By Katrina Dewey | January 30, 2023 | Lawyer Limelights, News & Features
Watch out if Debra Wong Yang is looking out the window.
That's when the pieces are falling into place.
She’s had roughly the same view for over two decades of her practice that has seen her ascend from L.A. Municipal and then Superior Court judge to the first Asian American female U.S. Attorney and now Executive Committee member and head of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher’s Crisis Management practice.
She looks out toward L.A.’s Chinatown, where she grew up walking the streets with her maternal grandfather, who helped build the famous neighborhood. A businessman who left Guangdong province hidden in a rice barrel as a young boy, he instilled in her a deep desire to elevate others. A fourth-generation Chinese immigrant on her father’s side, her passion is to make the world more fair for everyone who needs a chance – without regard for what form that takes.
“The whole legal journey has never been about me,” she says. “It’s been about trying to create opportunities for other people. Personally, that’s what feels good and rewarding to me.”
She’s spent her career using her substantial wit and charm combined with a killer work ethic and sense of right and wrong to craft an exemplary legal career that has seen her take on street gangs, law firms, banks and numerous other corrupt businesses. She oversaw one of the first computer hacking prosecutions and used environmental laws to force a major shipping company to stop dumping oil waste in California’s rivers and ocean. Today, she is the go-to advisor for tech companies, politicians and businesses suffering concurrent, multi-level, devastating crises. Take the tired trope of three-dimensional chess, and blow it up to infinity and beyond.
“You don't know when you're growing up, what you're going to be. And so you think back now to all those things in your life that formed you,” she says. Her path has been magnificently multifaceted – the opposite of the linear accumulation of skills too often advised – yet entirely consistent in its roots.
Yang’s heart is a tangle of hilly streets where homes, restaurants, churches and schools commingle just north of Downtown L.A.’s Civic Center, just down the hill from Dodger Stadium. It’s Chinatown. Not the racist noir home of Jack Nicholson’s epic turn, nor today’s jaded eye-roll hipster haven. But a storybook pavement of the early 1960s where Asian immigrants could form a community, build a business and, over time, own property (which they had been barred from by the state’s Alien Land Law of 1913).
Her maternal grandfather, Geui Hong (Daniel Hall) Quan, helped found L.A.’s Chinatown and when he retired he would often walk Yang to school, pointing out those whose lives she needed to help improve. He made his way to California at the age of 15, after escaping Guangzhou for Hong Kong in 1910. He built a successful meat marketing business in L.A., doing his accounting on an abacus, while Yang sat nearby after school tending to her homework.
The immigrant story is that, too, of her paternal great-grandfather, Lew Hing, who immigrated to the Bay Area in 1870 at the age of 12, working as a conscripted laborer before going on to establish the Pacific Coast Canning Company and helping found San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“My maternal grandfather told me when I was a little kid that I was responsible because he was. I was responsible for people other than myself,” Yang says. “He had 14 children. And I was the oldest granddaughter.”
I like helping companies figure out how to be better and more compliant. I like meshing the legal issues with the overall business strategy. I like seeing American companies succeed.
Her grandfather said she had to help people because she could speak English, which many people could not. “’You are going to be in a place where you can help others when they can't help themselves,'” Yang recalls him saying. “That has just stuck with me all through the years, because when it's all said and done, I don't care a wit about accolades for myself. They were just a vehicle and a mechanism to give me the ability to speak for other people and create opportunities for other people and get other people to see – it took a while – people like me to give them their own inspiration.”
To be seen is hard. It’s a risk. But one Yang always embraced, particularly beginning in 2002 when she was appointed U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles by President George W. Bush. His Attorney General was John Ashcroft, and the administration was reeling from a world turned upside down by 9/11. Law enforcement and intelligence infrastructure that had formed the bedrock of protection and prosecution for decades were revealed as inadequate for an age of global terrorism. There was no Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was inundated in a wave of protectionism, and every agency was in disarray.
Yang shuttled from L.A. to D.C. every two weeks for terrorist debriefings. And there is no doubt she was seen. She was advised to dress “appropriately,” which she came to understand meant she should wear a skirt; she did not own one.
“I’m a single mother with three small children. I drive a minivan. There's soccer stuff rolling around my car.” Yang says. “I can't be in a skirt. I have to get these kids in and out of their car seats when I drop them off for school and I need to wear pants."
The next time she traveled to D.C., she stepped it up: white silk top, off-white silk pants and a belted mellow orange trench coat.
“I looked fantastic. But I was nowhere near what the uniform looked like. And when I showed up at the meeting, these guys looked at me and I said, ‘You can't tell me that I don't look good.’ And they never said anything again.”
“I'm here to expand everybody's minds,” she says. “One of the nice things that age has brought is that I now feel no hesitation in describing the juggle of having been a working single mother. I previously hid it because it didn’t fit in all the conversations.”
How to explain spelling tests, for instance, to her fellow prosecutors on the Attorney General’s Advisory committee? “If I left on a Monday, my daughter always had a spelling test on Friday,” she says. Yang would copy down all the words and take the list along. On Tuesday night, she’d call her daughter and run through the list, highlighting the ones she was misspelling. “And then I'd come back to her on Thursday night. And I'm eating Cheetos. I'm doing crunches on the floor in the government issue hotel because there’s no time to exercise. And I've got the spelling list in front of me. And I'm like, ‘Okay, “flexibility.’”
It was a complex time that galvanized Yang’s life, abilities and experiences into a steel-trap mind that has become her greatest professional strength. Where others fragment under multiple levels of crisis, she compresses the issues into a singular calm focus.
“I learned this when things were hitting the fan after 9/11. All the agencies were changing and the only place there was continuity was in the U.S. Attorney’s offices,” she says. When crimes occurred, agents would head to their U.S. Attorney rather than their agency.
“There were so many changes to the mandate. Often times, I’d get all the data, everyone would debrief me, and I’d say, ‘OK, whose decision is this?’”
And they’d say, “It’s yours.”
She’d shut her door, pace and think.
“I’d come to understand the law – which I’d reviewed with the lawyers. And then I’d start to game play and look around corners. Some of it was very upsetting because of the nature of what it was. And I’d look out the window and I could see my elementary school in Chinatown. And it was really calming.”
“In that process, I realized that when others start to panic and freak out, I go to a place of clarity,” she says. “I don’t know why, but I can do that.”
The job is much more interesting than I thought it was going to be.
That skill has been her ace at Gibson Dunn, which she joined in 2006 after more than 20 years of public service as a judge and prosecutor. The firm already had a modest white-collar practice, and the hope was that Yang would expand its depth and dimension. She accomplished that in no time and then accelerated. Seventeen years later, she’s chaired the White Collar Defense and Investigations Practice Group; the Information Technology and Data Privacy Practice Group; and now the Crisis Management practice.
Yang intended her time in private practice to be a limited engagement. She had practiced in law firms for several years after graduating from Boston College Law School. While formative, the experience failed to inspire her. However, by 2006, the toll of single motherhood and more than 20 years of public service was clear.
“I needed to pay my mother back the money I borrowed from her when I was at the U.S. Attorney’s office because $128,000 does not carry you far with three kids,” she says. She also wanted to pay off her mortgage and save enough money so her kids could go to college. Her plan was to stay five to seven years.
“The idea that I’ve been here now going on year 17 is astounding even to me,” she says. “And the reason is because the job is much more interesting than I thought it was going to be.”
Give credit for that to Ted Olson, the preeminent Supreme Court litigator and longtime Gibson Dunn D.C. partner. He was familiar with her work as U.S. Attorney and had seen her in action investigating claims surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the “Bridgegate” fiasco. Olson suggested she consider crisis management, explaining how her experiences and expertise were perfect preparation for the harried, multifaceted crisis management practice.
“It was a game changer,” she says. Crisis management allows her to use her legal knowledge and litigation skills, but also funnel in her political judgment and media savvy. “It’s allowed me to be in a place where it's not just legal decisions, it's overall structural decisions. I prefer this type of work over representing overwhelmingly guilty individuals.
“I’m totally a prosecutor, so that doesn’t jibe with me. But I do like helping companies either figure out how to be better and more compliant going forward – having a better interface, helping them solve some problems that are intrinsic to them as they grew and developed. I like meshing the legal issues with the overall business strategy. I like seeing American companies succeed.
“I love that piece of it because it feels to me like I’m making the business better,” she says.
That’s how she’s found herself amidst DraftKing’s competitive battles for online fantasy sports; representing 20 west coast universities in challenging the Trump administration's policies against foreign students; and as the first lawyer MGM called in 2017 after the mass shooting at Mandalay Bay. On her way back from New York to L.A., she rerouted straight to Las Vegas.
“You didn’t know if there was another shooter, people were being interviewed left and right, law enforcement was investigating and it was mayhem,” she says. “But that’s where my skillset and place of calm can help. And, as a former judge, I know the iteration of litigation. I could see how the problems would ultimately manifest. I have that all in my head, and I see things and know how it will turn out.”
That vision allows her to intake all the data, quickly analyze what issues will surface as major ones, how to message them to the public, shareholders and other audiences, and how to bring the team together to help the company.
Her wisdom is invaluable to her clients and confirms to Yang her decision to join Gibson Dunn rather than take a position offered on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She would have been the first Asian American woman ever on a circuit court, which appealed deeply to her sense of service.
Two factors swayed her to private practice: one, she had met with a financial planner and could never get to the point in public service where she could pay for her daughters’ college.
“Also, in my heart, I knew there would be other Asian judges who would come up the pipeline,” she says. And she knew that because she’d spent part of her career working to build the pipeline through organizations including NAPABA (the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association), identifying and preparing national candidates. As one of the few Asian American candidates the Senate had confirmed before, her insight was valuable in laying the path. “So I knew there were others out there. And it wouldn’t be tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be forever,” she says. “And that gave me some peace.”
Some of the work was very upsetting. I’d look out the window and I could see my elementary school in Chinatown. And it was really calming.
The choice also gave her a new focus for her mission. She found there were very few women of color who had voices in Big Law. “And I thought, that’s the nut I need to crack.”
That’s the same assessment she made when she chose U.S. Attorney over a District Court bench, after seeing very few minorities on the leadership floors at the Department of Justice.
“I never saw people who looked like me, and I didn’t see that many women,” she says. “I’ve always been compelled by the notion of how I can help change things, which is why I went into Big Law.”
Last year, Gibson Dunn chose Barbara Becker as its first female Chair and Managing Partner, the seventh attorney to hold the position in the firm’s 131-year history. Yang was excited to watch Becker’s selection.
“What I didn’t foresee in Big Law is that you have to prove yourself first before you can have the kind of voice that I wanted to have,” she says. “But then I reached that point and this is now my tenth year on the executive committee and change and progress are happening. I’m so excited to have a female managing partner, and that it’s happening in my lifetime.”
Her lifetime of being the change she – and her grandfather – wanted to see in the world has brought her an abundance of accolades, including recently the Learned Hand award from the American Jewish Committee recognizing her work for civil rights and to combat anti-Asian hatred and violence.
“Hatred is hatred. It doesn’t matter what kind, whether it’s black, it’s Asian, it’s Jewish. It’s hatred,” she says. “We have to get to that underlying feeling and really try to disarm that.
“I've been in the community, I've been active. I understand the challenges that are out there. When you get older, you focus on, ‘How do we solve this? Where's the path to resolution?’ And it's really trying to find that commonality and creating a voice and a crescendo together and trying to effect change that way.”
Whether she’s broadening minds in Big Law, public interest or public service, Yang has always brought together communities. She remembers back when she was interviewing for U.S. Attorney as well as District Court judge. And those vetting her were struck because she received an endorsement letter from the Mexican American Bar Association when a Hispanic candidate was also under consideration.
The White House asked me, “How is it that you got a letter of support from the Mexican American Bar Association when they have another Hispanic candidate?"
She had met with MABA’s board, and recognized the import of the decision. And she explained Chinatown to the White House.
“I grew up in a very Hispanic neighborhood. I relate to their issues. I grew up around gangs," she says. "And I had been active in the community since I was 19 years old. So many of those people know me."
They knew she completely understood the Mexican American and other communities at its heart and hers. “And that is something that's so unique to L.A.,” she says.
It’s a land of hopes and dreams where a young man who fled in a rice barrel can have a granddaughter who becomes its top prosecutor and – as a single mom – a leader in its most illustrious law firm.
“I don’t take this lightly, but I don’t think of myself as inspiring,” she says. “But I’ve had so many younger people say to me how important it is to them to see people like me in certain positions and I've come to believe that. It has given me more of a mental mandate to be out there and to do these things and create change.”