The tide of her family’s expectations and her own idealism has carried Sunmee Jo ’93 from Guam through Calvin and law school and now into her second job in the legal profession. She’s still riding that tide, though at least twice she has foundered and felt herself nearly pulled under.
“My parents wanted me to be an attorney,” she said, “and I had always thought of the law as a noble profession. The image in my mind was Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird — a person of integrity who stands up for the rights of those who are oppressed.”
Her first year at law school, she nearly quit. She found that legal education “wasn’t about serving people or becoming a good advocate on behalf of those who couldn’t advocate for themselves. It was more directed toward going out and working for big firms and making lots of money.”
In spite of this, Jo graduated and began a law career that satisfied her calling. In 1996, she took a job working for the non-profit firm Legal Aid of Western Michigan (now Western Michigan Legal Services) in Grand Rapids. She defended tenants against eviction, partners in divorce and custody cases, people filing for bankruptcy and those who had been denied Social Security benefits.
It was good work, the work she wanted to do. But after five years it had exacted an emotional toll.
“It was very frustrating when the same person came back in the same situation you’d just helped him or her get out of,” she said. “And I had to do divorce cases that involved physical violence and children being torn from one parent or another. I realized I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to do that forever. I wanted to focus on more positive ways I could make an impact.”
Also, though she steadfastly tried not to make money a factor in her choice of work, it became one. Paid $25,000 a year when she began at Legal Aid, Jo found she wasn’t able to pay her law school loan obligations. “It was becoming harder and harder to focus on the needs of others when I felt my own situation to be precarious as well,” she confesses. “It became a tension I couldn’t reconcile without doing something positive about it.”
That something positive was a new job with the Social Security Administration’s Office of Hearings and Appeals in Falls Church, Va. Hired as an attorney advisor in 2001, Jo helped administrative law judges in hearing offices around the country write decisions in large Medicare appeals cases.
On temporary assignment with the office of the chief administrative law judge since June 2003, Jo is working with a group to review procedures at all 140 hearing offices in the country.
Her work takes Jo to the other side of the bench. When she was an attorney at Legal Aid, the Social Security Administration was often her adversary. Now it’s her employer. She knows what it’s like to wait with a client up to four years on a benefits appeal. She knows what it’s like in the agency to wrestle the backlog of cases and remain fair. With that big-picture perspective she’s now working on procedures to speed up the appeal process for the most critical cases.
Rather than feeling like a cog in a massive bureaucracy, Jo said, “At the end of the day I go home feeling I’ve made more of an impact, because it’s at an institutional level. My work daily supports the right of deserving folks to get what our law says they’re entitled to: an impartial hearing. That’s what keeps it feeling like a calling.”
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