When Fortune 500 companies need representation in employment and discrimination cases, they often turn to a law firm founded and led by a woman who began her legal career on the other side of the courtroom. Linda Wong, whose first job after college was in the state Division of Civil Rights, has built her Alexander Road-based firm, Wong Fleming PC, into one of the largest minority-owned firms in the country, with more than 50 lawyers working in 18 offices throughout North America.
Wong will be honored at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 Business Leadership Awards Gala, Wednesday, December 3, at 7 p.m. at TPC Jasna Polana. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776. Also honored at the dinner will be business leader of the year Anthony Kuczinski, CEO of Munich Reinsurance America; community leader of the year Judith Hutton, CEO of YWCA of Princeton; and entrepreneur of the year Eleanor Kubacki, CEO of EFK Group.
James Thurber, vice president of public affairs at Thomas Edison State College and a member of the committee that decided which businessperson to honor as “Innovator of the Year,” credits Wong with building one of the largest and fastest-growing law firms headquartered in the Princeton region.
“Her vision was to become a global law firm that businesses will seek out because of the expertise of the attorneys that are available to respond to their needs,” he says. “The feedback I’ve heard is that the associates at Wong Fleming consider it a really great place to work and that it has a great management team that’s really supportive of the development of associates.”
Wong, the youngest of five children, grew up in Westwood, where her parents owned the China Joy restaurant. She graduated from Rutgers in 1974 and worked at the state Division of Civil Rights as an investigator.
“As an investigator, I was working with a lot of lawyers. I liked the practice of law, and I was thinking to myself, ‘I could do what a lot of these lawyers are doing,’” she recalls. She went to Rutgers School of Law, graduating in 1982. At that point, she switched to the office of legislative services, where she worked as a public advocate on behalf of developmentally disabled people. From 1990 until 1994, she was assistant director for the Division of Civil Rights.
In 1994 she decided to found her own law firm in Edison, starting with just three people, including her husband and law partner, Dan Fleming, a 1981 Villanova graduate who received his law degree in 1984 from Catholic University in Washington, D.C..
At first the firm did a mix of employment litigation on behalf of employees as well as employers in addition to work on behalf of banks, corporations, and litigation involving failed savings and loans.
In the late 1990s, Wong took on several high-profile employment cases, and in the early part of 2000, the firm had to make a choice whether it wanted to represent plaintiffs or defendants. “We decided to make a complete switch and just represent corporations and their interests,” Wong says. “We were starting to have some conflicts of interest.”
Today Wong Fleming represents companies in employment litigation and also helps train companies in how to avoid discrimination lawsuits in the first place. Wong’s work on the other side of the courtroom gives her an advantage there. “The plaintiff’s litigation matters that I handled were very large cases, and when defending employers I have a lot of insight into what goes into the litigation strategy of plaintiffs when they are presenting these cases in court.”
Wong Fleming also does a lot of intellectual property lawsuit defense, representing banks and financial institutions in bankruptcy matters and defaulted commercial loans, and representing businesses that have had litigation brought against them involving construction and accidents.
Wong lived in Princeton for 30 years, where she raised her two daughters. Today she lives in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
Wong says that as an Asian-American lawyer, she has not experienced truly blatant discrimination on the job, but that she has been stereotyped occasionally. “I’ve been in some depositions where people have kind of stereotyped me, and I think they may take advantage of you because of the way you look. They think they can act rudely towards you during your deposition. And it’s possible that people have stereotyped me when I’ve been in court or even with regard to hiring the firm,” she says.
Thurber says Wong’s biggest innovation was to create a national law firm that offered experienced and competent attorneys that was also dedicated to diversity. “It’s a different way of conceptualizing what it means to be a law firm composed primarily of minorities and women attorneys,” he says. “They focus first on providing the highest quality representation to the clients.”
Among the partners at Wong Fleming are a high percentage of women and people of color. The firm won the Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s 2014 Thomas L. Sager award for promoting diversity in the legal field. The firm has also participated in many bar organizations and community groups that promote diversity.
“There are some people who have this stereotypical notion that if you are a minority law firm, you can’t be as good as some of the other law firms that are out there,” Wong says. “But once people see us making presentations at bar functions and also see us in court, I think it’s a good demonstration for people that a company can hire minorities and be a woman-owned law firm and get excellent results.”