October 11, 2016

Profile of an Advocate: Alum Thomas Chow ’07

Businessman by trade, pro bono attorney by passion

When Thomas Chow ’07 walked into the classroom on his first day of law school, the room went quiet. Everyone watched as he chose a seat in the front row. “Are you the professor?” students around him asked.

They soon discovered that their more mature classmate was a new 1L student, just like them. Unlike most of them, however, Chow had already had a long and successful career as a businessman and entrepreneur. He was studying law so that one day he could handle the legal affairs he encountered in his business. In addition to being a businessman, Chow was heavily involved in community service and felt a law degree would allow him to help other people with their legal needs – for free.

“I never intended to practice law for a profit,” he says, and he never has. Since receiving his JD, he has volunteered as a pro bono attorney while continuing to run his business ventures. He has helped countless people break free from domestic abuse, obtain immigration papers under impossible circumstances, protect themselves from elder abuse and fraud, and more.

Chow’s path to law school is unusual. He was born in China during the Communist Party regime, but his mother snuck him into Hong Kong when he was still a baby. His four older siblings later joined them. When Chow was nine, his father also escaped, but he died a year later after being struck by a car. It was then that Chow’s mother starting planning for the family to move to the small coastal town in the U.S. where her father had immigrated in 1932. Chow was 17 when he and his family finally arrived in Astoria, Oregon.

He graduated from high school, and then college, receiving a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Oregon. Facing racial discrimination, Chow struggled to find work as an accountant. “I could not get a single CPA firm to interview me,” he recalls. “Even when I signed up for interviews during campus recruiting, the interviewers either didn’t show up or made excuses to leave as soon as I walked into the room.” He considered going to law school and signed up for the LSAT, but didn’t take it. “It was the UO Kamikaze Kids basketball days. I scored a ticket to a basketball game and was so excited that I forgot about the test!”

Chow moved to Portland and began working as a programmer for a large tech company, having had some experience with computers. Within a year, he became the youngest manager at the company. Despite receiving strong performance reviews and salary increases, only his white colleagues were getting further promotions. He decided to start his own business and prove to himself that he could lead an organization.

Out on his own, Chow built a successful business with over a hundred employees in Oregon and Washington. It was ranked by the Inc. 500 Magazine as one of the fastest growing business in the U.S. in 1988 and 1989. In 1994, he was selected as the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce’s Community Leader of the Year. A year later, Chow’s company was named Lake Oswego Chamber Champion. In 1997-98, he led the Lake Oswego School District Foundation as its president.

While his interests changed over time, he always spent time volunteering in the community. “After working and volunteering for many years, I was looking for other hills to climb. Now and then, I would still wonder if I could get into law school,” he says.

It was a kidney stone that ultimately led him to apply. “I couldn’t work for six months, so while I waited for the kidney stone to pass, I decided to sign up for the LSAT again,” he says. “It was a most interesting experience sitting for the exam, all drugged up with a kidney stone inside.” Chow did well enough on the exam and enrolled in the part-time evening division at Lewis & Clark Law School.

“I was immediately impressed by my fellow classmates’ backgrounds and intelligence,” says Chow. “Many have since became very successful attorneys and remain my friends despite an age difference of 20 or more years.” His daughter, Lana (Chow) Le Hir, followed her father’s footsteps, graduating from Lewis & Clark Law School in 2012, five years after Chow. (Le Hir is featured in the most recent Advocate in a story on energy law).

Upon graduating law school, Chow started volunteering for the Legal Aid Society of Oregon (LASO). In 2011, he was honored with the Multnomah Bar Association’s Michael E. Haglund Volunteer Lawyers Project Award, given to a new lawyer who displayed a special commitment to pro bono services. At the time, he had provided over 475 pro bono hours’ to 75 clients through LASO.

Chow continues his pro bono work and recently received the Northwest Examiner’s 2016 Glen Downs Justice For All Award. Whether it’s mentoring new entrepreneurs or offering pro bono legal assistance, Chow is the epitome of a true advocate.