In recognition of their decades of commitment to Asian Pacific American community concerns and philanthropic endeavors, the Minami Tamaki LLP law firm — rooted in historic legal cases such as overturning the World War II conviction of civil rights icon Fred Korematsu for resisting relocation orders — were presented the Leadership in Philanthropy Award by the Asian Pacific Fund at their annual gala Oct. 14 at the Four Seasons San Francisco.
“It is no exaggeration to say that as Asian Pacific Americans, our rights are more protected, our voices more heard, and we are more respected thanks to the groundbreaking work of Dale Minami, Don Tamaki, Brad Yamauchi, Minette Kwok, Jack Lee, Mark Fong, Sean Tamura-Sato and all their associates and the late Garrick Lew,” said Asian Pacific Fund founding board member Emerald Yeh in introducing the award, calling the impact of the 43-year-old firm “breathtaking” in scope. “They are the true definition of legal humanitarians.”
‘Case of a Lifetime’
A consequential moment for the partners came in 1982, when Dale Minami and fellow partner Donald Tamaki took on what Yeh would describe as “the case of a lifetime — to right that historical wrong which had wounded their families” that were forcibly removed from the West Coast during World War II and incarcerated in American concentration camps.
For the next year, Yeh said, they “worked in secret” for “fear that key documents would disappear or be destroyed.” But after “hundreds of hours of pro bono work,” they proved that the government had suppressed evidence and lied to the Supreme Court. U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel would overturn the conviction of Korematsu, a long-sought validation which put a spark into the Japanese American Redress Movement.
Partners of the firm have always been deeply rooted in community. Fresh out of law school at the University of California, Berkeley, Minami helped to establish the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco to help provide legal assistance to low-income Asian Americans, while Tamaki and Brad Yamauchi co-founded the similarly-focused Asian Law Alliance in San Jose.
Over the years, the firm would battle “hundreds” of civil rights cases, Yeh noted, driven by “impact litigation” like job discrimination, sexual harassment, wage theft and price-fixing, while building what would become “one of the best law firms in California.” Minami Tamaki attorneys have become top ranked by industry peer reviews.
The award was meaningful to the partners, said Minami.
“At first, we were a bit embarrassed about receiving an award for doing things we felt we should do anyways,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “But … (Emerald Yeh) helped us gain some perspective. She said we’ve been at the forefront of community building and empowerment for the API community and our work in civil rights, immigration, consumer protection among other areas have made a difference. The vision we had for empowerment was very similar to the Asian Pacific Fund’s vision so it was nice to receive validation from such a wonderful organization.”
“At the Minami Tamaki firm, professional success is not complete without the foundational value of community building,” added Yeh. “Their lawyers are everywhere — speaking, advocating, volunteering, mentoring. Time spent in the community and doing pro bono work are factored into every lawyer’s salary and bonus. It’s all part of Dale’s belief in doing good while doing well.”
It has been important to the firm to give back to the community, said Minami.
“I think we incorporated values from our parents and grandparents and, understanding our history — the racial discrimination, biased immigration laws, incarceration of our families — we knew that we only get stronger if our communities became stronger,” Minami said. “We’re in the boat together.”
But it wasn’t always easy.
Minami disclosed that it had been “very difficult” to maintain such community activism — including a large amount of pro bono legal work — while building a successful law practice.
“We had some really difficult times, deciding whether to pay the bills that were three months overdue or six months overdue; living on a line of credit at times, but we never made wealth a goal,” he said. “We knew we needed to feed our pocketbooks but we also knew we needed to feed our souls so without that balance, we would lose something very important.”
The firm’s partners backed up their actions with their own money, contributing $1 million to create the Minami Tamaki Yamauchi Kwok and Lee Foundation in 2014 “to further their commitment to the community and amplify the impact of their individual philanthropic efforts,” said Audrey
Yamamoto, president and executive director of the Asian Pacific Fund.
Minami has also been a long-time supporter of the Asian Pacific Fund as a former board member, current advisory council member and current Donor Advised Fund donor, Yamamoto said.
The firm’s partners continue to be advocates for civil rights, including recently working with the descendants of civil rights icons Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui in submitting an amicus brief against President Donald Trump’s travel ban against Muslim-majority countries.
More than four decades since its establishment, while the color of their hair may have changed a bit, the leadership of Minami Tamaki LLP remains consistent in serving as legal warriors.