By Partner, Sonia Chan Lee, Esq.
I can still remember Kevin starting a seminar saying “if you don't have an estate plan or living trust in place, that's ok. California has one for you.” While I don't know if I would trust California to handle my family's estate, I am confident that after 25 years of legal experience in securities, structured finance, corporate, commercial real estate, risk management, antitrust and data privacy in New York, California, Japan and Hong Kong, it was God's plan for me to discover my calling as a trust and estate lawyer in Southern California.
Failing in Hong Kong to Top of the Class in Canada
I was born and grew up in Hong Kong, In the midst of so many tall modern office buildings and apartment towers, Hong Kong's education system had not changed much in a thousand years. Purely memory driven, rigid, uninspiring, and largely irrelevant, I hated it and I couldn't pretend otherwise. I was even failing Chinese! By the time I reached the age of 14, I knew that I needed a dramatic change. Unbeknownst to my parents, I decided to study abroad. Miraculously, I was accepted to a prestigious all-girls boarding school in Toronto, Canada, and it changed my life. For the first time, I was encouraged to think critically, ask questions and do my own research. Dread quickly transformed into love for school. My newfound passion for learning helped me ascend from the bottom of my class in Hong Kong to the top of my class in Canada.
Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, Uncle Sam & Law Schools
Fortunately, my academic change of fortunes enabled me to attend the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where I double majored in International Relations and Oriental Studies (Japanese) and met my future husband, Jong, Unable to decide on a career, I returned to Toronto to manage our family business.
While equally unsure about the future, Jong had to officially insist otherwise. Jong is Korean-American and comes from an extended family of lawyers and the only culturally acceptable way to “rebel” was… to be a doctor. However, during his senior year, his uncle (yes, a lawyer…) sat Jong down one afternoon. I was fortunate enough to be sitting next to him when Uncle Sam gave a very convincing argument on why becoming a lawyer would be a much more meaningful career choice than being a doctor for Jong. Uncle Sam explained that lawyers were like society's engineers. He argued that Jong would not only be able to help people navigate through the legal world, but that he could also really help change society, and defend and protect the rights of the people he cared about. Uncle Sam is a very good lawyer, as he not only convinced Jong, but also convinced me! Jong ended up attending Columbia Law School in New York City while I was a few hours away at Georgetown University School of Law in Washington, D.C.
Building a Global Practice
Following law school, I worked in a big law firm in New York, focusing on corporate and exceedingly complicated structured finance and securitization work. The work was exciting and challenging for me, and I really loved all that I was learning. I especially loved the client service side - helping our clients (who were mostly large Wall Street investment banks) complete these complicated and fast paced transactions. This area of work exposed me to the world of trusts, though used somewhat differently than in estate planning. The training in structuring and drafting complex trust and other documents used for securitization transactions proved to be a valuable skill. As opportunities took us to the Silicon Valley, Japan and eventually Hong Kong, I branched out to more areas of complex corporate, finance and banking work.
The Return of the Prodigal Daughter
Frankly, when I was growing up in Hong Kong, because of my poor academic performance, I never imagined I would become a lawyer, neither did my parents, my teachers nor any of my classmates. Already surprised when I got into an Ivy League school for university, they were shocked when I graduated law school and became a New York, and then a California lawyer. But the proudest moment in my professional life was probably when I was sworn in as a Hong Kong solicitor in 2015. While boarding school and university success helped me realize that becoming a lawyer in the U.S. wasn't impossible, I genuinely and honestly never, ever imagined that I would become a Hong Kong lawyer one day, and definitely not when I was in my 40s!
Hello City of Angels
When the pandemic first started affecting China and Hong Kong in January 2020, Jong and I were living in Hong Kong with our son and daughter. I was working in-house at the largest domestic bank in Hong Kong that was part of a global international bank that had branches all over the world. Jong's elderly parents lived here in Southern California. He would typically commute every month to help take care of them and run the family business. We decided he should take the kids to California as based on Hong Kong's prior experience with SARS, we correctly predicted that travelling would become difficult. I stayed back and worked at the bank, but it was very difficult being separated from my family and as things continued to get worse and the world appeared to be shutting down, I no longer felt safe staying in Hong Kong and risk not being able to travel out of the country.
An Unexpected Estate Planning Conversation
I reunited with Jong and our kids in Los Angeles in November 2020 not sure what I would do next in terms of my career. I was already licensed to practice law in California because I lived and worked in the Bay Area in the early 2000's right after the first Internet Bubble popped. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jong mentioned that Trust and Estate law might be a good fit for me at this stage of my career. Sometime later, and we believe by divine intervention, Jong met Kevin Von Tungeln when he was invited to serve on the Board of a non-profit organization in Lancaster that Kevin has been involved in for years.
After meeting and speaking with Kevin a few times, I quickly agreed with Jong that estate planning could be a fulfilling and gratifying area of law to practice in. I already had a lot of exposure to trusts and over 25 years of experience working with complex legal concepts, structures and documents. But more importantly, in estate planning, I would have the opportunity to really help people just like Uncle Sam said lawyers could. While working at these other big law firms, the clients I dealt with were all from large Wall Street investment banks, so I did not have the opportunity to interact with “regular” people like our family and our community. Having an extended family of my own aging parents, I realized the power and the importance of what we do each day when we are helping friends and neighbors take care of their loved ones. With a special needs child of our own, I also looked forward to supporting and assisting in planning for families with special needs family members.
Who Can You Trust When It Matters The Most?
With Kevin as a great teacher and mentor, I quickly adapted my legal experience and knowledge to practice in this new area of law. One thing that has driven me to become more and more passionate for estate planning work has been the vast number of very poorly drafted, dangerous and outdated trusts that I have seen just in this past year. The best advice that I can give is to make sure that you have your trust reviewed regularly (about every three years) by a firm that has a state board-certified specialist in trust, estate and probate law. If you or someone you know has a Living Trust (or just a Will), I recommend that you contact our office to join one of our seminars and learn more about the importance of a properly designed, built and maintained estate plan. After your seminar, we offer a free consultation which includes reviewing your existing estate plan documents.
Procrastination Can Be Your Greatest Enemy
Lastly, I think that the pandemic has taught us all that anything can happen to any one of us at any time. Procrastination in getting an estate plan set up or having it reviewed and updated is something that I have personally witnessed having devastating consequences for families during already extremely difficult times after families have lost a loved one or a loved one has become incapacitated. Being needlessly unprepared can result in so much unnecessary stress, heartache and expense that could have been easily avoided with the right help.
Here For You
After all these years of practicing law, I finally feel like I've found my true calling in estate planning. In fact, when Kevin invited me to join him as a partner of Thompson Von Tungeln in late April, I accepted the offer without hesitation and officially became a partner as of May 1st. I am fully committed to helping our current and future clients in both the Antelope and Santa Clarita Valleys and beyond for years to come!