Many attorneys say they were inspired to pursue the legal profession by watching television lawyers like Perry Mason. For Sylvia Fung Chin ‘77, the fictional litigator was more of a subject of curiosity than a role model.
“Perry Mason was this figure who carried all of his law knowledge in his head,” she says. “And I was in awe of him and the way every episode he managed to get the defendants to confess on the stand.” She noted that she knew no other lawyers during her childhood. “I had no idea what lawyers did,” she recalls. “Perry Mason rarely consulted a law book and memorized all of the law.”
As a young writer working in public relations for the American Heart Association, she had been interested in earning a graduate degree but wasn’t sure what subject to focus on. Her husband, Edward Chin ‘77, a research engineer, was studying for the LSAT at the time and often peppered her with questions about sentence structure and other LSAT skills that were in her wheelhouse as a writer. After a while, Chin decided to take the test as well.
“I had the higher LSAT,” she laughs. They both began attending evening classes at Fordham while working during the day.
At Fordham, Chin gravitated toward transactional law. “I think it really was the nature of corporate work more than what people call the thrill and excitement of getting in front of a judge or jury and arguing your case,” she says. “I really liked the behind-the-scenes work of structuring deals, analyzing and drafting documents and advising clients and all the things that went with corporate work.”
Judge Lawrence Pierce ‘51 Was a Mentor
However, Professor Pete Putzel, a former Assistant United States Attorney, encouraged her to apply for a judicial clerkship. They wagered dinner at a Chinese restaurant over whether she would get a clerkship. After accepting a clerkship in the Southern District of New York with Judge Lawrence Pierce ‘51, Chin and her husband took Putzel and his wife out for the promised dinner. They ordered Peking Duck.
“He was a truly wonderful judge,” she says of Judge Pierce, who passed away in 2020 at age 95 after serving as the first Black judge to sit consecutively on the Southern District and Second Circuit. “He taught me so much about the law and people. I literally cried when I had to leave.” She was fascinated by the litigators who walked into court not seeming to know anything about a matter who still managed to argue the case. “It was much better than Perry Mason.”
Pierce was a mentor to many Fordham Law alumni, including Howard Hawkins ‘75, Niels Schaumann ‘84, Arthur Ong ‘87, Sheila Sawyer ‘88, and Loretta Shaw-Lorello ‘93, who served as his clerks.
In Judge Pierce’s chambers, Chin helped set up an internship for law students that at one point had as many as four law students at a time. “I really liked that contact with law students,” she says.
Building a Practice at White & Case
Following the clerkship, Chin began working at White & Case. “I was dealing with clients almost from day one.” She would often arrive in the morning to the firm’s Midtown office to find a banking client sitting in her chair waiting to discuss a transaction.
After more than four decades with the firm, Chin has had the opportunity to see long-time clients evolve. For example, one early client was the microfinance organization Women’s World Banking. The group was founded following discussions at the first United Nations World Conference on Women in 1975.
“It was difficult for a woman to walk into a bank and get a loan without having some male, like a father or husband or brother guarantee the loan or provide some type of collateral for the loan,” she notes
At first, Chin worked with the organization on administrative issues like setting up the company’s operations in New York. Today, she says, the organization drives change in country policies for the financial inclusion of women.
Longtime Love of Teaching
Beginning with the law student internship she helped organize while clerking for Judge Pierce, Chin has long enjoyed teaching. Shortly after beginning at White & Case, she taught legal writing at Fordham. She only taught for two years at that point because the time commitment for class preparation conflicted with her hours as a young associate.
In 2013, she began teaching a Commercial Drafting and Negotiations course and then was asked to teach Secured Transactions. “The students are always challenging me,” she says. She enjoys the interactions with students who are eager to learn in a way that seasoned lawyers often are not.
“I don’t feel like I actually ever left Fordham,” she says, noting that she has kept in touch with a number of classmates and has been involved with the Fordham Law Alumni Association for many years.. After her husband passed away in 2017, she established the Edward G.H. and Sylvia Fung Chin Fellowship in his memory for students spending summers in public interest work.
“Fordham has always been a part of me,” Chin says.