Lawyers are People Too: An Interview with Aki Koyama, Staff Attorney to Chapter 13 Standing Trustee Kathy Dockery

(Used with permission,Volume 1, Issue 3:3 6 March, 2022 cdcbaa)

Jon: Hi Aki. I can’t believe after knowing you for 30 years now that I don’t know where you were born.

Aki: Ha! I was born in Tokyo, Japan although we moved to California when I was about one. We’ve been here ever since.

Jon: Why the move?

Aki: Well, actually my grandmother came here first and began working at a Japanese bachelor boarding house near Pico and Sepulveda. She told my father that he and the family should move here too. We all call my father Papa. Papahad some sort of a sporting goods or clothing store in Tokyo and the economy in Japan wasn’t that great so we packed up and moved. By then, my grandmother had been gifted and took overmanagement of the boarding house which housed maybe 40-50 men at a time, nearly all young Japanese men. My Mom worked therefor a time as well.

Jon: Are your parents still with us?

Aki: Yes, Papa is 87 and Mom is 84. They still live in the same W.L.A. house that they moved to when they immigrated to the States. Papa became a gardener – kind of like Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid personified (laughing). He was very proud of his work and business. I think he had a great work ethic. He worked 6 out of 7 days for most of his life and he was a great example for my brother, sister and I. We saw what it’s like to work hard and be conscientious about the work, to look for satisfaction in the work,to serve the public well. Actually, both of my parents always encouraged us to live life in a way that serves others. Papa always did that little extra thing for people. Papa’s customers loved him. He used to say with a big smile that he was the “number 2 gardener in West Los Angeles.”

Jon: What did your mother do?

Aki: She helped Grandmother at the boarding house and took a few odd jobs over the years. But mostly she raised us and nurtured us. The Japanese culture is not touchy-feely but we definitely got the “kinder-gentler” part of our personalities from her. I think of her when I’m doing my 341s at times. The debtors are often stressed out by the time I see them and so I try to source that part of my personality to help them feel comfortable and relaxed. I think it makes for better testimony as well. I like to encourage hope in them that their lives will get better. I always say my definition of a good 341 is when I can get the debtor to smile and laugh at least once.

Jon: Where did you go to high school?

Aki: University High, my older brother and younger sister went there also. They’re both CPAs now.I can’t say that I enjoyed the high school experience overall because I was on the shyer side, but I had some great teachers. One of my favorite teachers was an English teacher, Mrs. Fontes. Grade-wise, I did well enough in high school but I was definitely ready to move on from public school.

Jon: I gather you spoke Japanese at home?

Aki: Yeah, my early years were almost entirely around Japanese people. I didn’t really learn any English until kindergarten. I would say by the third grade I had switched over to English. My Japanese speaking skill is now pretty bad. I speak what I call “house Japanese” because I’ll only speak it at my parent’s house (laughing). On the other hand, I can understand Japanese pretty well and if you dropped me into Japan for a year or two, I’d probably be fluent again.

Jon: So you went on to UCLA?

Aki: Yes. I got into UCLA with what was called the High School Scholars program and took some classes at UCLA in my senior year at University High. I really enjoyed college. I loved the freedom and learning what I was interested in learning. I was an East Asian studies major because I loved the classes but I eventually learned that you can’t feed yourself with that major (laughing).

Jon: Then on to law school.

Aki: Not right away. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life after college so I worked for a year at an international air freight company. That’s when I met you!

Jon: I’ve actually forgotten how you came to work with me at my firm. It was around 1991 right?

Aki: Right. My girlfriend knew someone at your firm. My friends had always encouraged me to go to law school and I thought it would be good to get a job in a firm and find out what law was all about. I remember when you interviewed me; you were so funny and nice. I still have a clear memory of the interview in my mind. I was pretty excited you hired me.

Jon: I gather you liked it enough that you decided to go to law school. I knew you were only going to work a couple years, then give it a try. I also remember that one day you basically came in and said “it’s time.”

Aki: Yes, I worked for you for 2½ – 3 years I think. I learned a lot of bankruptcy during that time – doing schedules, helping put out fires and driving to court to file last minute things. I definitely found that I liked the bankruptcy practice. I had no idea at the time that bankruptcy law would become my career.

Jon: How did you wind up going to Whittier Law School?

Aki: Whittier basically gave me the best financial package of the several schools I got into. I had to borrow to supplement what the school me gave so the financial assistance was important.

Jon: Did you go to Whittier full or time?

Aki: The first and second year was full time. I got a job clerking for Robert Kawahara, Bert Kawahara’s brother, after the first year and then worked for him part time for the rest of law school. Mr. Kawahara later became a Commissioner of the California Superior Court. Bert and his office were in the same office suite. I didn’t work for Bert but I remember his conversations and kind advice during that time.

Jon: How was law school?

Aki: Actually, I hated the first year but I worked hard and by the 3rd year, I was enjoying the law school experience.After I graduated and passed the bar, I got a job with Todd Becker in Long Beach as an associate attorney.He trusted me to do a lot of the bankruptcy work during my five years with him – mostly 7s and 13s. I learned the fundamentals of bankruptcy practice during my time with Todd. He was a great teacher. I also came to love bankruptcy during that time. You know, it’s like magic! In Chapter 7 you tell clients what’s going to happen and it almost always happens; it works the way it’s supposed to work. They get to get on with their lives. They’re happy. Chapter 13 was different though. It was not always as predictable because it had so many moving parts. I remember feeling that the Chapter 13 Trustee’s Office was like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory;I was always curious, but I never knew what went on in the factory, behind those big, closed gates.

Jon: How did you wind up with Kathy Dockery?

Aki: I got a call one day from Sheila Pistone. She was the senior staff attorney for the prior chapter 13 trustee.She told me a staff attorney position was available and asked me if I was interested. I jumped at the chance! I remember sitting in my car before my interview studying the Bankruptcy Code (laughing). Sheila, Kathy, Joe Caceres and Carol Raineri were all at the interview. Kathy Dockery became the new chapter 13 trustee in April 2003 and I joined her staff two months later in June.

Jon: I gather you’re happy with that choice (duh!)?

Aki: Kathy is so amazing. She really values integrity and putting your best game on. She is a very kind human being and she trusts me and supports me. She is always interested in new processes, procedures and technology. A lot of what you see from her trusteeship came from her creative mind. I finally found out what was really going on in Willy Wonka’s Factory. The factory is not magic. It’s made of people who are all doing their parts to make the trusteeship work on a day-to-day basis. I really enjoy working with the staff. It’s one of the things that I miss from pre-Covid times. I also found out my five years of experience as primarily a debtor attorney was invaluable to me in my duties as a staff attorney. Those years really gave me perspective on what it takes to get a chapter 13 case together. It’s a lot of work!

Jon: Do you like being an attorney?

Aki: I’m very happy I chose this profession and practice. My advice is to pursue your passions. Don’t think about the money. You have to believe in what you do to be happy with a career in law.
Jon:Did you encourage your kids to become attorneys?

Aki: I would be fine if my son or daughter decide to become attorneys but I have never pushed them in one direction or the other. They are their own people and have their own interests. They’re both in college now.

Jon: Any advice to the bankruptcy bar?

Aki: I love the bankruptcy bar. I have had long working relationships with many members of the bar and great mentors like you, Kathy Dockery, Todd Becker, Sheila Pistone, Jim King, Carol Unruh – the list is long. I think mentoring is one of the most important duties that we have as we get new members of the local bankruptcy bar. Our bar is so small, relationships are the most important things that we have.

Jon: What does Aki do when then attorney hat is off?

Aki: Ha! I’m a big freshwater tropical fish guy. I’ve had a number of fish tanks over the years and love designing the tanks and making them my personal Zen gardens. I can then select the fish that would enjoy the tank design the most and see them interact with each other. It’s very relaxing and meditative. It’s been my hobby since I was a child. I also like hiking in nature and have recently picked up gardening. You can see my Papa’s influence in my hobbies.

Jon: Thanks Aki. I’m glad to find out someone thinks I’m funny.

hayes
Senior Counsel, RHM Law, LLP (Los Angeles, CA)

M. Jonathan Hayes has practiced consumer bankruptcy law primarily for the past 42 years in Southern California. He recently completed a two-year sabbatical as the BAP Law Clerk first for Judge Laura Taylor in San Diego and then for Judge William Lafferty in Oakland. He is now Senior Counsel to the bankruptcy firm of RHM Law, LLP. Jon has been an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law for the past 33 years where he has taught Bankruptcy, Business Associations and other subjects. Jon was a member of the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization, Bankruptcy Law Advisory Commission, 2010 to 2018. He was Vice-Chairman for the year 2016-2017 and Chairman for the year 2017-2018. He was President of the Central District Consumer Bankruptcy Attorney’s Assn (“cdcbaa”), 2013 and 2014, and is a member of the Board of Directors 2008 to present. He was a Lawyer Representative to the Central District Judicial Conference, 2014 to 2019. Today he has joined with Hon. Meredith Jury (Ret.) to form a bankruptcy appellate “dream team” with six other bankruptcy attorneys throughout the 9th Circuit to help consumer attorneys with their bankruptcy appeals. Jon has written four books entitled, “A Summary of Chapter 13” published in November 2019; “A Summary of Bankruptcy Law, Third Edition” published in December, 2016; “Bankruptcy Jurisprudence from the Supreme Court, Second Edition” published in 2016; and “Melvyn ‘Deacon’ Jones: My 40 years with the Blues Legends,” published in 2004. All are available on Amazon.com. You can reach Jon at [email protected].

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