu, a small-business owner in Diamond Bar whom Shaw represented.
"Most of our assets were in Asia, and she knows my culture and how to deal with Chinese people, and she also knows the law here," says Liu. "I didn't know what my rights as a woman were here in the U.S. She explained everything. She fights for us."
Liu, who eventually reconciled with her husband, says she turned to Shaw after unhappy experiences with several non-Chinese lawyers who she said charged her a lot of money and did little work. She had to bring translators to those meetings. With Shaw, she could converse easily in Mandarin.
"Normally, American lawyers can be eloquent, they're good speakers, but Jessie's [English] language was not a problem, and she was more aggressive than the American lawyers," Liu said.
Shaw grew up in a Taipei suburb with two older brothers. At age 21/2, she suffered burns over half her body when she fell into a pot of boiling water. For years, she put up with bandages and doctors' visits, refusing to wear shorts or skirts so classmates wouldn't mock her scars. Shaw says she vowed to become a lawyer when she was unjustly accused of cheating at her Catholic boarding school. But after earning a law degree and landing a job with the biggest law firm in Taiwan at age 21, she grew frustrated.
"They wanted me to serve tea in the conference room," Shaw says. "I was supposed to take high-profile clients to nightclubs and karaoke bars every night.... I didn't want to live my life that way."
So in 1986, Shaw--the last name is transliteration of her Chinese name--came to America, where she believed she would have more opportunity, even though she'd have to work harder. She repeated law school, at Temple University, and married a white man she met in Philadelphia. But the marriage foundered.
"Because of my looks and my nationality, he had misconceptions about who I was," Shaw says delicately. When they divorced, Shaw was so poor she did the legal work herself. In 1992, after working as a "gypsy" lawyer for other firms, she launched her own.
Now remarried to a Chinese American man, Shaw has two young sons and lives in Arcadia with her family and her mother. Her father, who once despaired that his blunt, headstrong daughter would fit in anywhere, died about 10 years ago.
To be sure, Shaw's bluntness doesn't endear her to everyone. She's assertive and direct, with the deadpan humor of a stand-up comic. But her manner has helped her succeed in rough-and-tumble family court. She calls them as she sees them. Take male-female relations. Shaw says most husbands she works with, even those with mistresses, don't want a divorce. But when wives file papers, husbands sometimes start hiding assets.
With business and property scattered across two continents, it can be a nightmare to track down the accounts. But Shaw knows what she's looking for, and how to get it.
"She's always been tenacious on behalf of her clients," says Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Robert Schnider, before whom Shaw has argued many cases. "With Chinese cases, there are often assets in other countries and various kinds of entanglements ... and that can be interesting and challenging. Not only do you have to know California law, but the law of other nations."
Business Done on Handshakes
Shaw says that some business in China is still done on handshakes. The terms are then scribbled onto scraps of paper or whatever is at hand. Often such deals lack dates and signatures but use "chops," official Chinese stamps. Some U.S. judges doubt the authenticity of these documents, says Shaw, who has found herself explaining Chinese business customs to American judges.
When it comes to tracking down assets in Asia, Shaw says it's too expensive and unpredictable to hire a Chinese law firm. Besides, corruption can be a problem overseas, she points out, and the firm might sell the documents back to the husband and ruin her case.
If clients request it, she'll go to China and conduct a search. But she usually recommends that they do the investigation themselves.
"They all have family and friends over there who can help," Shaw explains. "And it's cheaper for them. I tell them what documents I need, and explain how to get them authenticated through the U.S. Embassy. And usually they come back to me with very, very good documents."
For example, businesses have to register with the Chinese government and in many cases, especially joint ventures with an American partner, must report their investment capital, projects and profits. Tax returns offer a mother lode of information. "I'm probably not able to put the whole puzzle together," Shaw admits, "but I find some of the pieces. To demolish a house, you only need to take down a few corners. Then the judge starts to believe you. You have to be very creative."
But each case brings its own drama and tragedy. For one long-suffering wife Shaw represented, the final straw came when her husband suggested that since their own children were grown, the wife could care for the young children he had with his mistress. Another woman, who had a San Marino mansion and eight cars parked in the garage, wanted out of an arranged marriage.
"She's very patient and diligent and understanding," says Wong Park, a Korean American lawyer who knows Shaw and has argued opposite her in court. "She tries to find the right solution depending on the person's background. For some, because of their culture, it's more important to go after custody. For others, it's the money. She's able to read between the lines."
Time Resolves Some Problems
Likewise, Shaw has found over the years, opponents can soften and intractable situations can suddenly work out. That's what happened when she represented a white American woman married to a Chinese businessman she had met while teaching English in China.
They had several children, but the husband had affairs and bragged that he would buy off the judges to gain custody and take all the money if she divorced him.
The woman hired Shaw anyway. During a court recess, Shaw got permission from the husband's attorney to talk to the husband in Chinese. No important words were exchanged, but Shaw thinks the informal chat in his native tongue didn't hurt: He later agreed to a better financial settlement as well as giving his wife custody of their children.
That was a relief, because Shaw has handled many cases in which one parent flees with the kids to another country. The remaining parent isn't even certain of getting a U.S. court to order the return of children, she says. In one of Shaw's saddest cases, an Indonesian husband fled with the children back to Indonesia. The wife, an ethnic Chinese Lao, couldn't get permission to follow.
Shaw says she often coaches clients on how to act in court, such as answering questions directly, which can be considered rude in China. Likewise, she says traditional Chinese parents who stress obedience and academic excellence above all else can come off badly in custody evaluations.
"In their hearts, the parents are trying to do the right thing," Shaw explains. "But they look very uptight, nervous and inflexible. I tell them they have to be more polished, more relaxed, but it's hard for them. Often the parent who lives the more Americanized life wins custody."
For Shaw, this is a sensitive cultural problem that is not adequately addressed in American courts. "I'm not saying the judge is right or wrong, but I think they should give some more consideration to the struggles that immigrants face, that these are their values," she says.
Straddling two cultures, she knows this firsthand. Shaw appreciates the freedom and the challenges her new life have brought her. And she hasn't lost her sense of humor, even when she is mistaken in court for the husband's mistress instead of the attorney arguing the case.
"I don't have a lot of anger. I'm just an immigrant, and you have to be patient and persistent. But I've been lucky. I never would have reached my potential if I had stayed comfortably in Taiwan.
"But here I'm challenged. If a girl like me can make it here, then anyone can."