by Holly Cline
When Phi Nguyen (J.D. ’09), litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice –Atlanta, chose to pursue law school, the decision didn’t feel entirely like her own, but she quickly discovered that being an attorney armed her with the skills to fight injustice.
“I pursued law because it was one of three careers that my immigrant parents pushed. I wasn’t a math or science kid, so law school it was,” she said. “Learning to see my role as a lawyer within the context of a broader social justice movement enabled me to deepen my appreciation for my profession. I am motivated by a deep commitment to fighting inequity.”
Nguyen’s oldest sister, Betty Nguyen Davis (J.D. ’04), encouraged her to pursue law and became a mentor early in Nguyen’s legal career.
“My sister insisted that becoming a lawyer would open up a lot of doors and that I would have the freedom to shape my legal career however I wanted. I thought at the time that she was just being bossy, but I am grateful now for the wisdom of her advice,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen focuses on impact litigation, specifically in the areas of voting rights and immigrant rights. She is litigating a class action in federal court that challenges the unlawful immigration detention of Vietnamese refugees. Through experience, she has become more comfortable in a field she considers “inherently confrontational.”
“Women who are litigators constantly face the age-old dilemma of juggling the need to be assertive with the desire to be ‘likable.’ Navigating this particular dynamic will continue to be a challenge for me and for other women in the legal field, but I think the art of caring less about what others think comes with time and experience,” she said.
Prior to joining Advancing Justice –Atlanta, Nguyen worked as a medical malpractice defense attorney at Bendin Sumrall & Ladner. A few years into her practice, a colleague encouraged Nguyen in a simple, but impactful, way.
“She had been a lawyer for many more years than I, and we were discussing the difficulty of working in our male-dominated profession. In the middle of this conversation, she said, ‘I really hope you realize how good you are, though.’ That simple affirmation struck right at the heart of the uncertainty that so many professional women face,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen’s male mentors have supported her professional growth without questioning her abilities as a lawyer, but she knows other women have had different experiences. She is aware of the gender stereotypes that box women in and can professionally disempower them, but she’s not discouraged.
“I suspect that women lawyers still have to prove themselves more than their male counterparts, and I know that we are still underrepresented in positions of leadership. However, the longer I’ve been in my career, the more opportunities I’ve had to work alongside some very talented, bright woman lawyers, including in important leadership roles,” she said. “The reality is that women can lead in all of the same ways that men can —we just have to fight harder for a seat at the table.”
When reflecting on her career achievements, Nguyen considers her ability to do things she once deemed impossible.
“I’m able to successfully run a case from the time a complaint is filed against a client to when a jury returns a verdict — and almost always as the only Asian American woman in the room. I have written briefs tackling complex medical questions that I never thought I would understand. Last year, I quit my medical malpractice career to start over as a civil rights attorney. And three months ago, I sued Jeff Sessions,” she said.
Nguyen’s advice to women attorneys beginning their careers is simple, yet impactful, like the words from her colleague: “Trust your judgment and your abilities. Take risks and get comfortable with being wrong. Find a mentor. Be a mentor.”
Outside of her legal work, Nguyen leads efforts to politically educate and engage Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters. In 2016, she spearheaded Vietnamese Voices, an initiative to increase voter outreach and education among Atlanta’s Vietnamese American community. She also co-produces Wake Up Atlanta!, an original web series dedicated to helping the AAPI electorate navigate politics.