Excellence in Action
Michelle Kim, J.D. ’02
Interviewed by Vivian San Gabriel • September 24, 2020
Would you please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role?
I attended UCLA for graduate school. For college I went to Stanford, then I came down to UCLA for a master’s program in Asian American studies. Midway through that program, I decided to stop that program to work for a few years. I worked at what was then known as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. It is now known as Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a legal non-profit. I then worked at the UCLA Women and Family project out of the medical center. That was a project that was spearheaded by a doctor on faculty. Then I went to UCLA law school. I graduated there in 2002 and became a public defender. I don’t want to make it seem like this was a linear progression for me. In many ways, it was not. I will have to back-track a little bit to explain why I became a public defender.
In the 80s, some may remember that we had the AIDS epidemic. Early on in that epidemic, the people that were being affected by HIV were, essentially, our poor Americans, Americans that were living in poverty, and they were mostly people of color. HIV was also affecting gay men. These were marginalized populations that weren’t necessarily being paid much attention to early on in the AIDS epidemic. And so the AIDS epidemic became an epidemic because infections were rising in these groups and as a country, we were slow to sound the alarm. What happens when we neglect a significant portion of our fellow Americans is that there are negative ripple effects. So, one of those ripples hit my household. My father was infected with HIV through a blood transfusion. In the years after that had happened to my father and our family, I did a lot of thinking about what it meant and why it had happened the way it did. In my mind, if we had paid more attention, early on, we could have avoided much of the tragedy that was caused by the AIDS epidemic.
When I went to law school, I saw that I could be a public defender. For me, public defense was an area of the law that really spoke to what was driving me in terms of wanting to help the poor, and other marginalized people who are often neglected. So, that’s why I became a public defender. After going to college, I took a little diversion to grad school, and then I went to law school with the ultimate goal of becoming a public defender so that I could stop some of those negative ripple effects from moving outward and maybe make a little bit of positive change. And that’s what I found meaning and purpose in doing. I thought that was the end of my journey. I thought I was going to be a public defender for most the rest of my life. I did that for 16 years, and along the way, we had a couple of governors who started to think that our judiciary needed to be more diversified. When I started as a public defender, one did not become a public defender thinking that was a path to become a judge. That just was not the landscape at the time. But, slowly, these governors worked to diversify the bench. There started to be diversification in terms of occupation with a couple of our governors. In addition, some of our governors started to appoint more women and people of color. When that started happening, I decided to apply for appointment. Fortunately, I was appointed, so that’s where I am today.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
UCLA has been such a part of my life in so many different ways. Right after college when I started the Asian American studies master’s program, I met a lot of great people and took a lot of great classes. I was almost 2 years in when I took an Asian Americans & the Law class, which was cross-referenced with the law school. That class was very influential in my decision to go to law school. I decided to pivot. I stopped the master’s program and started working as I mentioned, and then I applied to UCLA law school, which was also extremely influential in my career.
When I was in college and I returned home for the summer, I took summer classes at UCLA. I really enjoyed my summers there, as it was a great opportunity to take some classes. At the time, my mother also worked at UCLA, so there was another connection there.
After I decided to stop working on my master’s degree and work towards law school, I took a job at the UCLA Women and Family project to work on HIV issues in women of color. I worked there for about a year, and that profoundly shaped my experiences, as well. It was a great project to work on.
Finally, another point of loyalty that I have towards UCLA is that my mother had a very serious medical operation at the Ronald Reagan Center not too long ago. It went smoothly, and it was fantastic. She was well cared for.
There are a lot of ways that UCLA has been weaved into the fabric of my life. I owe a debt of gratitude to UCLA for all of those things. UCLA is not only a university, a community of scholars and teachers, but also so much more than that. Throughout all of those experiences, one thing that I’m struck by is the humility the UCLA embodies. The UCLA community is extremely humble, and that has been a wonderful influence on how I try to conduct myself as well.
In what ways have you utilized the alumni network at UCLA?
Throughout my years after graduating from UCLA, I’ve always kept in touch with different alumni and friends. I am part of UCLA One, the online network that connects alumni to each other. That’s one way I try to stay connected and keep informed. I also stay connected through scholarship reading and through mentoring.
I also serve on the board of the Alumni Association, and that’s a great opportunity to give back to alumni as well.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
I mentioned earlier that I pivoted from the master’s program in Asian American studies to law school. What was challenging there was making the actual pivot. I had sunk a lot of cost into the pursuit of that master’s degree. There were some opportunity costs there. I made the very difficult decision to pivot and instead applied for law school. That took a few years too since I took some time to work
It was daunting, and I would say to anyone, don’t be afraid if you need to pivot. When I think about it now, basically, my pivot took 5 years since I took 2 years to work and then I went to law school for 3 years. At that age, that can feel like a huge risk and so I think that it’s important to really think about what you want to be doing and how you want to be doing it. If you do need to pivot, then don’t hesitate. That’s a huge obstacle for many folks, and it’s very understandable how one can feel kind of married to the path that you’ve chosen. It’s important to realize that it’s never too late to make a change.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in law?
Make sure that you’re pursuing something that has meaning for you and gives you meaning and purpose. That is good advice for any profession, but especially for law. There are so many different aspects of law that you can go into, and it is very important to make sure that you have longevity in your legal career. It is very possible to burn out when you pursue law. So it is very important to know why you’re doing it so that you can stay focused. I did have meaning and purpose in what I was doing, and still do. In criminal law, everyone is driven by meaning and purpose. Everyone can find meaning and purpose in the pursuit of justice.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Vivian San Gabriel is an Applied Linguistics major at UCLA graduating in Fall 2020, and a Student Assistant with UCLA Alumni Career Engagement. She is a Los Angeles native, and a proud transfer student, having transferred from Glendale Community College in 2018. In the summer of 2019, she interned at Kaplan International in Westwood. In addition to her work with UCLA ACE, she is a Transfer Mentor with the Transfer Student Center and a board member of the Bruin Linguists Society Board of Directors. After graduating, she intends to pursue a career in digital marketing or higher education.