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

From messenger to top Hawai‘i lawyer.
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.


Tanaka on the beach at Waikīkī (Left); at 1990 law school graduation with husband Brian and son Matthew, born after her first year of classes.
Photos: courtesy of judy tanaka


“We operated at the time on what we called the wow factor,” recalls Sheryl Nicholson, senior counsel at Kamehameha Schools and part of the interviewing committee while a partner at Paul Johnson Alston & Hunt. “We wanted to hire wows. That was a litmus test. Was this person a wow? And she obviously passed the test.”


For Tanaka in the beginning, though, the first wow was learning her way around downtown. “I was in awe of the messenger before me,” who knew the side entrances and back halls of downtown buildings. With her help, Tanaka soon had her own internal map of the corridors of power. “Court was so much fun; I got to make friends with all the filing clerks, got to meet the judges’ clerks.”


Promoted to assistant legal secretary, she entered the musty, slightly archaic world of the law as it was practiced 40 years ago. A law partner would have a secretary, who would have a secretary, who, in turn, would have a secretary. Manual typewriters with carbon paper in triplicate produced reams of paper to be filed by the lowest on the totem pole—a Judy Tanaka. After six years, though, a fire was lit. “As the legal secretary,” she says, “you’re required to know the rules of civil procedure, you have to know your filing deadlines, you’re watching and hearing things. And the more I read the rules, the more it piqued my interest in the substance of law. I would hear the lawyers come back and talk about their trials.”


Wanting more, Tanaka enrolled in the very first session of a new paralegal program at KCC. The students with legal experience, like Tanaka, were asked to help design the course, led by Robert LeClair and Leigh-Wai Doo. “The paycheck wasn’t the thought at the time, it was just something I wanted to learn.” At her firm, one partner “actually sat down with me and talked with me about what I could do with this degree. The other two, I got a sense that, if you were a typist, you were a typist.”


In fact, the firm didn’t have a use for a paralegal, but the pleasure of creating the course was enough. “There was this dream that was connected to the law and I wanted to find out about it.” She was on a path. She’d developed precision from typing up wills, “because, of course, they had to be flawless, no mistakes.” Moving to another firm to become head secretary to a partner, she found herself working with associate lawyers. “Typing up some of the drafts they were preparing, I remember thinking: ‘Yeah, it can get better.’”


Partners and their secretaries develop a mind meld. With the encouragement of “her” partner, Tanaka pulled together the various course credits she’d accumulated, enrolled at the University of Hawai‘i, took night classes for three years and in the early 1980s emerged with her B.B.A. in business management. By then she’d married her boyfriend, Brian. Antsy, wanting more, she announced she was thinking of going for an M.B.A.  


View from the 18th floor: Tanaka overlooks the setting of  her entire professional life from her office at Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing.
Photo: Kent Nishimura 

Just as Tanaka initially resisted doing this story, she resists the notion that she’s anything special. But it was clear to those on her path: Brian, her instructors, the lawyers in her firm. “One of the attorneys just said, ‘You can get an M.B.A. anytime, but you can’t take three years off and go to law school unless you do it now.’”


Law school? Who said anything about law school? 


Brian sold his beloved Porsche 911 to partially make up for the income they’d lose. Tanaka entered the William H. Richardson School of Law at UH that fall. She was 32. She had a plan: Take only required courses and those whose subject matter would be on the bar exam. “I didn’t have the luxury of wandering, I had to hit the ground running.” She also got pregnant—intentionally. “Brian and I realized this was the only time I could have a baby.”


Matthew was born during the summer, during a clerkship that came to an end because of complications during pregnancy. Tanaka credits her mother and mother-in-law for pitching in. But she was still the one to rise for the 2 a.m. feeding. “I learned how to breastfeed and take notes at the same time, getting my schoolwork done. You just got to do it. I wasn’t getting a whole lot of rest, there’s always more studying to do. I was very focused, I guess. I was going into this because I wanted to.” During the first two years, she says, “I had such a passion to do well I may have overstudied, if there’s such a thing.”  


As the third year ended, she interviewed at Paul Johnson Alston & Hunt, where she’d clerked her second summer. Nicholson recalls the interview: “Nobody was hired without the consensus of all the lawyers and for Judy it was a definite ‘yes’ all across the board. Her maturity recommended her. Definitely efficient with her time, the professionalism that comes with having familiarity with law firm practices, as well as, of course, having to manage time in an employment setting prior to that—all that and also having a brand-new child while in law school.”


 A bouquet of flowers soon arrived at Tanaka’s home to accompany a job offer. But, feeling she should at least make a gesture of looking around, she did three other interviews. At the last one, she says, “Interviewing with a firm that I thought did pretty good work, I found myself in a boardroom with eight to 10 partners, all male. I’m not sure how it came to be, because it’s a violation, but the subject of my son came up. One of the partners suggested I wouldn’t be able or would find it difficult to commit to full time. I was so incensed! I said, ‘If you’re suggesting that I’m not committed to the profession then this interview is over.’ I got up and left. 


“I’d made it to the elevator bank when someone caught up to me and said, ‘No, no, don’t go.’ I said, ‘I withdraw my application.’”


In 1990 Tanaka started off as a newly minted associate at Paul Johnson Alston & Hunt. 


The new law school grad (and first daughter to go past high school) with father Robert Oh,  a mason, and mother Toshino, a homemaker.
Photo: Courtesy of judy tanaka


Six months later, the firm announced it was splitting up. “Oh, yes!” she recalls, laughing. “I thought I had done my due diligence, that this firm would be around forever.” While the breakup was amicable—“I marveled at it, to me it was handled very nicely”—it left her with a choice: Stay with the remnants, or go with the lawyers who were heading off to start their own firm. 


“It was a very, very difficult choice, an emotional choice, an emotional time. Mom or Dad, right? The way it lined up, I enjoyed working with both sides. It was almost like throwing darts. I’m not a mover. I figured, this is what I know, so I stayed.”


One unanticipated consequence of the firm shrinking was she was thrust into the arena. “I mean, I’d just graduated, just passed the bar, and not even within two years of that was in a federal court jury trial, second chairing it. You had to be a self-starter and efficient and certainly independent. There was no hand holding; the expectation was that you would figure it out.


“I liked that. I warmed up to that very quickly. I thought, ‘I can do this.’”


Over the next 21 years, Tanaka grew as a litigator, with a specialty in construction cases, and a knack for picking up difficult technical subject matter and mastering it on the fly. In 2003, she became managing partner, putting her well-honed organizational skills to running the law firm. 


“She’s smart, she’s prepared, she’s good in building relationships,” says former fellow partner Nicholson. “What makes a good litigator varies. You can have the table-pounders who are brilliant at working a room, those who get what they want by being obstructionist, expressing anger—those of that ilk.”


But, “As a woman litigator, you have to get your gravitas in another way. You don’t have the physical mass. … It’s not a good idea to emulate men generally. We don’t have the beards, the height, the depth of voice. You have to find your way as a woman in the law to find what works for you.


“Because you are frequently in emotionally charged settings as a litigator,” adds Nicholson, “it’s always tempting to argue your head off, or to respond emotionally. Judy has an ability to use restraint effectively. Without losing ground.”


In 2011, however, her legal ground shifted again. The firm became embroiled in a debate over growth. The differences once again proved irreconcilable. And so it was that Tanaka found herself looking at starting over again. As it turned out, she barely had time to register the situation’s potential for uncertainty when the partners who had split off in 1991—to form Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing—extended an invitation to come aboard. 


 “It was a pretty easy decision, because I’d worked for the partners before. I knew their work ethic, I knew they were all excellent lawyers.”


She’d come full circle and, by joining such a large firm, reached a career pinnacle, too. “The firm was like 55 lawyers when I joined it. Coming from a firm of maybe 10, that was a new challenge. But I felt the similarity of it, the infrastructure. And here we are.”


Here is that corner above Bishop and King, 18 floors above where she once darted, messenger bag slung over her shoulder. She’d come to master this world, an entire universe encompassed in a few square blocks, but with a global reach in terms of impact. O.M.G. indeed.


“I was very fortunate,” she says. “My husband did a tremendous amount. He did the typical child-raising obligations. My mother and my mother-in-law, bless them, practically raised my son. Without that support I would not have been free to put in the type of hours to excel in that job. When it came to school conferences, I always made the time to do that. When it came time for recitals and plays, I always tried to carve out time to do that. What that meant was just juggling. I could attend that soccer game, it just meant I might have to stay up later to finish.


“You know how they say sleep is overrated? Well, it is funny how little sleep you can actually survive on. If you can get four hours, you’re doing good.”


And if she had to pick a high point?


“For my first substantive motion,” she replies, “one I actually wrote and got to argue—when you get to argue, you get to advocate—when the court granted my motion I thought it couldn’t get any better. This is what I’d studied for. This is the end. This is it. It was terrific. I was walking on a cloud all the way back to the office.”