A career choice influenced by an unforgettable impression

January 17, 2012
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When Susan Im arrived in Ann Arbor as a University of Michigan freshman, she planned to follow in her father's footsteps and become a psychiatrist. But two events, one personal and the other powerful, sent her to the Wayne State University Law School after graduation and on to a career she hadn't considered.

Im said the personal event happened early in her education when she found out she wasn't as skilled in science as some other U-M undergrads. "I thought I was really, really good in science in high school. Then I went there and I was average — just one in the bunch," she said, laughing. "I thought if I was just OK in those courses, I was never going to make it."

She changed her major and went on to graduate with a degree in Asian studies. But meanwhile, a powerful event grabbed her attention as she strolled across campus one summer day in 1983 during her sophomore year.

"There was a demonstration involving a group of Asian folks who looked fairly angry and were waving signs on the graduate library steps. A friend of mine was carrying a sign that read 'Justice for Vincent Chin,'" said Im.

Vincent Chin was 27 years old when he was clubbed to death by two Detroit autoworkers who mistook the Chinese American for being Japanese, at a time when the nation was in a recession and imports from Japan were grabbing a larger share of the U.S. auto market. Chin died four days after the June 1982 beating. The two men pled guilty in March 1983 to murdering Chin, who ironically also was an autoworker. But they were only sentenced to three years of probation and fined $3,780. The judge who set the sentence became famous for saying, "These aren't the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not to the crime."

The case inspired the Asian-American civil rights movement and left an unforgettable impression on Im.

SUSAN IM
Company:
ImLaw
Title: Founder & Principal Attorney
Age: 43
Birthplace: Chicago, but raised in Traverse City
Residence: Alto
Family: Husband, James Mick; sons, Tyler and Nolan
Business/Community Organizations: Chairwoman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Michigan Chapter.
Biggest Career Break: A close friend helped her lock in her first corporate client, a large auto supplier, shortly after she started her immigration practice.

"The bottom line, in both the criminal case and the civil-rights case, to me was a lack of access to the justice system. Looking back now and having discussed that case with other advocates in Asian-American organizations that are much more active today, there is so much regret. I wished I was a lawyer at the time when Lily Chin was trying to find someone to help her atone for the death of her son, and that just hit me really hard. That was a turning point for me," said Im, who interned for a civil-rights law firm in law school.

The most significant event in her career as an immigration attorney, though, came shortly after she hung out her shingle in 1996 as ImLaw. A close friend dropped her name with someone she knew at a large auto supplier, which needed immigration expertise to fill positions. Nothing happened at first because the company had an immigration attorney on staff.

"I didn't think much of it because I was just starting my own practice," she said.

At that point, Im was doing a lot of cold calling and introducing herself to the business community; she intended to focus her firm on employer-based immigration first and develop the family-based practice later. Then, out of the blue, about nine months later, she heard from the auto-parts maker, which had become disillusioned with its staff attorney. The company's human resources director sent Im two test cases to evaluate, and not too long afterward the supplier became her first corporate client.

"After I did those, the HR director said, 'You've convinced me. I'm going to send you everything.' In the end, it was something close to 200 files, all with varying degrees of work required," she said. "It was a tremendous opportunity that I look back on and thank my friend. Also, I think it was a wonderful stroke of luck, and that certainly kick-started my employment-based practice for me."

Im was born in Chicago. But unlike most Windy City natives, she isn't a White Sox or a Cubs fan. "I'm a diehard Tigers fan — diehard, yes. Our entire family grew up watching the Tigers. I was only in Chicago for a couple of years before my father received his first job offer at the Traverse City State Hospital. So we moved when he got that job and lived on the grounds of the Traverse City State Hospital, which was just a really interesting and enriching experience," she said.

"My dad always liked sports. He played baseball in Korea and he latched on to the Tigers."

Seuk Soon and Duk-Shik Im, Susan's father and mother, respectively, came to America from South Korea in the 1960s and changed their first names to Luke and Elizabeth to make their lives here easier. Most of Im's extended family is still in Korea.

Today, Im and James Mick, her husband of eight years, reside in Alto with their two sons, Tyler and Nolan. James Mick is an information technology professional at the Rhoades McKee law firm. A mutual friend introduced them at a Halloween party he hosted, but the sparks didn't fly at first. Later, that same friend suggested to James that he ask Susan to accompany him to a wedding to which he was invited. "We both went into it thinking that we'd go as friends and it would be a fun night because we would have some mutual friends at this wedding. And it turned out there was a spark," she said. "We got married in 2004."

Their older son, Tyler, is enrolled in the Chinese Immersion Program at Forest Hills Meadow Brook Elementary as a first grader. It's a unique program that uses Eastern and Western teaching philosophies to provide students with insights into the Chinese language, culture and values. Nolan just turned 2. The family recently added another member to their roster: a 3-month-old Brittany spaniel. "Tyler named him Lego, like the toy, which is one of his favorite things to do. He has a couple of spots on his head that look like two Legos are trying to come together," said Im.

Im chairs the state chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She has also chaired the immigration section of the Michigan Governor's Advisory Council on Asian Pacific American Affairs and is past president of the Asian Professionals Organization.

She also spent years on the In the Image board. "That one is really close to my heart. But as soon as I gave birth to Nolan, I had to get off the board," she said.

In her spare time, Im likes to hang out with her family. In the quieter moments, when the boys are asleep, she curls up on the couch with her husband to watch a few of their favorite TV shows.

ImLaw has grown to four. Brian Mick and Luci Kunde are paralegals in the office, while Eric Mick is Im's assistant. Brian, who will graduate from Cooley Law School next year and join the firm as an attorney, and Eric are James' cousins.

As for her future, Im sees herself staying with the practice.

"In terms of my career, I will remain at ImLaw and continue to build our practice here. I see ImLaw continuing to grow and continuing to do the good work we do on behalf of our clients. Personally, we're going to try to raise our two boys as best we can and try not to screw up," she said with a hearty laugh. "That's all I can say. If I can say I didn't screw up too much, that's OK. Parenting, I think, is the hardest thing we ever do in life."

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