Select company: Former editor of law review earns U-M's highest honor


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

John He originally studied physiological science at UCLA with the aim of applying to medical school. After deciding that wasn’t a good fit, he tested the waters of the legal field as a paralegal at a corporate immigration firm in San Francisco.

“The best part about the job was learning about a convoluted, confusing area of law and helping our clients solve problems with that knowledge,” he says.   

Volunteering for the San Francisco Bar Association’s Legal Advice and Referral Clinic also provided a good opportunity to see how many people need legal help, he says.

“We had clients from all walks of life with all sorts of legal issues, and many of them really valued their opportunity to ask an attorney for help.”

It turned out the law was an excellent fit, and He has valued his three years at the University of Michigan Law School, and was the recipient of the Henry M. Bates Memorial Scholarship, the Law School’s highest honor, given to outstanding seniors with promise of a distinguished career.

“Everyone at the school is dedicated to being part of the Michigan Law community, and I always felt a tremendous amount of support from my classmates and my professors,” he says.

A highlight was serving as editor-in-chief of the Law Review.

“Being able to work with my peers to select and edit cutting-edge legal scholarship was a truly meaningful experience,” he says. “My fellow editors were able to make a ton of important changes to a 116-year-old institution that we felt would help ensure the continued success of the journal.”

Moot Court and Oral Advocacy competitions provided an invaluable opportunity to become well versed in a specific area of law and practice oral advocacy skills.

“I don’t think I’m a natural oral advocate, but the competitions taught me that preparation can make up for lack of talent,” he says. “I had the opportunity to partner with one of my best friends, Emerson Bursis, who also happens to be the managing editor of the Michigan Law Review. We worked our tails off, and it was a real confidence builder to be able to progress to the final rounds.”   

In his 3L year, He was a finalist in the prestigious Henry M. Campbell Moot Court Competition, and winner of Best Quarterfinal Petitioner Brief.

“It was a tremendous honor to represent Michigan Law in front of our esteemed panel of judges,” he says. “The quality of oral advocacy at the semifinal round was amazing, and I felt very fortunate to be selected as a finalist out of those extremely talented oralists.”   

Close to two years as a project manager on the University of Michigan Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse—an online database of thousands of civil rights cases from around the country, including policing, jail and prison conditions, national security, employment discrimination, same-sex marriage, and others—showed him how civil litigation actually looks in federal district court.

“It was a nice opportunity to see the great work that civil rights lawyers around the country are doing,” he says. “Working on the Clearinghouse was a life-changing experience for me. Before coming to law school, I wasn’t sure what type of law I wanted to practice, but after seeing the meaningful, positive change that civil rights lawyers could bring, I knew I wanted to be a part of that work.”   

His 1L summer was spent as a judicial intern at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., conducting research on variety of issues, including administrative, civil rights, and employment law, in civil litigation, and preparing written bench memoranda and drafts of judicial opinions and orders.

“It was great to actually live in D.C., amongst all the monuments and museums that I’d always read about,” he says. “The work was also extremely engaging – I had the opportunity to work with a fantastic judge with amazing clerks.”

His 2L summer was as a summer associate at Altshuler Berzon, a small labor-side litigation boutique in San Francisco.

“It does all sorts of cases—from small labor arbitrations all the way to super important Supreme Court cases,” he says. “It was great being a part of a tight-knit firm full of super smart people who gave me a lot of hands-on experience.”

He also served as president of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA).

“I grew up in a community with a huge Asian Pacific Islander American population, with a high school that was more than 60 percent Asian,” he says. “It was a bit of a culture shock for me, arriving at Michigan, to have only a handful of APIA classmates. That made my relationships with my APIA classmates that much more meaningful, and it was a wonderful experience to help develop a community for the APIA students at Michigan.”

The coming year will find He as a law clerk for Judge Marsha S. Berzon on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, followed by a clerkship for Judge Sidney H. Stein on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“Eventually, I hope to work as a civil rights litigator, either on behalf of a civil rights organization like the ACLU or for the government,” he says.   

Classically trained in piano for 12 years and in violin for five, and a self-taught guitarist, He found playing piano and guitar helped him de-stress and unwind from legal studies.
“I love to play music,” he says. “I performed with the UCLA Chorale and Chamber Singers in college, and served as music director for my college a cappella group, Bruin Harmony.”

Originally from Guangzhou, China, He grew up in San Francisco.

“My parents grew up in rural China. We were tremendously lucky to be able to come to America and have the privileged life we’ve been able to enjoy,” he says. “They always instilled in me a sense of how fortunate we were and how important it was to be grateful for the opportunities that we’ve had.”