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The Inspiring Story of a Kaimukī High Graduate Who Became a Top Lawyer

From messenger to top Hawai‘i lawyer.


(page 1 of 3)

Photo: Kent Nishimura

About 40 years ago, a young Kaimukī High graduate took a bus downtown, with a brown-bag lunch in her purse and a course in legal shorthand under her belt. It was a long ride and “I hadn’t been downtown in a million years,” she recalled recently. The shining towers and government buildings seemed as foreign and unattainable as the Emerald City of Oz.


And yet, Judy Tanaka was on her way to her first adult job—one she’d gotten on a tip from her shorthand instructor at Kapi‘olani Community College. The same teacher who, when Tanaka had said she was thinking of executive secretary classes, had replied, “’No, you should go the legal secretary route.” 


Four decades later, Tanaka still admits to being puzzled by her teacher. “I have no idea why or what she saw in me.” Ironically, the job she’d ended up applying for didn’t even require secretarial or legal skills—she’d be a messenger. But her employer was a law firm and, she recalls thinking, “‘It’s a foot in the door.’ And so there I went. And …” 


Shaking her head slowly, Tanaka, now 60, smiles and gestures behind her, out the tall window of the corner office on the 18th floor overlooking Bishop and King streets: “O,” she says. “M.” And, after a pause: “G.” 


Facing that corner-office view, sitting across the desk from a director of one of Hawai‘i’s premier law firms, Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, a visitor can’t help but share her sense of wonder. Because today Tanaka is not only a lawyer, a director and a partner, her specialty is litigation. Leave aside her smile, warm welcome, and self-deprecating laugh and consider the pop-culture image of the litigator: hired gun, cowboy, samurai, Paul Newman or Gene Hackman or whatever stud is spouting Aaron Sorkin dialogue in an oak-paneled Irish bar on TV this week. That guy—and yes, the image that comes to mind is probably not that woman.


And yet, here she is. 


“My father was a mason. His job was very physical, but I never really understood what he did,” she says. “But when we’d drive around he’d point and say, ‘I did the foundation of that building.’” In their family, Father worked, Mother stayed home with the five kids. “Father was not a credit guy: Everything we had was all paid in cash. Even cars, bought in cash.”


In her working-class Kapahulu neighborhood in those days, she played with cousins and neighborhood kids and attended local public schools. “Mom would take us to the beach a lot—Waikīkī Beach itself, which in those days had a lot of sand.” She pauses to let that sink in. “We’d jump off The Wall, a lot of fun if you timed it right.”


At home, the two older sisters “did all the chores, the ironing, washing, cleaning and helped with the cooking.” The third in line was a boy, her only brother. “You know how it is,” says Tanaka. “No one expected him to do anything. But I didn’t care, because I came after him, right after, so no one expected me to do any chores, either. So I was in a sense pretty free.”


Education was not a household priority. “I wasn’t particularly challenged,” Tanaka recalls, not at Waikīkī Elementary, Washington Intermediate or Kaimukī High. “Mostly I was thinking of what kind of job I could get when I graduated. In my family, after high school you’re on your own; you work or, if you go to school, you pretty much are going to pay for it.” 


With that mindset, neither of her older sisters went past high school. And, upon her graduation, Tanaka felt “the choice was nurse or secretary. Teacher was in the mix, I guess,” but required more education. Tanaka enrolled for secretarial courses at KCC.


At this point, based on the statistics for family education and income, Tanaka’s future was already set in stone. Neither of her parents had gone to college. Study after study has shown that parental educational level is an important predictor of children’s educational and behavioral outcomes. And, according to a 2009 National Institute of Health study, maternal education level is “linked significantly to children’s intellectual outcomes.” 


In Hawai‘i, where Asian-Americans have the highest educational attainment of any racial group in the country, Tanaka had no Tiger Mom, the nickname coined to describe a pressuring, hovering, test-obsessed and status-school-minded maternal force. Nor was there a Mr. Chips who picked Tanaka out and changed her life like a heroine in a Dickens tale. Just a shorthand teacher who suggested a path and passed on a job tip.  


One suggestion. One job tip.


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