Inside Track: Immigration experience attracts Yoo to law

Paperwork error sent his family back to Seoul 13 years ago, reinforced his dream to pursue a legal career.
Sungjin Yoo makes a point to give back to the community, including mentor work with The Potter’s House High School. Courtesy Justin Razmus, 616 Media

Sungjin Yoo learned early on in life that the devil is in the details — a fact that makes him passionate today about creating legal contracts that minimize risks and errors.

The second of four children and a native of Seoul, South Korea, Yoo grew up looking to the example of his father, who was the second of seven children born to a poor farmer in a small village in post-war South Korea.

Yoo’s father was driven by his Christian faith, which manifested in a lifelong devotion to social justice and civic activism in his home country. After enrolling at Seoul National University — which has around a 1% acceptance rate and is the country’s most prestigious university — Yoo’s father was involved in pro-democracy protests against South Korea’s then-military dictator, Park Chung-hee, for which he spent time in jail. Rather than pursuing a career in business or politics after graduating, he worked at a Christian nonprofit that battled government corruption and advocated for other social issues.

After he met Yoo’s mother at church, the pair married in 1988 and started their family. Working in a Christian setting sparked Yoo’s father’s interest in theology, for which he moved the family to Grand Rapids to study at Calvin Theological Seminary in 1996 so he could become an ordained minister.

When Yoo was just 17, right after his junior year of high school in 2008, the family’s immigration attorney made a vital mistake on his father’s visa paperwork, filing for a green card instead of a nonimmigrant religious workers visa, and suddenly the Yoos found themselves without legal status in the U.S. Rather than waiting to be deported, they moved from their home at the time in Charlottesville, Virginia, back to Seoul, where Yoo’s father became a Presbyterian pastor in an economically disadvantaged part of the city.

Yoo was homeschooled for a year to finish his high school education, then he moved back to the U.S. in 2009 to study international relations, classics and German at Calvin University (then Calvin College), graduating in 2013 with a triple major. During his years at Calvin, he studied abroad in Vienna, Austria. He had been interested in the law since middle school, and his family’s devastating immigration experience reinforced his decision to pursue a legal career after completing his bachelor’s degree.

Financially strapped, Yoo applied for and received a $1,500 scholarship from Warner Norcross & Judd to cover the cost of his Law School Admission Test (LSAT) preparation course in 2012. This paved the way for him to land other scholarships and enroll at Washington University Law School in St. Louis, Missouri, which included a study abroad trip in Hamburg, Germany.

Ottawa Avenue Private Capital
Position: In-house counsel
Age: 29
Birthplace: Seoul, South Korea
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Married with a son
Business/Community Involvement: Metro Health Hospital Foundation impACT Board, Korean Connection in Grand Rapids, monthly mentor for students at The Potter’s House High School who are interested in pursuing a career in law, Calvin University liaison for recruiting students to participate in the ACG Cup, committee member with Sister Cities International to help Grand Rapids become a sister city of the district Gangnam-gu in Seoul
Biggest Career Break: Getting a job at Honigman after law school in August 2017.

After earning his juris doctor in 2017, Yoo decided to return to West Michigan, which he said has been the place that felt the most like “home” to him.

“I have lived in many places: Seoul, Grand Rapids, Charlottesville, Vienna, St. Louis and Hamburg. But Grand Rapids is my home and the city that I love.

“From the beginning, my family has been the recipient of so much generosity in time and financial assistance from the Grand Rapids community. For that, I am eternally grateful. While we were a Korean family living in Grand Rapids in the late 1990s and early 2000s (back before when K-Pop and Korean food were considered ‘cool’), we were overwhelmed with the support of the Grand Rapids community, who did not judge us for our skin color, funny accent or different culture. Rather, we were embraced and given opportunities to share our culture and food over dinners and get-togethers. Their kindness, curiosity and love stuck with me throughout the years and drew me to love the Grand Rapids community and start my legal career here.”

Instead of returning to Barnes & Thornburg in Chicago, where he had worked as a summer associate before finishing his J.D., Yoo took a job as an associate attorney at Honigman in Grand Rapids in August 2017, where he discovered his love for business law — an area about which he knew very little at the time.

“Regarded as the top business law firm in Michigan, Honigman provided me with opportunities to work on various corporate and M&A projects that challenged and developed me. Besides soft skills such as being responsive or discerning the right tone in an email for a given audience, I put my law school coursework into practice every day,” Yoo said. “… I had so many mentor-teachers at Honigman who were patient, provided substantive feedback and helped me grasp complex concepts. I learned to be a better lawyer as I developed my contract drafting and editing skills. I learned to be a better team player.”

Married with a son on the way, in 2019, Yoo decided it was time to move in-house to a company instead of continuing to work long hours at the law firm. In January 2020, he made the move from Honigman to Ottawa Avenue Private Capital (OAPC), an investment advisory office in downtown Grand Rapids that is a subsidiary of the DeVos-affiliated RDV Corporation.

As in-house counsel, Yoo helps draw up legal documents for investment deals as well as helping to manage the firm’s compliance obligations. He said he appreciates the sophisticated nature of the work as well as the intellectual challenge, although he can’t discuss many details due to confidentiality.

Yoo said while he is proud of the M&A deals he facilitated at Honigman and the private equity investments he’s advised on at OAPC, his most gratifying personal accomplishment thus far was co-hosting Chuseok: A Celebration of Korean Thanksgiving in fall 2019 alongside Catherine Behrendt, community and program director for WZZM-13. The event, organized by Korean Connection in West Michigan — a group that provides support to Korean nationals, adoptees, immigrants and students, as well as hosting cooking classes and cultural events in the community — was both a celebration of the Korean harvest festival Chuseok and a fundraiser for the nonprofit Korean Kids and Orphanage Outreach Mission (KKOOM).

In addition to co-hosting the sold-out celebration, Yoo promoted the event on The WGVU Morning Show with Shelley Irwin; sold corporate tables; solicited raffle prizes from local businesses; recruited Calvin University students to do K-Pop, taekwondo and song performances; and invited Korean War veterans to the event to honor them.

“Korean Connection in West Michigan received such positive feedback and was able to raise money to sponsor a student from the Korean orphanage support group (KKOOM) to study in West Michigan,” Yoo said, although he noted the opportunity had to be put on hold due to the travel restrictions surrounding COVID-19.

Yoo said he feels grateful to be able to contribute to Korean Connection as a person who has had a foot in several worlds and sometimes struggles with defining where he fits. Although all of his siblings attended Calvin, they are now back in Korea, and he is the only Yoo left in Grand Rapids.

“In West Michigan, there’s a pretty significant number of Korean adoptees because of Bethany Christian Services. I kind of connect with Korean adoptees because they have that same experience where they look different, but they might have an American name and were raised by Americans, so they have that sort of ‘third culture.’ … For a lot of Korean adoptees, they don’t know a lot about Korean culture, but people always ask, ‘Where are you from?’ … I think I’m sort of drawn to Korean adoptees.”

At the Chuseok event, Yoo said besides the “amazing” Korean food, he “most enjoyed seeing those who are interested in Korean culture or connected to Korea learn about Korean culture and make connections with people in the community.”

For the time being, Yoo said he plans to keep serving at his other volunteer gigs — as a member of the Metro Health Hospital Foundation impACT board, a recruiter of Calvin students to compete in the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Cup challenge, and a mentor of socioeconomically disadvantaged students at The Potter’s House Christian school.

He was the driving force behind the latter initiative. As a friend of the school’s assistant superintendent, who is a fellow Calvin grad, he mentioned that he would love to mentor any students interested in pursuing a career in law, and the school took him up on it. He has so far recruited attorneys from Miller Johnson, Varnum and Warner Norcross to join him as mentors.

“It’s a pretty informal program, but the attorneys are committed, and the students are super pumped about it,” Yoo said.

Although he’s still young and his future career path may hold some twists and turns, Yoo said he always wants to be giving back.

“There have been so many people that have helped me get where I am — whether it be just through conversations, giving me advice or helping me in school financially — I had so many benefactors … countless people who have just been generous, and so I want to pay that forward to others.”

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