Speaking up: Helen Hwang

As a third-year associate in Clifford Chance’s Transactional Pool, Helen Hwang is finding her focus in Capital Markets. She talks about what drew her to Big Law and shares a defining experience working with a client.

The law appeals to me because it’s like a language. Much of lawyering involves interpreting the language of the law and speaking up for your clients. As a lifelong stutterer and an immigrant who moved to the States during high school without speaking much English, I understand personally the frustration of not being heard. That is why I have always felt uniquely equipped to be an effective interpreter and a zealous advocate for our clients.

My initial thought was to become a public interest lawyer. Before law school, I worked for the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality as a translator. During the post-bar period, I took up a fellowship to do research on business and human rights for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and work with the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees in Malaysia.

However, during law school I also began to appreciate the value of private sector practice. Big Law provides the best training platform, including exposure to a variety of industries, clients and lawyers specializing in different areas; this is a rite of passage I believe all lawyers should go through. You acquire skills that help you stay flexible and work with anyone, and the long hours help you develop discipline and organizational skills, as well as good stamina. So I took a different direction and joined the firm after graduation.

Photo credit: Thomas Donley, New York

I remain committed to public interest, and I am happy that my firm supports pro bono work. It has helped me stay current on issues I care about – refugees and gender crimes – and I have been working on cases referred by the firm’s partner NGOs, such as the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and My Sisters’ Place. Pro bono work also gives me litigation experience not otherwise available to a transactional lawyer, and enables me to manage an entire matter directly with a client.

Above all, I love my practice; it’s been very rewarding so far. Last year, I worked on a CRE CLO transaction where we helped the client raise funds in the capital markets. During that six-month period, I took on more responsibilities, worked almost non-stop and developed a deep sense of ownership. Our client is a successful emerging company run by a group of brilliant market veterans. As a first-time issuer, however, the company was also considered an underdog, just like me – in a sense, we learned and grew together. The deal closed successfully; the client raised the needed funds and, more importantly, is now a credible player in the market, working with major US banks. Several months later, the client invited our team to dinner and made a point of thanking me in person, which I really appreciated.

I have recently gotten back into hip hop dance – something I was quite serious about during college. I’m normally a very shy person, so being on stage helped to build my confidence. It is so different from work, which is refreshing and recharging. By Monday morning, I am ready for the new week.