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Alien land law case leads to CYLA award for young lawyer

Staff Writer

When San Francisco attorney Tracie Brown heard about a property dispute between members of the local Japanese community and the YWCA, it piqued her interest.

Tracie Brown

The San Francisco YWCA wanted to sell its building in Japantown, but a few old-timers thought their ancestors held some ownership rights to the now valuable piece of real estate.

A look at the YWCA's old board minutes laid out the history of the building's ownership, revealing that an association of Japanese Christian churches known as Soko Bukai joined forces to found the Japanese YWCA early in the 20th century, Brown said. Although they raised enough money to purchase the building, alien land laws in place in the 1920s prevented the Japanese from owning most kinds of real property because of their racial ancestry. As a result, the main YWCA held title to the land actually owned by the Japanese YWCA.

A lawsuit was born.

When the original law firm handling the case for Soko Bukai was disqualified, Brown prevailed upon her firm, Cooley Godward LLP to take up the cause. For more than two years, Brown and Cooley partner Ben Riley, along with associate Beatrix Mejia, spent close to 3,000 hours on the case.

"Both sides felt very strongly they had the right side of things," Brown said.

In the end, the case settled with a local Japanese community group buying the building at a greatly reduced price. "It was a nice resolution of hard-fought litigation," Brown said. "It was wonderful it was able to be resolved in a way that both sides could move forward."

As a result of her efforts, Brown last month received the Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public from the California Young Lawyers Association. The award is presented annually in the memory of Jack Berman, a young lawyer who provided substantial pro bono legal assistance before he was killed in the massacre at 101 California Street in San Francisco.

In the words of the attorney who nominated Brown for the award, "Ms. Brown's work in representing Soko Bukai and the Japanese-American community's interests makes us proud to be lawyers. Her work stands as a fitting memorial to the legacy of the Issei (i.e. first generation) women."

Brown, who is half-Japanese, said her pro bono efforts offer "a nice change from the kind of work I usually do. It's very human and there's a direct impact on people's lives, as opposed to the intellectually challenging but somewhat distant work of commercial litigation, where you represent large corporations."

Brown, 31, joined Cooley in 1997 and practices intellectual property, trade regulation and business litigation. Just before taking on the Soko Bukai case, she took a leave from the firm to complete a clerkship with federal appellate Judge M. Margaret McKeown.

At Boalt Hall, where she received her law degree, Brown was research and topics editor for the Asian Law Journal and she received an American Jurisprudence Award in health care law and a Prosser Award in civil procedure.

Before enrolling in law school, Brown graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in English and American Literature and taught English in Japan.

In addition to her work on the Soko Bukai case, Brown has actively promoted pro bono work at her law firm, featuring the case in Cooley's recruitment efforts.

Remembering a community rally for the Soko Bukai which drew 400 people, Brown said watching people's "appreciative faces" made her efforts worthwhile. "It was extremely uplifting to see everyone there," she said.

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