A Lawyer With a Life: Sandra Chong
Do you think that the life of a lawyer is working long hours until 2 a.m. and having your accomplishments measured by your “billable hours?” It doesn’t have to be that way. There are alternatives. You can be a lawyer and still have a life, as Sandra T.M. Chong most certainly proves. As Assistant General Counsel for the San Diego Unified School District, she provides legal counsel on school construction, labor compliance, student rights, and other issues. She also negotiates settlements to litigation and disputes, as well as identifies potential liabilities. But her life isn’t limited to being a lawyer. Sandra, 35, loves eating and exercising, so in addition to dishing out legal advice, she also regularly serves up restaurant reviews and exercise tips. To learn more about Sandra, her career, and her extracurricular activities, check out this week’s Young & Professional Profile.
San Diego Unified School District
Sandra T.M. Chong
Assistant General Counsel
San Diego, California
U.C. Davis School of Law
U.C. San Diego
B.A. in Political Science
U.C. San Diego
B.A. in Economics
San Diego Unified School District
Assistant General Counsel
San Diego Unified School District
Proposition MM Staff Attorney
University of California at San Diego
Mira Costa Community College
1999 to present
Cal State San Marcos
2004 to present
McKenna Long & Aldridge, LLP
Hillyer & Irwin
Hillyer & Irwin
California Court of Appeal
US Attorney’s Office Eastern District
Civil Law Clerk
California State Legislature
About the company
The San Diego Unified School District (the “District”) serves nearly 130,000 students, and has marked more than 150 years of service to San Diego’s children. It is the second largest district in California, and eighth largest urban district in the United States. The student population is extremely diverse, representing more than 15 ethnic groups and over 60 languages and dialects.
Since its founding on July 1, 1854, the district has grown from a small, rented school building with one teacher to its current state—more than 250 educational facilities with 14,555 full-time equivalent staff positions representing more than 15,800 employees. After the federal government with the military, the District is the largest employer in San Diego County. Its educational facilities include 114 elementary schools, 23 middle schools, 27 high schools, 34 charter schools, and 18 atypical or alternative schools.
In 1998, 78% of San Diego voters passed Proposition MM, a $1.51 billion bond measure that is funding repairs at 161 schools and construction of 15 new schools. Proposition MM is the largest active public works program in San Diego County.
The District’s mission is to promote teaching and learning. Its five goals are as follows:
- Accelerate gains in student performance
- Provide safe, orderly and well-maintained schools
- Strengthen parent, community and higher education support
- Boost employee morale
- Secure adequate funding for schools
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
I provide day-to-day legal and general counsel in construction, business, real estate, general contracting, labor compliance, and all aspects of public works and facilities management with specific focus on projects funded by Proposition MM (see above). I also counsel principals, teachers, and school site staff on personal injury, student rights, employment and disciplines, constitutional law, and general education law. I render legal opinions on District’s powers and procedures; draft, review, and approve various legal documents; and negotiate settlements to litigation, claims, and disputes regarding construction and employment matters. I manage outside counsel; perform risk assessments and identify potential liabilities; and provide legal services on special projects as requested by General Counsel, Board of Education, and Superintendent.
Most notable milestones
In 2007, San Diego Metropolitan Magazine honored me as one of its “40 under 40” outstanding business and civic leaders of the community.
In 2005, ASIA Heritage Magazine named me as a finalist for its Achievement in Community Service for Government and Legal Affairs Award.
In 2005, San Diego County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA) honored the District’s Proposition MM, the $1.5 billion bond measure, with the Grand Golden Watchdog Award, its highest honor given for programs in San Diego County that exemplify efficient use of tax dollars.
What’s the niche?
I try to be “indispensable,” very responsive, and approachable. I give the extra 110% with a smile and a positive attitude, and I even anticipate, with success, what needs to be done and when so that the client notices when I am not at work. In addition to providing accurate, timely legal advice, I provide a common sense approach to problem solving.
I am also a “full service” professional. On top of legal counsel, I also regularly offer restaurant reviews, exercise advice, and home remodeling tips.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Time (or lack of it) prevents me from handling legal issues by myself. Unlike being an attorney in a private law firm when I worked on a discrete number of cases from beginning to end, my in-house counsel job at the District requires that I handle a hundred different matters at various stages within the limitations of a large public organization. On many occasions, I want to do the work myself, but my workload often forces me to delegate to outside counsel or devote less attention to the matter at hand than I would like to do. I have also learned that being a manager is sometimes more challenging than being an attorney!
What’s in store for the future?
I have been working at the District as an attorney for over five years and I hope to continue doing so for a long time. I work with great, dedicated people and the assignments are interesting, challenging, and fulfilling.
Best way to keep a competitive edge
Enjoy what you do, be good at it, and be likable while you’re doing it!
Guiding principle in life
You have three choices in life: 1) Get what you want; 2) Substitute; or 3) Forget about it. Once you select one of the three, you have made a decision and may move onto the next!
Yardstick of success
I measure my success by my state of happiness and fulfillment personally, professionally, and physically. Am I building and nurturing my relationships and becoming a better person? Am I meeting or exceeding the client’s expectations for at work? Am I exercising almost every day and eating well?
Exercise is very significant because it makes me happy; rigorous to moderate daily exercise means that I make time for myself to relieve stress, take care of my body and health, and get the endorphin rush so I can feel not just a sense of tangible accomplishment, but a real high. On the occasions when I suffered an athletic injury that required me to “rest” for weeks, I was actually less productive, less energetic, and less pleasant in every aspect of my life. As such, I make exercise a priority!
Goal yet to be achieved
Good question! I have several nonprofessional related goals that I would like to achieve. I would love to be proficient in martial arts, surfing, and ballroom dancing. Those are three activities on my “to do list.” I also want to travel more to see the wonders of the world and experience different cultures! I have been to Vietnam, Taiwan, China, South Africa, Canada, and Mexico. This year, I will visit Australia and New Zealand for 22 days. I would love to visit Europe, namely Spain, France, and Italy.
Best practical advice
Life is a theater, invite your audience carefully. Surround yourself with people who are healthy and mature enough to have a front row in your life. Relationships that uplift, encourage, and support you deserve to be in the balcony. You cannot change the people around you, but you can change the people you are around. Choose wisely to allow the truly deserving to sit in the front row of your life.
Supportive words from a family member or friend on your venture
1) Trust your instinct. 2) Anything that is not a “yes” is a “no.” 3) Don’t take what other people say too personally because it’s just business. 4) Do what you think is right.
I have had several mentors during various stages of my life. My friend Robert Lyons has been wonderful in providing me undivided attention, encouragement, and advice. He believed in me when I did not believe in myself. And of course, my parents and my three sisters Selina, Sara, and Sophia have all provided me love, support, and feedback.
What motivated you to get started?
Actually, I was tired of working in the law firm until midnight, 2 a.m., and 4 a.m. in the morning on top of many weekends and long hours. The constant stress of “billable hours” highly motivated me to search for an in-house job where my accomplishments for the day was not measured by a time sheet. The District was already a client of the law firm so I just went from being outside counsel to in-house counsel.
Like best about what you do?
I am able to help the day to day running of a school district and actually make a difference with people who care. Since I work for a public entity, I hold the public’s trust from an ethical and fiduciary standpoint. For this reason, I am able to be an advocate without having to take a legal position just to be “right” all the time. Working for a school district is very rewarding.
Like least about what you do?
I dislike having to deal with the bureaucracy associated with any large public organization. Specifically, I do not enjoy attending meetings all the time.
At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a school teacher. My parents bought me a real chalkboard at home so I could “practice” teaching. My dad told me I had neat penmanship on the chalkboard. I even had a real desk so my little sister could pretend to be my student. I used to write assignments on the board and give her homework.
What was your first job?
My first job was at age 16, working as a cashier at a stationery store.
Biggest pastime outside of work
It’s a tossup between eating and exercise. I love food. I constantly talk about food, my refrigerator and shelves are always stocked, and I even dream about what I am going to eat. I once told a former boss that eating is one of the greatest pleasures in life. He told me it was the second greatest pleasure.
Person most interested in meeting?
I don’t have a single person whom I would like to meet. I would like to meet singer/songwriter Michael Jackson because he is such an enigma. I would also like to meet any one of the successful computer and internet founders like Bill Gates of Microsoft, Sergey Brin of Google, and Jerry Yang of Yahoo. I would like to meet inspirational speaker Tony Robbins.
Three interesting facts about yourself
- When I was in law school and weighed 100 lbs, I was able to bench press 135 lbs (bar plus two large 45lb weights) for six repetitions!
- I can easily eat more than a guy twice my size and bodyweight. I once ate a 24 oz porterhouse steak, two side orders, and dessert with room to spare! (I can no longer eat like that and stay trim at the same time so I must often restrain myself.)
- I paddle a “dragon boat” which is a water sport in these long sleek vessels holding 20 people. I compete both as a coxswain and a paddler with the local and nationally ranked San Diego Dragon Boat Team (SDDBT). After soccer, for number of participants, dragon boat racing is the most popular sport in the world! SDDBT will represent the USA at the 2008 International World Crew Club Championships in Malaysia.
Three characteristics that describe you
Three greatest passions
- Having good conversation
I can’t say that I read books that much since I spend most of my at work reading and I would rather go out with friends, watch TV, or exercise in my free time. For fiction, I enjoyed “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden. For nonfiction, I read a variety of management, leadership, and men vs. women books. I like reading the old comic strips “Calvin & Hobbes” by Bill Watterson and “The Far Side” by Gary Larson.
Food! It makes the world go round!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.
Who would you like to be contacted by?
Since my two passions are exercise and eating, I would like to be contacted by any company, person, or entity who is interested in retaining me as a food critic or a reviewer of exercise clothes!
Interview by Vanessa Chan
Introduction by Preeti Aroon
Edited by Valerie Enriquez