A Film to Make Our Alma Mater Proud

I am pleased to host a guest post today from Vincent Lau, BC Law ’97. Alumni, please note that the Sung sisters will be special guests speakers for the Alumni Assembly at this year’s Reunion on November 3. If this is your reunion year, we hope you will attend! ABACUS will be screened earlier that day on the Law School campus, and the Rappaport Center will also host a panel discussion after the screening, open to all.

ABACUS premieres on PBS Frontline on September 12.

I was recently invited to a special screening of the new PBS documentary film ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail. First of all, a disclaimer: this is not a film review. I have no credentials to dissect whether ABACUS was well done from a technical or an artistic standpoint. What I can share are my reactions, and this documentary resonated with me on several fronts. The fact that the story (and film) involves several BC Law alumnae makes it even more compelling for our community. I would encourage everyone to go see it.

Abacus is a community bank located in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. Thomas Sung, an immigrant and a lawyer, opened the bank so that he could meet the needs of the people there. He later convinced two of his four daughters (one a BC Law alum) to join him, by arguing that working in a community bank lending money to local entrepreneurs is an important and effective way of giving back to the community.

The importance of giving back is one of the first messages conveyed to me my 1L year, when former Dean Avi Soifer welcomed us to BC. Unfortunately for the Sung family, despite their good intentions, Abacus became the only U.S. bank that was indicted for mortgage fraud during the financial crisis in 2008. The documentary takes us through the journey endured by Thomas Sung, his wife, and his daughters – two of whom are BC Law alumnae. The film also makes it clear that Abacus was a sacrificial lamb of sorts for the “too big to fail” banks, and that the Sung family had done absolutely nothing wrong—in fact, their loan defaults were far lower than average.

As I watched the documentary, a theme that reverberated during my days at BC came to mind: giving back is possible in a variety of ways, but it never comes without risks.

I didn’t immediately see the link between getting a law degree, opening a community bank and giving back to the community. But the film did a nice job explaining the very real barriers that exist for many immigrants who want to start or grow businesses. As Thomas Sung’s legal practice grew, he recognized that if he could remove those barriers to getting financial capital, he could help many new immigrants pursue their dreams. He also tried to bridge the complexities of the American financial system with the unique cultural ways of doing business in an immigrant community.

Mr. Sung was invested in the outcome of his customer’s businesses, and not just from a financial perspective. It was clear to me that he loved the people in his community and that he was running the bank using principles of which our alma mater would approve. It was also commendable for his daughters, under their father’s prompting, to revisit why they went into law, and why helping others is more important than your own personal gain—another clear message from my days at BC Law.

However, the documentary is not a “feel good” movie about giving back to the community. It is not about championing the Sung family as heroes either. Instead, it is about what could happen to any one of us under the wrong circumstances. As indictments came down regarding mortgage fraud, the Sungs were not afraid to employ the judicial system to fight back and to prove themselves innocent. There were countless points during the film where I grew angry and incredulous: How could this happen? Aren’t there civil rights violations here? Why isn’t this happening to other banks? And yet, it was also a reminder to me that even while doing good, risks and even costs do exist.

The two alumnae sisters were actually present at the screening and gave a shout out to BC Law during a special panel discussion and Q&A, which included BC Law professor Brian Quinn as moderator. They shared with the audience how their BC Law experience and training prepared them for what they faced, and why what they did was important. I walked out of the event feeling proud on behalf of our alma mater. We’ve been equipped with legal skills so that we can help others, regardless of setting. While I do not run a bank, I, along with the rest of our alumni community, have benefitted from our legal training at BC, and I remind myself that we have a higher calling to do good and to give back to our community. The benefits of doing good, even after what the Sung family went through, far outweigh the potential costs.

ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail is a documentary film from PBS Frontline by Steve James, Director of Hoop Dreams and Life Itself. The film currently has a 92% favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Visit the ABACUS website at https://www.abacusmovie.com/. 

Vince Lau, BC Law ’97, is the managing partner of Clark Lau LLC, an immigration law firm in Kendall Square, and he spends his days developing effective immigration strategies for employers, entrepreneurs, professionals, artists, and families from abroad.

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