Thuy Nguyen / Louis Goodman – Transcript


Louis Goodman / Thuy Nguyen – Transcript

Louis Goodman 00:03
Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk with attorneys about their lives and careers. Today, we welcome Thuy T. Nguyen to the podcast. She is currently a partner at Garcia, Hernandez & Sawhney, LLP, and commission counsel for the Oakland Police Commission. She is the former President of Foothill College, part of the Foothill De Anza Community College District, and continues to advise educational institutions in her capacity as an attorney.

Among many of her significant achievements is her recognition by the Carnegie Corporation and the New York Times as a notable contributor to the progress of American society. And she’s been recognized by the city of Oakland by having a day named in her honor. Thuy T. Nguyen, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.

Thuy Nguyen 00:59
Well, hello, hello, Louis, and greetings to all the listeners of Love Thy Lawyer.

Louis Goodman 01:05
Thank you. Where are you speaking to us from right now?

Thuy Nguyen 01:09
I’m speaking from home in Castro Valley, where I have basically lived in the Bay Area for 35 years, including at one point in Oakland.

Louis Goodman 01:18
Can you tell us a little bit about what sort of practice that you have right now?

Thuy Nguyen 01:23
It’s the same practice, although a little bit more evolved. When I first started out as a lawyer after graduating from UCLA Law School, and that is education law that has always been my passion. Although back then I was very focused on school desegregation work, so helping schools such as Berkeley Unified School District, San Jose Unified School District, with their voluntary integration plan or their school desegregation court order plan.

Louis Goodman 01:53
Do you have an office that you go to as well?

Thuy Nguyen 01:55
I do have an office, but I have really the privilege of deciding whether to work from home or in office and because of the work of being with clients from all over, I actually am able to work mostly from home, but we do have an office in Alameda that I go into sometimes, very rarely, but sometimes, and then our law firm also has an office in San Diego and the Glendale area.

Louis Goodman 02:21
How big a firm is it?

Thuy Nguyen 02:23
It’s about 25 lawyers, it’s a minority owned law firm. In education it’s believed to be the largest minority owned education law firm in the state. I’m very proud of the bandwidth and the bent, so to speak, that this law firm has in terms of really some high level, high achieving lawyers representing, you know, community colleges and school districts up and down the state.

Louis Goodman 02:50
You also are the council for the Oakland police commission. Can you tell us a little bit about that work and where that fits into your duties?

Thuy Nguyen 03:00
Through the law firm, that’s how I am the commission counsel for the Oakland police commission. So essentially, a few years ago, the city of Oakland, its voters voted for the existence of an Oakland police commission, which is a civilian oversight body overseeing the Oakland police department.

And then they went back to the voters and asked the voters and the voters voted over 80% an ability for the Oakland police commission to hire its own lawyer. As you can see, that ability is to speak to how important lawyers are in the work and being able for a commission to have its own legal counsel so that it can do its constitutional reform work.

And so the Oakland Police Commission went out through an RFP process. And selected the law firm of Garcia Hernandez Sanji. And about two years ago, they recruited me to come on and I served as commission counsel a few months after that.

Louis Goodman 04:04
Tell us a little bit about the work that the commission does.

Thuy Nguyen 04:07
So the commission has been voted by the voters of Oakland to essentially oversee the Oakland police commission around constitutional reform, police reform. As you know, the Oakland police department has had a long history, unfortunately, around what is believed to be unconstitutional policing practices and 20 years plus ago it was sued by civil rights attorney, John Burris and Jim Chanin over the rioters case. You may recall that around, you know, real racial profiling of the police department, particularly in West Oakland, but it just in general against residents of Oakland. And so as a result, there was a lawsuit and the police department has been under what some people consider a consent decree, a court ordered consent decree.

Basically, the city calls it a negotiated settlement agreement that has it under federal court oversight for over 20 years now. So as you can imagine, the people of Oakland are eager for constitutional reform. And also to have it at a certain state where it can get out of court oversight. And hence the existence of the Oakland police commission to provide civilian oversight and through that, hopefully should, if, and when, and we’re hoping sooner rather than later, considering that the city has been under a court order for over 20 years now, that at one point when there is no longer court oversight, there’s still oversight on constitutional reform, and that is oversight by civilians.

Louis Goodman 06:00
How many people are on the Oakland Police Commission?

Thuy Nguyen 06:03
So right now it has some vacancies. And so if people are interested, there are two ways to be selected. One is through the mayor, the other is through a selection panel that are appointed by the city council and the mayor. So those are the two vehicles in which to be selected on the commission, but in terms of the commission, it has essentially seven regular commissioners and two alternate commissioners, but right now it does have vacancy.

Louis Goodman 06:34
Where are you from originally?

Thuy Nguyen 06:36
I was actually born in Saigon, Vietnam, and my family and I fled communist Vietnam when I was three years old. We were bull people. We drifted in the Pacific Ocean for over 20 days.

You know, some people, I quite frankly, until today, I’m still trying to get the exact date, but. But that was the issue they, my parents and, and I, along with their family members in this small rickety fishing boat drifted in the Pacific Ocean for so many days that they actually don’t, can’t really give an exact date.

They believe it’s over 20 days. And so we were rescued by a Japanese commercial ship when they, when they spotted us in the Pacific ocean, and they took us to a refugee camp in Japan. So I’m a former refugee. And that’s why when you had mentioned the recognition by Carnegie Corporation in the New York Times, they referred to it as the great immigrants.

So and they, every July 4th, they select about 30 or so great immigrants around the country. And the reason is I’m an immigrant, particularly I’m a former refugee.

Louis Goodman 07:54
Do you have a recollection of that?

Thuy Nguyen 07:57
No, I was three years old and some people say that it may be a blessing that I don’t remember because it’s such a traumatic experience that has left quite an imprint on many former refugees in terms of the psychological trauma of that. So I don’t have recollection of, my earliest recollection is jumping up and down on a bed with my brother singing Ten Little Monkeys, jumping on the bed in Wichita, Kansas. That’s my earliest recollection.

Louis Goodman 08:30
Where’d you go to high school?

Thuy Nguyen 08:33
I went to high school in Oakland, Castlemont high school in East Oakland. And it is a very eye-opening experience living in East Oakland in the deep part of East Oakland, the school I went to Castlemont High School, for those who know, at that time was predominantly black student population. And so I was one of the few Asian Americans at a predominantly black school.

And growing, you know, growing up, going to high school at Castlemont High School also got me to see a lot of the social injustices. Which is why when I came out of law school, I wanted to do school desegregation work.

Louis Goodman 09:19
When you graduated from high school, where’d you go to college?

Thuy Nguyen 09:23
I went to Yale for college. And as far as I know, based on the teachers and, and principal at Castlemont, they believe that I’m, I’m the first Castlemont grad to go directly to an Ivy league in the school’s history.

Louis Goodman 09:40
What was that experience like? I mean, going from Castlemont high school to Yale, those are very different environments.

Thuy Nguyen 09:47
Yes. We’re at quite a big leap. I’m not sure if I knew what I was doing. All I knew is that my mother said, well, you know, at that time, all the presidential candidates had roots at Yale. So it must be a good school, according to our mom. So why don’t we go there? And, and it was interesting being from Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panthers.

And in the East Coast, New Haven, where Yale is located, is the birthplace of the Black Panther in the East Coast. And so I said, well, at least there’s one theme that’s consistent, but short of that, it was quite an eye opener for this first gen, first in her family to go to college. You know, eldest oldest child of seven coming from Castlemont, who may have been the first to go to an Ivy league from her high school. It was quite an eye-opening experience.

Louis Goodman 10:48
You ultimately went to law school. Did you take some time off between college and law school or did you just go straight through?

Thuy Nguyen 10:54
Louis, I wish I had your wisdom of that question asked of me earlier, whether to take a, because I often now do advise folks to consider taking a year off just to kind of orient your re, re engage, reorient yourself, have a better understanding of your why.

As to why you want to go to law school, but just take a quick breather. I did not. And I think quite frankly, even though I teased myself and said that if I had that wisdom, I would have, honestly, I’m not sure if I could have, because, you know, being the first in her family to go to college, it was a lot of hopes and dreams to finish quickly, to help pay the bills for the family and help out mom and dad and, and siblings. So I’m not sure if I would have been able to take a year off, but if anyone could I definitely think people should.

Louis Goodman 11:47
So you went straight through, where did you go to law school?

Thuy Nguyen 11:50
I went to UCLA law school. Let’s just put it this way. After experiencing the East Coast, I am going back to Cali.

Louis Goodman 11:57
Well, I guess that to some extent as an educational institution, Yale was probably a slight step up from Castlemont, but the weather in New Haven was probably a substantial step down.

Thuy Nguyen 12:12
Oh, yeah, I always thought snow was nice and fluffy. I never knew it could turn to ice and make you fall on your butt more times than you need it to.

Louis Goodman 12:25
When was it really that you first started thinking about being a lawyer? And then when did you actually take the plunge and decide, yeah, I’m really going to do this, fill out the form, send in the money, go to law school?

Thuy Nguyen 12:40
Quite frankly, when I was at Castlemont and starting at Yale and law school was nowhere near the picture. I actually wanted to go to medical school, maybe a good immigrant kid. I don’t know what had it in me to, to want to go into medicine. But I definitely wanted to do public health to utilize medicine. The way I see health is. Health is the world health organization definition. Health is the social, physical, and mental wellbeing of a person, not just the absence of disease or infirmity. And so it’s that concept of health around the social, mental wellbeing of a community, of a family, of a city that I approach health in that way.

And so, you know, medical school, do public health, maybe bioethics. Et cetera. And so I was completely immersed in climbing that hill at Yale to go to Science Hill and take all those science courses. I took the MCAT. Yet the most enjoyable part of the MCAT was actually the argumentative part of sessions on the pros and con resolution. Have you ever taken the MCAT?

Louis Goodman 13:55
I have not taken the MCAT.

Thuy Nguyen 13:57
Good for you. What a waste. But now as a result, being a, when I later became a college president, I was able to speak STEM to students. So at least that it can, it had some benefit for me, but all that said is, It was actually right after taking the MCAT, that junior year between senior year, you know, applying.

So I was filling out the two page essay. I was writing the two page essay for the MCAT, the application, the MCAS to go to medical school. And the question was, why do I want to go to medical school? After writing that two page essay, I came to, it was almost like I should write at the very end. Therefore, I should go to law school or public health school.

And it was through that writing process that I realized. What my true passion was and I was just in denial or just like, you know, headstrong going in a certain direction. Of course, I did later call to my, my surrogate parents, my mentors, my friends, and I told them I made a decision. I’m going to take the LSAT and go to law school instead.

And all I can tell you is one of them said to me, Thuy, we’ve been waiting for you to come to that conclusion. And part of it, Louis, is this, is I was student director on the Oakland Unified School Board. I was Oakland Brigade commander doing a lot of leadership work. I was an activist at Yale fighting Prop 187.

We formed our group, we called it SCRAP 187, that’s California’s Proposition 187, so it’s Student Coalition Rallying Against Proposition 187, SCRAP 187. I was president of the Vietnamese student association. I was doing a lot of things that were leadership, that were policy, were advocacy. I was not head down thinking about medical school or I should have.

And so everyone knew that this law school was really the right direction. It just took me a while to get to that.

Louis Goodman 16:10
You’ve been practicing law for quite a while in several different capacities. What is it that you really like about practicing law and that keeps you in the profession?

Thuy Nguyen 16:18
Oh, Louis, I, you know, one thing that was quite a surprise to me, so I was recruited to be general counsel for the Peralta community college district, which is a four-college district in the East Bay area. Right. So Laney college, Berkeley city college, college of Alameda and Merritt college. And I thought, you know, here I am coming out of working for then assembly majority leader, Wilma Chan, having been doing school desegregation work that It was all social justice community work, and this was where the surprise was.

I love the negotiation, the land deals, the contract, just putting all the pieces together, etc. So I really enjoy that. Acquiring buildings for the school district, figuring out the laws and putting the pieces together and strategize and maneuver in such a way to the benefit of the college district and the students and the boys at the district, I was pleasantly surprised how much I love that business side part of it, but there’s no doubt my passion is very much around social justice work. And so when I was, for instance, general counsel, interim general counsel for the California community college state chancellor’s office, which is a regulatory agency that oversees the 72 community college districts in the state of California.

You know, and I was overseeing, you know, as legal counsel, the regulations and how it’s developed, how it gets passed and implement it and interpreting it for the community colleges, there was no doubt in my mind that the work around equity, particularly racial equity was really important to me.

And so I oversaw the equal employment opportunity program and was able to find Regulations written in such a way that allowed me to change the funding allocation for that, that resulted in a allocation so that we could, you know, instigate better hiring practices. And so therefore we could get greater faculty diversity for our students.

And the research has shown that students of color do really well when the faculty ranks are diverse racially. And so, you know, there’s no doubt that this, the skills, the knowledge of the law, as much fun as I had doing the business side, it’s so personally satisfying to be able to use those skillsets for social justice work.

Louis Goodman 18:58
If a young person were coming out of college, would you recommend going into the law as a career?

Thuy Nguyen 19:03
Absolutely. Absolutely. it’s interesting. I often advise, including my own family members, to and I have two other siblings who are lawyers too. I often advise them that, you know, if you kind of have the direction of policy or administration or, or, you know, something leaning toward that is to get a law degree instead, or a couple it with a law degree.

And it was interesting because I said to myself and I’ve said to people that a legal degree can give you a lot of wiggle room, right? You don’t necessarily have to practice law, which is very interesting because I didn’t go to law school actually wanting to practice law. I actually wanted to do the other types of work, but with a legal degree.

And what, if you count the years, I’ve been practicing more law that those years, the majority of those years have been practicing law versus not. So, there you go.

Louis Goodman 20:01
I have a two-part question. You can answer it in both parts or one part or the other or in some combination. What do you think is the best advice you’ve ever received? And what advice would you give to a young lawyer just starting out?

Thuy Nguyen 20:18
I met someone that your podcast interviewed, the great Dale Minami. And I remember asking Dale Manami, what advice would you give to a young lawyer who wants to make a difference in the world and have a fulfilling career, legal career?

The first thing he said to me and the only thing he said to me at that time was, take care of your health. And it’s very true. It’s very true. You’re only a good lawyer. You’re only able to show up if you really make a point to take care of your health. And so health is the critical element to it. I would further add, be, be really in to your work, even if you don’t think you may love it initially, but just really be in it, in it, be, be all in for your client, be all in for that task that’s right in front of you. Right. And, and find, find the cerebral joy. And the heart joy of it. And to the extent that you could find work that you already know that you will enjoy, that’s even better.

Louis Goodman 21:23
I have said this before on this podcast, and I’ve said it, I don’t know how many times to friends, colleagues, people that I talked to, I am consciously grateful every single day for the health that I have been blessed with. And I agree with you, I agree with Dale as far as that’s concerned. If you feel well, you can take on the world.

And if you don’t feel well, it’s hard to do much of anything. And there is no, there’s no house, there’s no car, there’s no checkbook that can make it worth it to not feel well. I really think about that for myself all the time. So it’s interesting that you, you bring that up.

You’ve been working in the legal system for a long time. Do you think that it’s fair?

Thuy Nguyen 22:11
I think it tries to and I think to that extent, it’s also the beauty of what is called the United States of America, that we’re not a perfect union. Our profession is not a perfect profession, but we strive to. We’re a profession that’s trying to constantly improve. It needs improvement in terms of the diversity of the profession, which is why when I was general counsel for the Peralta Community College District, I volunteered for the Council on Access and Fairness for the State Bar.

And it was through that that I said, let’s start a 2 plus 2 plus 3 law pathway program. Let’s get the law schools in. And right now, we have 23 high school law academies in the state, 35 community colleges. 18 undergraduates and 15 law schools in California. The law school signing an agreement to provide special consideration for admission with the effort of diversifying the profession. And I think through that diversity, it could be more just.

Louis Goodman 23:19
When you say two plus two plus three, I guess that means two years community college plus two years then at either Cal State or University of California, and then going on to a three-year law school. Is that correct? Okay. How do, how do you identify the young people who are going to get into that program? And how does someone who has some interest in that program find it and get into it? I’m wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about that pathway.

Thuy Nguyen 23:53
You can Google California Law Pathways Community College. And it’ll come up and the essence, there are 35 community colleges in the Law Pathway Program.

So when you go onto the website, it’ll identify which community colleges are in the Law Pathway Program. Lawyers and judges who are volunteering at each of those community colleges, providing mentorship, internships, just a whole host of things. And the whole goal is to actually get them to transfer to a four year and then go to our community colleges or law school.

Louis Goodman 24:28
I think that it is so important to be able to show a path for people who are perhaps the first people in their family to have ever gone to college at any level and to be able to see that, yeah, there’s a path here. I don’t want to say it isn’t hard, but it’s not that hard. It’s not as hard as a lot of things.

There’s a way to put one foot in front of the other and academically end up graduating from law school.

I’m going to shift gears here a little bit. Can you tell me a little bit about what your family life has been like and what practicing law has been like as far as your family and your family fitting into your practice of law?

Thuy Nguyen 25:14
Well, I love sharing my career and, you know, as we, what people call the work life balance.

I love sharing aspects of my profession, my career with my family, I mean, not overwhelm them, but I have two kids who are now in high school and, you know, being able to kind of just get their thoughts and their feedback, their thinking, you know, I don’t know about you, Louis, but I love growing. I love every day, learning something new, seeing things differently, right?

That’s the excitement of the profession. And it’s so high order thinking. And so it’s precise as best as it could be. It’s intelligent. It’s rigorous. It’s disciplined. And so imagine getting fresh eyes and fresh thinkings from your kids. So that’s been a good fortune.

Louis Goodman 26:10
Let’s say you came into some real money, three or four billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?

Thuy Nguyen 26:19
No, that’s the great question, right? The lottery ticket that you win, right? What would you do? I honestly, sometimes I feel so blessed to do the work. I do a lot of volunteer work. So if I get that money, I probably would just convert the work into voluntary work and being on boards and creating new things and ideas and funding it to make it happen.

Louis Goodman 26:47
What if you had a magic wand and there was one thing in the world, the legal world, or otherwise, if you could change, what would that be?

Thuy Nguyen 26:53
I’m a student of Socrates. So I love saying the unexamined life is not worth living and from a career standpoint, I often also say the unexamined system is not worth perpetuating.

And so being lawyers. Being people in this democracy, living in this democracy, we do need to examine our structures, our system, including our legal system to do better, right? To do better. And so, and we have such brilliant people, trained, prepared with good minds and good hearts, and I think we could do better in terms of coming together and looking at our laws in a deep way.

Louis Goodman 27:39
Let’s say someone gave you 60 seconds on the Super Bowl. You had this huge platform to say whatever you wanted to this enormous audience. What would you like to say on your Super Bowl ad?

Thuy Nguyen 27:52
Let’s look at our system, like make sure that it’s inclusive. Let’s have everyone at the table and really think deeply of how we can do better.

Louis Goodman 28:01
Thuy, if someone wants to get in touch with you. Yeah. About your work, about your firm, what is the best way for them to contact you?

Thuy Nguyen 28:12
Well, you know, Louis, Thuy gotta tweet and I know it changed its name, but I’m still calling it tweet, and so people can follow me on my Twitter account. It’s ThuyThiTweets, Thuy, my first name, Thi my middle name, Tweets, T W E E T S.

So that’s my handle and I really enjoy just following people and lifting everyone’s voices and, all of that. So I’d love for people to contact me that way. The other is actually through my law firm website. People can go on to That’s Garcia, Hernandez, Sawhney. So And be able to find me that way.

Louis Goodman 28:53
Thuy, is there anything that you want to talk about that we haven’t discussed? Is there anything at all that you wanted to bring up?

Thuy Nguyen 29:00
Well, Louis, I just want to thank you so much for inviting me to your podcast. I love the name of your podcast. Love Thy Lawyer. And, and in some ways, it has two meanings to me. One is love that neighbor, right? And this whole notion of being kind and good to each other and, and being inclusive and bring everyone to the table, share bread, or sometimes I call it scoop rice with each other. Right. So just having that ability to be in community with each other is something I thank you for asking me to join you in this podcast.

But Love Thy Lawyer is also, you know, as the saying goes, you know, if you want the democracy to go, kill the lawyer first, right? And, and I know it’s been often misquoted or misunderstood that Shakespearean quote, but it really is about lawyers are holders of the democracy of what is sensible and reasonable and inclusive.

And so if there’s one thing I also want to share with everyone is around just how blessed I am to be in the profession, to be part of holding up the democracy and making it more just, and I honestly, in my work, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with so many great lawyers and judges who share that passion and feeling.

So Love thy lawyer, love thy neighbor. Thank you.

Louis Goodman 30:22
Thuy T. Nguyen. Thank you so much for joining me today on The Love By Lawyer podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.

Thuy Nguyen 30:31

Louis Goodman 30:32
That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and follow the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. Take a look at our website at, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs and information.

Thanks to my guests, and to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.

Thuy Nguyen 31:09
To have lunch with them and have conversations and see how that can support their work. So I got a little bit of that, but I think it’s more so now.

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