Gould alum reflects on his ‘life-changing’ decision — and his rewarding practice with nonprofits
Raissa and William Choi’s generosity established a new scholarship for first generation students pursuing an advanced degree.
William Choi (JD 1985) calls going to law school at USC Gould “life-changing.” The experience gave him vital skills he uses to this day, from how to analyze problems to adapting to new challenges, and it provided a home where he made lifelong friends.
He acknowledges that none of these things would have been possible without the help of a full-tuition scholarship that supported his legal studies. “I may or may not have gone to law school, if not for the scholarship from USC Gould. I often think about that,” says Choi, who is partner and co-founder of the Los Angeles-based firm, Rodriguez, Horii, Choi & Cafferata, LLP, where he represents nonprofit organizations.
For Choi, it was no question that he wanted to someday return the favor and give other law students the same opportunity.
This past year, Choi and his wife, Raissa, did exactly that, making a generous contribution to establish a new scholarship that will benefit USC Gould students who self-identify as the first in their family to graduate from college and pursue an advanced degree.
“When I left USC, I told myself I would give back if I was able to,” Choi says. “That’s really been a goal for me — to make it possible for somebody else in my circumstances, to be able to go to Gould and the get the benefits of law school that I’ve gotten.”
Coming from an immigrant family, the importance of education and going to college were drilled into him, Choi says. His family moved from South Korea to California, first settling in Compton, then Garden Grove, and then San Diego. “We progressively moved south,” he jokes.
He studied accounting in college for, as he puts it, “very practical” reasons. Choi remembers how his undergraduate tuition at San Jose State University cost around $200 a year tuition at the time, and “even then I got financial aid for tuition, books and living expenses, which was invaluable for me.”
Similarly, education was a much-valued priority for his wife, Raissa, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Saskatchewan and a masters from the University of British Columbia in Canada.
“Both her mom and dad were children of Ukrainian immigrants working on a farm in Canada, essentially working hard to provide an education to end up where they did,” he explains. “The experiences of her parents were very similar to my own; they were just a generation removed. And so, my wife certainly shared all the same values.”
Pursuing a path in law
Choi says that he did not know any lawyers growing up. It wasn’t until he worked at a “Big Four” accounting firm prior to law school, where he got to know legal professionals – and the nature of their work – better.
As a student at USC Gould, what Choi appreciated most in those days was the camaraderie with his classmates, many of whom he still keeps in touch. “There were around 200 of us in our first year, and we came in scared and stressed. It was nice to have good people that I went through that whole process with,” says Choi, who is an avid USC sports fan. “I think my class of ’85 was exceptionally good, and it was easy to become good friends and bond with them.”
After law school, Choi joined Latham & Watkins LLP. “Starting at a big law firm was really formative in many ways. You are with a lot of very smart people your own age, as well as with the partners who have been through it. You have the diversity of people in terms of the personalities and practice areas, which is a great way to learn. It’s a real grind to be honest, but also a great way to start.”
His initial plan was to become a corporate tax lawyer, given his background as a CPA, but he went on to pursue other opportunities abroad. In the early 90s, Choi practiced international law with a Korean law firm in Seoul, and then moved to a U.S. firm with a Hong Kong office.
While enjoying his work overseas, Choi and his wife also had their first child. He recalls getting “a lot of subtle and not so subtle messages to come back home” as the grandparents hoped to spend more time with the baby.
Around that time, his mentor from Latham, Albert Rodriguez – who was the firm’s first Hispanic partner – was starting his own firm and recruited Choi and fellow Latham alum, Dwayne Horii, to join in 1996.
Together, they started what’s now Rodriguez, Horii, Choi & Cafferata, LLP. Rodriguez retired a few years after starting the firm and passed away in 2009.
Choi notes that success didn’t come immediately. “Early years, clients still didn’t know me, and I was trying to understand how to run a law firm,” he says. “The key really was to focus on building up the clientele. Also, watch the expenses, but don’t obsess about it.”
Fast forward to his role today, Choi specializes in working with nonprofit organizations on a wide range of tax issues and corporate governance matters.
“The work itself is very rewarding,” he says. “The missions of the nonprofits are diverse; it could be civil rights, environmental, religious… but they all do interesting stuff, and it’s a real privilege to work with them.”
He adds that, from the staff level to volunteer board members, “the people at these nonprofits all are very committed to their cause and have a real purpose — it’s really refreshing to be able to be around people like that.”
Passing on insights
As Choi’s firm passes the quarter-century mark, he recognizes now that the trajectory of his career path didn’t go as he had first imagined, but he’s certainly happy with the outcome.
“Don’t think that whatever you’re doing in the first couple of years, is what you’re going to be doing for the next 40 years,” he says. “I thought for sure my career was to be a corporate tax lawyer working on mega deals and doing really complicated stuff for big companies. And that’s not the way my career played out.
“I’m very glad I was open to pursuing a small firm path and a practice area that, coming out of law school, I would never have considered. But as it turned out, it was perfect for me and who I am — and I really enjoy it.”
Reflecting back on his days as a law student, Choi thinks fondly of the time spent with his classmates and professors.
“If I could go back 40 years and give myself advice, it would be to focus on learning and enjoying the classes, enjoying the reading of the case law, enjoying the back and forth in class with the professors,” Choi says. “Among the best times of your life will be in law school, to be intellectually challenged and to learn the law. It’s such a great opportunity.”