As a lawyer, Gary Zhao uses his legal skills to help those who may have trouble navigating the system. As a native of China, he uses his language skills at the Chinatown Pro Bono Clinic to help indigent immigrants.
Zhao emigrated from Beijing as a teenager.
“When I first came, I had a language hurdle," he said. "Kids in Michigan obviously watched different TV and their schools were different and their clothes were different.”
He attended English as a Second Language classes for two hours a day.
“I watched a lot of TV and talked to my classmates," he said. "There were very few Chinese-speaking people. The class taught us how to speak English like a Midwesterner. It took me two years to catch up and I was writing poetry.
As a political science major at the University of Michigan, Zhao became interested in law through writing and government courses. Classes in domestic and international law showed him how laws could impact people’s lives.
“Living in Chicago, there is a big immigrant population from China," he said. "They may struggle as an adult. If you don’t know the language, you’ll have trouble following the rules, paying property taxes, disputes with your landlord. This is always something I can relate to because of my own immigrant background."
Zhao, 39, is a partner in Smith Amundsen in Chicago, specializing in civil litigation. He spent three years as president of the Chinese American Bar Association of Greater Chicago, creating a mentoring program for law students. The association held events with practicing attorneys talking to college seniors, teaching them how to network, talk to people, search for jobs.
“We’re hoping students find benefits and then become future members," he said. "You don’t just graduate from Loyola or DePaul and get a job. Helping out law students is a primary goal for me.”
He is co-chairman of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association Litigation Committee, focusing on professional development, mentoring and recruitment of young attorneys. He has spearheaded the launch of annual firm-wide celebrations of African American History Month and Pride Week. The firm obtained top tier rating from Equality Illinois and top 15 ranking in Law360’s 100 Best U.S. Law Firms for Female Attorneys.
“We want to make sure this is a welcome place,” said Zhao, who is co-chairman of the diversity committee. “Promotions, retention and recruitment are reviewed on a monthly basis.”
Though many of the groups he volunteers with are aimed at Asian-Americans, everyone is welcome.
“Maybe someone is looking to work with an international law firm, we have a partner who handles that," he said. "Or they want help working with international trade, overseas transactions, Chinese clients, trade organizations or trademarks."
Zhao and his wife, Rita, have two daughters, Zoe, 5, and Emily, 2½, and live in Aurora.