The ICAS Lectures


American Dream: Challenges and Opportunities

Sung Hee Suh

August 13, 2016 Saturday 6:00 PM - 8:45 PM
George's at Johnson Center
George Mason University
Fairfax Virginia

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Sung Hee Suh

American Dream: Challenges and Opportunities

Sung Hee Suh
Deputy Assistant Attorney General
United States Department of Justice
August 13, 2016

I’m very happy to be here with my husband, Peter, and our son, Dylan, to accept this award from the Institute for Corean-American Studies.

For over 40 years, ICAS has brought together people from diverse fields to engage in dialogue on important issues. I would like to applaud, in particular, ICAS’s commitment to investing in the development of our youth. There is perhaps no better testament to the great value of this investment than the essays of the three Winner Qualifiers for this year’s ICAS Youth Fellowship Award. Each of those essays displayed keen intellect, thoughtful analysis and well-balanced perspective, all of which are so important to cultivate in our young people and, indeed, in our country as a whole.

I’ve been asked to speak to you this evening about "The American Dream: Challenges and Opportunities." What a daunting topic! I’ll first give you an introduction to the Department of Justice, the Criminal Division and what I do in my current job; then talk to you about my personal background and how I got to be where I am now; and then end with a few observations and suggestions about challenges and opportunities.

The Department of Justice

The mission of the Department of Justice is:

The Department fulfills its mission in many different ways, including through its litigating divisions. The Criminal Division is one of several litigating divisions in the Department’s headquarters in Washington, DC ("Main Justice"): the others include the Antitrust Division, the Civil Division, the Civil Rights Division, the Environmental and Natural Resources Division, the National Security Division, and the Tax Division. Each of the divisions is headed by an Assistant Attorney General for that division. The head of the Criminal Division is my boss, Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. The head of the Justice Department as a whole, of course, is the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch.

In addition to the divisions here in Main Justice, the Department includes 93 U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country that also investigate and pursue both criminal and civil cases. While the U.S. Attorney’s Offices generally focus on investigating and prosecuting wrongdoing in their respective districts, the Criminal Division – often in partnership with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices – focuses on crimes that are national or international in scope.

The Criminal Division has approximately 600 lawyers and is divided into 15 sections. I am one of five Deputy Assistant Attorneys General ("DAAG") in the Criminal Division. Each of us has a "portfolio," with the 15 sections divided among us. My portfolio consists of the Appellate Section, which oversees appeals in federal criminal cases throughout the country; the Capital Case Section, which handles federal death penalty cases; and the Fraud Section, which is the largest section (with approximately 150 prosecutors) and focuses on complex economic crimes, including securities and financial fraud, health care fraud, and foreign bribery – again, most of which are national or international in scope.

The Criminal Division does a great deal of work that involves cooperation with foreign countries. We currently have people stationed in more than 45 countries. We work closely with our foreign law enforcement counterparts and foreign regulators to learn from each other, share investigative strategies, and coordinate resolutions where appropriate, thereby strengthening our collective ability to bring global entities and transnational criminals to justice. So, another of my roles is formulating federal enforcement policies on white-collar crime and coordinating interagency, multi-district and, increasingly, international law enforcement efforts.

What I actually do on any given day varies greatly. I may be addressing particular challenges that a section may be facing — whether it be a legal, budgetary or employee issue. Or, I may be focused on resolving differences in some especially high-profile cases that cut across multiple divisions in the Department. In short, I don’t manage cases so much as I manage people.

In addition to my inward facing role, I also have an outward facing role – and that is representing the Criminal Division and the Department of Justice in meetings and conferences around the country and around the world. For example, I frequently give speeches about the Criminal Division’s enforcement priorities and initiatives on white-collar crime. I am proud to be representing the United States in such international gatherings, whether they be in London, Sao Palo, Shanghai, or Paris, but I am also mindful that this particular face of the U.S. Justice Department is not what those audiences may have expected to see.

Personal Background

So, how did I get here? My personal story has to begin with the story of my mother, who was my first role model and remains my most important one. My mother was born in 1936, in Taegu, Korea. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her mother to raise her and her three siblings on her own. The family had no money, and especially being a girl during that era, my mother was not able to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. So, she went to nursing school and became a nurse. She was able to help my father – her childhood sweetheart – pay for college; they married and had my older brother and me.

When I was six years old, my mother convinced my father to move the family to U.S. and got a job here as a nurse, often working 16-hour double shifts to support us. She never took a class in English, but somehow picked up enough along the way and, using her broken English, became a nursing supervisor. She later went to night school to get a master’s degree in public health and became Assistant Director of Nursing at a prestigious hospital in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, I attended college largely on scholarships, and thought I would become a journalist, as I wanted to combine my love of writing and my desire to expose injustices here and around the world. But after actually writing for my college newspaper and then doing an internship at a magazine here in DC the summer after my junior year in college, I realized that journalism was not really the right fit for me.

Two professors of mine encouraged me to explore academia. I had some doubts that I had the right personality and the intellectual discipline to be a professor. Fortunately, though, I had enough credits to finish my undergraduate degree as a Government major in 3 years, which allowed me to do a test run in academia by spending my senior year of college doing a master’s program. Alas, that year convinced me that I wasn’t really cut out to be an academic either.

So, I was about to graduate from Harvard with not one, but two degrees, but no idea of what I wanted to do with my life. By chance, a friend of my brother’s was on the board of the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, a civil rights legal organization in New York, and through her, I learned about AALDEF’s summer internships. I was lucky to land one of those internship spots. That experience at AALDEF – which lasted only about two months – changed my life. I got to draft legislative proposals, work at free legal advice clinics helping people on issues ranging from immigration to garment workers’ rights, and prepared educational pamphlets informing low-income and recent immigrants about their rights under NY’s landlord- tenant laws.

So, that summer of 1986, I decided to become a civil rights lawyer, and the following fall, I started law school. I focused on courses in civil rights law, was mentored by the late, great Derrick Bell (who has a veteran civil rights lawyer and the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard Law), and upon graduation, worked for a year as a judicial clerk to another giant of the civil rights movement, Robert Carter, who was a senior judge in the federal court in Manhattan. That clerkship year was a real eye-opener, as I got to see trial lawyers in action in the courtroom – both good and not so good. Some of the most impressive were the Assistant U.S. Attorneys – the federal criminal prosecutors – who were handling many of the most significant cases at a relatively young age.

Given my mother’s hardship and sacrifices, and my huge student loans upon graduating from law school, I thought it best to join a law firm after my clerkship, to make some money and get some experience. In 1993, when my mother was 57 years old, I sent my parents to Hawaii for their first real vacation. Two months later, my mother was killed in a freak car accident.

I realized, painfully, that life is short. So, a few months after my mother’s passing, I became an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, thinking that I’d work on federal civil rights cases and combine my interest in civil rights law with my desire to be a federal prosecutor. As it happened, though, when I started at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, my first supervisor was a seasoned Mafia prosecutor, and his office was right next to mine. I got to learn about an undercover operation that he was overseeing and, with each passing month, became more and more fascinated with the Mob. When my supervisor later became the chief of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, I followed in his footsteps and became a mob prosecutor – chasing traditional Italian organized crime families – also known as La Cosa Nostra. In the courtroom, I was often mistaken for a Chinese translator, so I would frequently surprise the defendants I was prosecuting, my opposing counsel, jurors and even judges when I would stand at the podium and introduce myself as "Sung-Hee Suh, on behalf of the United States."

Five and a half wonderful years later, I decided to return to private practice and joined a law firm doing primarily white-collar criminal defense work. In 2007, Peter and I were thrilled with the arrival of our son Dylan, who remains our pride and joy.

Fast forward to 2014, Leslie Caldwell was nominated to head up the Criminal Division. She had also been an AUSA in Brooklyn, but we had not known each other that well. Rather, we had a good friend in common who suggested me to her, and she asked me to join her team here in the Criminal Division. This was both a challenge and an opportunity. While the position promised to be professionally rewarding and intellectually stimulating, it also meant leaving my comfortable law firm partnership behind and spending 5 days of every week away from my family. In the end, I took the plunge and, for the past two years, I have been commuting every week from NY to DC to serve as a DAAG.

Observations and Suggestions

Everyone’s path in pursuing the American Dream is different and sometimes it’s not a straight line. As you can tell, mine had several twists and turns.

Personal and professional growth often requires getting out of your comfort zone.

Also, even with the best education and the perfect resume, the greatest opportunities arise because you happen to be at the right place at the right time. So, don’t turn down or delay opportunities because you assume they will be there later.

I’m often asked for advice on how to break "the glass ceiling," or in the case of Korean and other Asian Americans, the "bamboo ceiling." There are lots of books and articles by others who have given a great deal more thought to this than I have. But another of my responsibilities as a DAAG is interviewing applicants and making recommendations for senior executive service positions in the Justice Department. In addition to the subject matter qualifications you’d typically expect (e.g., experience in federal criminal investigations and prosecutions), we evaluate candidates on what are called "Executive Core Qualifications" ("ECQs").

I’d like to end my remarks tonight by sharing these ECQs with you (which I’ve simplified a bit in the interest of time) as food for thought. They represent critical leadership skills that are required to succeed in federal government, but some may also be helpful guideposts for those of you working in the private sector, as well as those still in school.

Thank you again for this award.

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