Iris Leong is the Assistant Vice President and Legal Counsel for 99 Ranch Market, the largest Asian supermarket chain in the United States, which owns more than 35 stores nationwide. She is perhaps one of the youngest Asian Pacific American (APA) general counsels in Southern California.
Born in Taiwan to a journalist father and a homemaker mother, Iris moved to Malaysia for a year to attend preschool while her mother gave birth to her little brother. She recounts the strict emphasis her preschool had on teaching trilingual languages to the children. "At age five, we had to learn English, Malay and Mandarin Chinese vocabularies every morning. Each child was expected to stand in front of the class to properly recite the day of the week, the date, and the weather for that day in all three languages. If I made a mistake in one language, my teacher would not let me go outside to play on the seesaw. I would practice the night before to be prepared for my turn in front of the class the next day. It was nerve-wracking!” That early trilingual experience led Iris to continue to develop her Mandarin Chinese language skills even after she immigrated to Southern California with her family at age nine. To this day, Iris’s fluency in Mandarin Chinese is what helped land her dream job as general counsel for 99 Ranch Market. As an immigrant APA, she emphasizes that bilingual skills are a very important asset in today’s job market. "It helps set you apart from other candidates and makes you more marketable,” she said.
Surprisingly, becoming a lawyer was not part of her original career plan. At first, Iris had her sights set on becoming an optometrist while attending the University of California, Irvine. However, during her second year, as a favor for her roommate who miserably wanted to quit her job at a criminal defense law firm in Orange County, Iris agreed to take on her "envelope stuffer” job. That sparked her interest in law and changed the course of her career. After college, she decided to pursue a law degree at Western State University School of Law in Fullerton with a concentration in business law. At that time, she was one of a handful of APA law students at Western State University. She, along with two other APA students, started the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association (APALSA) to enhance diversity on campus and to encourage more APA applicants to apply to the school. She was the APALSA Vice President and Historian during her remaining two years there.
In order to pinpoint her area of interest within the law profession, Iris explored various opportunities during law school. She interned for the Orange County Public Defender, served as senior law clerk for the general counsel of First World Financial, Inc.- GMAC Real Estate, and even clerked for the Hon. John Nho Trong Nguyen, who sits on the Orange County Superior Court today. She finally found her calling at the annual Gala Dinner for the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC-SoCal). As a law student volunteer for the event, she was inspired by the in-house counsel attendees who encouraged her to pursue her goal of becoming an in-house counsel. After graduating, Iris worked for Public Counsel as a volunteer attorney on its bankruptcy and consumer law projects. She was a Small Claims Court Mediator for the Orange County Superior Court in Fullerton, California, where she mediated landlord/tenant, consumer/merchant, and domestic dispute cases. 99 Ranch Market hired her as its Legal/Compliance Specialist in 2008 and eventually elevated her to general counsel, where she now oversees all legal matters for the company, primarily in labor and employment, intellectual property, advertising and promotion, and regulatory compliance.
When asked what her key to success is, Iris quotes three words that have guided her to where she is today: ownership, initiative, and perseverance. "It is important to take ownership of your job, any job you do, and really own it. We need to go above and beyond and really take ownership of every job, every assignment, and every project we do for our employer. When you are passionate about your job, you do better at it and you enjoy it more. People will notice and your superiors will start giving you work that is important to them and if you do well, they will think of you at the next promotion or pay raise.” To be passionate at your job also requires initiative. "You must have the ability to begin or to follow through with an assignment or a project and have the ability to assess and initiate things independently.” Next, perseverance will lead to achieving success. "Do not let difficulties, failure, or opposition from other people stop you from continuing your efforts to achieve your goal. Some of the most successful people owe it to their persistence in sticking to a plan which is the key to their success” she said. In addition, Iris encourages young attorneys to be proactive, seek mentorship, and stay connected with the various bar associations. "There are so many resources out there for young attorneys. You just need to push yourself out there and network, network, network.”
Iris is on the Association of Corporate Counsel’s (ACC-SoCal) Diversity Committee and is a proud member of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association (SCCLA), Asian Pacific American Bar Association (APABA), National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), and OCA-Greater Los Angeles chapter. She is the Snow Mentor for Stoked, a non-profit mentoring organization that targets youth from under-served communities to achieve a more successful future through action sports programs that result in personal and academic developments, positive relationships, and a healthy lifestyle. In her spare time, Iris enjoys snowboarding, Bikram yoga, and shopping at 99 Ranch Market. These materials were prepared by John W. Kim of Nossaman LLP. Nossaman LLP and Mr. Kim are members of the Insolvency Law Committee.