Sung-Hee Suh can’t remember a time when she didn’t care about social justice. After all, she was just eight years old when her parents started taking her to political demonstrations. Her family came to the United States from South Korea after Suh’s father, a journalist, was blacklisted and persecuted by their native country’s dictatorial regime.
Watching her parents lobby and advocate had a lasting impact, and Suh got directly involved at an early age.
Suh’s parents taught her that each person has the responsibility to engage the world. She originally wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue a career in journalism, but a summer internship at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) after graduating from college put her on a new path.
AALDEF was a shoe-string operation with just four employees who shared a tiny office where volunteers met to draft educational brochures, speak with community organizers, and plan free legal advice clinics for recent immigrants. “I learned there can be power in small things,” Suh explains. “We were doing so much with so little.”
The work may not have been glamorous, but it was meaningful, and Suh was inspired by the small-but-mighty team that accomplished so much against all odds. AALDEF won cases for tenants and laborers, helped obtain reparations for interned Japanese Americans, and fought to address the rise in anti-Asian American violence during the 1980s, including the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982.
Most importantly, AALDEF’s lawyers and volunteers were speaking to immigrants in their native language and educating them about the legal protections that already existed. When the internship ended, Suh applied to Harvard Law School.
During her time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Suh worked to shatter the stereotypes working against her. She was one of two Asian American women in a first-year section of 140 students. Her professors often called her by the other Asian American female student’s name even though the two looked nothing alike.
The experience made Suh more aware of issues regarding diversity and inclusion, and she helped lead a coalition of students that lobbied Harvard’s administration to tenure more professors of color. The same year, Derrick Bell, Harvard’s first Black tenured professor, became her mentor.
The stereotypes continued when Suh graduated and started her career. Although she wanted to go into litigation, law firm partners assumed she was best suited for transactional work with Asian-based clients.
After an eye-opening federal clerkship with Judge Robert L. Carter, Suh accepted a position with Davis Polk where she honed her skills as a litigator for two years before landing a job as an assistant US attorney (AUSA) in Brooklyn. Zachary Carter, who was then the US Attorney, was starting a civil rights unit where Suh thought she would have the opportunity to combine her passion for equal protections with her desire to be a courtroom litigator.
But, by happenstance, her supervisor in the entry-level “general crimes” unit where Suh started as an AUSA was a veteran mob prosecutor who introduced her to the world of Italian organized crime networks. Suh ended up spending nearly five years prosecuting over sixty members and associates of La Cosa Nostra, including the acting boss of the Gambino Family.
Suh joined Schulte Roth & Zabel in 1999 and defended individuals and institutions in white-collar cases. Parallel civil litigations related to many matters gave her a broad range of litigation experience, and in 2014, Suh was appointed to the US Department of Justice’s criminal division as a deputy assistant attorney general.
In that role, she crafted national white-collar enforcement policies and supervised nearly two hundred lawyers working on prominent cross-border cases including Volkswagen “Emissionsgate” and Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), which probed corruption at top levels of the Brazilian government.
When the appointment ended, Suh led White & Case’s New York white-collar practice until PIMCO recruited her to formulate its complex global regulatory strategy. For the veteran lawyer with experience in regulatory enforcement, defense law, and multinational clients, it was the perfect fit.
PIMCO, an Allianz company, is an investment management firm with total assets under management of more than $2 trillion. Suh works to ensure the organization has an effective framework that will satisfy the many regulators that scrutinize its activities in the Americas, Europe, and Asia Pacific.
Although PIMCO is a large organization with massive reach, it reminds Suh of her early days at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Our legal and compliance team is dedicated and tireless. We emphasize collaboration, teamwork, and diversity,” she says.
Two hundred legal and compliance professionals work to ensure that PIMCO meets regulatory expectations around the globe on everything including market integrity; retirement asset protections; environmental, social, and governance (ESG); cybersecurity; anti-money laundering laws; and pandemic-related remote work policies.
“It’s terrific working with Sung-Hee,” says Robert Kaplan, partner at Debevoise & Plimpton. “She’s smart and strategic, and she has a remarkable ability to quickly distill complicated regulatory issues and get to the heart of a matter.”
As a minority leader and as a female, Suh says she is constantly “leaning in” to diversity in recruiting, retention, and talent development. She’s also working to promote inclusion in the company and its industry.
“The asset management industry, like the rest of the financial industry, needs to build to more diverse representation because our clients demand it, and because it’s the right thing to do,” she explains.
Suh has enjoyed each stop in her distinguished career and advises law students to take risks, keep an open mind, and consider all options. She didn’t set out to go to law school. She never meant to be a mob prosecutor.
For her second Justice Department stint, she commuted from New York to Washington, DC, with a young child at home, and she later moved her family three thousand miles to take the job at PIMCO. “The risks have resulted in a rewarding career,” she says. “Three decades after law school, I still wake up each and every day grateful and excited about the work I get to do.”
Debevoise & Plimpton:
“It’s terrific working with Sung-Hee. She’s smart and strategic, and she has a remarkable ability to quickly distill complicated regulatory issues and get to the heart of a matter.”
–Robert Kaplan, Partner
Debevoise & Plimpton is home to one of the premier securities practices in the country. With a combined sixty-plus years of experience at the highest levels of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, we have an unparalleled, comprehensive understanding of the regulatory, compliance, and enforcement issues that impact investment advisers, broker-dealers, and other regulated entities.
Debevoise is a leading law firm with market-leading practices, a global perspective and strong New York roots. Our clients look to us to bring a distinctively high degree of quality, intensity, and creativity to resolve legal challenges effectively and cost efficiently. Deep partner commitment, industry experience, and a strategic approach enable us to bring clear commercial judgment to every matter. We draw on the strength of our culture and structure to deliver the best of our firm to every client through true collaboration.