Rebel with a cause: Vietnamese student overcomes odds in pursuit of legal career


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Wayne Law student Ha Dang was born and raised in Thai Binh, one of the most agricultural—and conservative—provinces in Vietnam.

“I’ve been given direct insight into life without choices as a woman, because I was mostly taught while growing up that having a successful career would be a fringe indulgence because it would not teach me how to sacrifice for my future husband and children,” she says.

But Ha Dang—who grew up with male cousins, and whose mother had a career as a corporate finance manager—had other ideas.

“When I was younger, I was allowed to do everything ‘a guy can do but a girl cannot do’ in my culture,” she explains. “I ate at the same table and overheard my father and uncles talk business, I played battles with them, I talked about what role I would play in our family’s business in the future.”

But in her early teens, teachers termed Ha Dang as “rebellious and troublesome.”

“People started telling me I should ‘know my place so I could be a happy girl’,” she says. “I realized I had to do something about ‘fighting for who I am,’ although I could not phrase such thoughts in perfect words.”

When she learned young American girls are encouraged to pursue careers, Ha Dang was determined to come stateside. After tireless efforts to escape from unequal treatment and prejudices, at the age of 16, she won a full scholarship to study in the United States.

“I moved across the world to live and study, all by myself,” she says. “My parents were extremely emotional yet supportive about it.”

Her 8 years of studying in the U.S. have helped her grow tremendously, she notes. Blossoming in the liberal arts environment at The College of Idaho where she majored in political economy and minoring in business administration, mathematics, and music, Ha Dang in her junior year landed a 5-month academic internship with the Office of Attorney General of District of Columbia.

“It was an incredible experience,” she says. “I had the honor to work for extremely brilliant attorneys from the Civil Litigation Division and assisted them in three trials whose lengths varied from three days to two weeks and a half. Not only did I gain substantive understandings of D.C. civil codes, the experience tremendously improved my communication, legal research, and writing skills in the American legal environment. I was taught many practical litigation strategies, ranging from winning settlement negotiations to making outstanding closing arguments at trials.”

At the end of her internship, the attorneys threw a “sushi farewell party,” and strongly encouraged her to try out for law school.

She didn’t hesitate to take them up on the suggestion, and chose Wayne Law for its strong tax program, and to follow her mother into the world of corporate finance, with the goal of becoming a tax attorney. She also serves as vice president of the law school’s Asian Pacific American Law Student Association.

“Going to Wayne Law has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” she says. “The professors are not simply about teaching—they are about educating and mentoring. They’ve encouraged me to make the best out of my international background, because understanding how international trade works is vital for a transactional lawyer.” 

At the end of her 1L year, Ha Dang had the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills in commercial and business laws. Spending three months at Baker McKenzie Vietnam in Hanoi, she assisted senior attorneys with mergers and acquisitions (M&A) projects among the United States, Vietnam, and other Asian Pacific countries, working on various issues regarding M&A, business contracts, financial transactions, stocks and compliance with different governmental regulations of business and industry, in both English and Vietnamese.

“Although this office is based in Vietnam, which means a lot of Vietnamese laws are used, American laws are also researched and referenced in various cases,” she says. “I’ve expanded my legal knowledge about various markets, become more careful with details to avoid legal risks, and learned to think flexibly to catch opportunities when advising corporates.”

In her 2L year, Ha Dang devoted her time studying tax law, after which she landed an internship with General Motors. She has been working at GM Tax Counsel for approximately 5 months, reporting directly to the General Director of Global Indirect Tax.

“This opportunity has exposed me to complex international tax compliance processes, including conducting transaction analyses, assisting with business expansions, structuring mergers and acquisitions and monitoring large-scale global projects,” she says. “I’m learning a lot.”

In her free time, Ha Dang enjoys singing, dancing, drawing, and painting.

“I really appreciate arts and cultures,” she says. “I did opera for four years in college, and I love going to the Detroit Opera House.”

She also enjoys teaching and helping children, participating in educational programs that empower youth, especially young girls; and during summers back home in Vietnam, tries to coordinate with the U.S. Embassy and join their educational events.

“Education, to me, is extremely important,” she says. “I’ve witnessed so many girls in my hometown giving up their dreams and careers, only because they are told to do so. Having a happy family is essential—however, that doesn’t mean a girl has to sacrifice everything else in her life.”      

She recently successfully submitted an idea to the Clinton Foundation, about forming a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization focused on maximizing opportunities for children in Detroit to pursue bachelor degrees. After her idea was selected, she was invited to the annual Clinton Global Initiative Conference in October, hosted by former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea Clinton at the University of Chicago.

“I’ll meet with other students, mentors, and professionals who want to promote projects that make the world a better place,” she says. “I’m extremely humbled and excited about the opportunity.”