VAN ANN BUI
Director at Sponsors of Educational Opportunity (SEO) Law Fellowship Program
Van Ann is the Director of the Sponsors of Educational Opportunity (SEO) Law Fellowship program. The program strives to strengthen their Fellows’ preparation and successes in law school, increase contact and communications with underrepresented students interested in attending law school, and support their current SEO Law alumni in their academic and professional endeavors. She is former Corporate Attorney at Proskauer Rose LLP.
This featured interview was conducted by Elena Deutsch*
Please describe your legal background and your current role today.
I graduated from Columbia Law School in 2011 and started working full time at Proskauer Rose in the New York office. I worked in the Corporate Department specializing in Leveraged Finance representing a wide variety of clients. I was there for about five years before I ended up transitioning out of the firm and into my current role here at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) where I now run Law Fellowship, a program targeted to under-represented students who are planning on matriculating into top law schools. We take those students and provide training for them an intensive academic and career development programs prior to matching them with internships at various corporate law firms, not just in New York, but all over the country.
What are three words you would use to describe your role.
The first would be Mentorship. A large part of my role is trying to seek ways to better mentor and guide these young students. Many are first generation: first generation Americans, first generation college students and first-generation lawyers. A lot of them come from backgrounds where they don’t have folks within their families or social network to rely on in terms of understanding how to navigate the legal profession. I take my role very seriously in trying to bridge that gap and expose them to attorneys within our SEO network and our partner law firms that can give them mentorship and guidance. I also share my stories so that they can learn from my own lessons learned and from other trailblazers who have paved the way.
The second word is Challenging. We work with so many different interested parties (students, law firms, instructors, etc.), all with different personalities types and coming from backgrounds. Being able to understand each person’s background and how to motivate each one of them can be a challenge. We're providing key information to all of our students and partners but doing it in a way that resonates with each one of them no matter their background.
My third word is actually the first word that came to mind, but I wanted to save it for last! Regardless of any challenges that I might face - the work I do now is incredibly Rewarding. That's something that I carry with me every day. There are moments when I get emails from students who tell me that they are so grateful to be part of the SEO family. They feel like they're not going through this alone, that they have 5, 10, 15 other students that did the program in their law school class to help make them feel at home. I continue to get e-mails, phone calls, and cards from students who have completed the program, telling me how grateful they are for the opportunity to participate in SEO. All of these little moments make it rewarding for me.
What inspired you to pursue your current career path.
So that's a great question. At the time, I was heading into my fifth year at that firm and really trying to take stock of my career and long-term goals and what I wanted out of my life. As much as I enjoyed my job, I realized that I felt like there was still something missing. I felt like there was still something in my heart that was missing and that I needed to be doing something more meaningful to me than my role as a Transactional Attorney allowed me to do.
I started thinking about what are some of the things that I'm passionate about and that I love doing? As I started to reflect on that, I realized my favorite moments were when I was mentoring junior associates, summer associates, going on campus to talk to students, and being able to help advise them and teach them some of the lessons that I've learned along the way. As I was thinking about all of those different things, it became clear to me that this was the kind of transition that I needed to make for myself.
Name one movie or song to describe your career.
“Rise Up” by Andra Day. The song resonates with me because it’s a song about perseverance through hardship, togetherness, and unity – that all we need is hope and each other, and together, we will move mountains and rise up. I would not be where I am in my career without the help and support of so many of my peers and mentors showing me the way, and it is because of them that I hope to lift up those around me so that we may all rise up a thousand times again.
How has your legal educational background shaped the way you perform in your current career?
I speak with a lot of students who are not entirely sure what kind of practice area they want to pursue. Or question a career in corporate law because some of them have stereotypes about what being a corporate attorney means. I think some people, including many law students of color that I’ve met, struggle with the idea of working on behalf of large corporations when there are people in their own communities who so desperately also need access to legal services.
Nonetheless, what I tell them is that even if they want to pursue other interests sometime down the road, I 100% believe that starting your career in Corporate Law is the absolute best training ground to teach you how to become a top-notch, high caliber professional, no matter what kind of job or career they go into afterwards. Number one: the incredible attention to detail that is required of you forces you to maintain exceptionally high standards for your work product. Having that high level of attention to detail will carry you in whatever position you end up in. It's definitely help me in my role.
Number two, the level of critical thinking that's required of Corporate Attorneys. You have to be able to see a 360-degree view, not just two sides. This skill has helped in me my new role think about what kinds of initiatives should we be doing? What is actually feasible for us to do? How much does it cost? What are the pros and cons? Who are the third parties that we need to get involved in order to make this plan come to fruition? So really being able to see all the different perspectives to it has made me so much more thoughtful in the kind of programming that we do at SEO in order to best support our students, alumni, and partners.
So what lessons learned or unexpected challenges do you face in your current role?
There are so many stakeholders that we work with at SEO. We're trying to do what's best for our students but at the same time we're also trying to do what's best for our partner law firms and ensure that the internship matches really well for both the student and the firm. We’re also working with our board of directors and our alumni to ensure that our alumni are also being supported. We're rolling out a new training program just for our alums and trying to find other ways to keep alumni engaged with us and each other.
What advice would you give those career pivoting or pursuing a career beyond the practice of law?
I actually just had a conversation with an Associate who is interested in leaving the practice of law as well. What I told her is to really start thinking about it now and making a plan for your transition. When I was still at the firm, I started thinking about ways I could build out my resume to show that I was committed to diversity and inclusion and mentoring. Within the firm, I took on additional roles as a Co-Chair of the Asian Lawyers Affinity Group and tried to become more involved there. Outside of the firm, I also became involved with the New York City Bar Association’s Diversity Pipeline Initiatives Committee and took on leadership positions there as well. I also volunteered with other nonprofit organizations that work with first generation students. Lay the groundwork before you leave so that you can really show a demonstrated interest in whatever it is that you decide you want to pursue.
What is your personal motto, mantra or favorite quote?
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take."
The idea is that for me, and this was something I very much struggled with for a lot of my career, I had to get comfortable with reaching out and seeking opportunities and asking people for advice, asking people if they could help me in my career search - whether it be little things like just reading my resume or bigger things like asking them to connect me with someone that they knew that I wanted to reach out to. My philosophy has always been if you don't ask, if you don't take that step, you don’t know what you could be missing out on. You have to take the first step to get to where you want to go.
Van Ann Bui is the Director of the SEO Fellowship program. A former Corporate Attorney at Proskauer Rose LLP. She also serves on the Diversity Pipeline Initiatives committee of the New York City Bar Association. Van Ann has a JD from Columbia University and a BBA from Southern Methodist University. To learn more about Van Ann Bui and SEO, check out SEO Law.
Elena Deutsch is Executive & Career Coach and Owner of WILL - Women Interested in Leaving (big) Law. WILL offers career transformation services to women lawyers through a step-by-step process in finding clarity and action in leaving the law.