In Gonggam which she has led for 12 years, lawyers do not charge any commission for their work. Run purely through donations, Gonggam is an NGO whose workers work full-time for the public interest only. So founded Gonggam after graduating from the Judicial Research and Training Institute in 2004, along with three other friends, bringing up the concept of a full-time public interest law firm for the first time in Korea.
“I still could not decide what to do with my life during my last year at the institute,” So recalled. “I wanted to be closer to people in real world and do something meaningful. Although I did internships at high-ranking judicial institutions, nothing somehow fit me. When working as a judge at court, I wanted to interact with people more directly. Working as a prosecutor, I usually failed at carrying out strict interrogations since I could not bring myself to force a harsh examination upon defendants who were mostly in desperate situations.”
At that time, she attended a special lecture by Park Won-soon, the current mayor of Seoul city, addressing the importance of public interest lawyers. Impressed by the lecture, one of her classmates went to Park and suggested the idea of Gonggam under the Beautiful Foundation, which was led by Park at that time. Then, So and other two members joined and established the organization altogether.
The first mission So carried out as a Gonggam lawyer was to dispatch services to civic human rights groups that had no legal professionals. Her first workplaces were a female migrants’ humanitarian center and a shelter for prostitutes. Working this way for years, So gave legal advice and free defense to those women who were mostly beaten by their Korean husbands or had their pay extorted by brothel owners.
During these years, she yielded precious achievements for both herself and Gonggam. From the diverse cases and women’s realities that she witnessed, So came to identify herself as a lawyer specializing in women’s rights.
One of her memorable cases was about a Philippine woman who was sexually harassed by a male Korean marriage broker, along with several other migrant women. The case started out with many other harassed women’s accusation, but most of them withdrew their charges for various reasons. In the end, she remained the only plaintiff, while the accused was about to be released. Finally, her husband finally reached out to Gonggam for help. By providing the plaintiff free legal defense and interrogating persistently, the culprit eventually got sentenced to prison. However, the most memorable part was the recent call So got from the husband.
“He lately called to say hello,” So said. “He then told me that he had known me even before the case. Because I have been defending immigrant women’s rights for a while, I am quite infamous among anti-multiculturalism communities.”
Her husband was a member of the community before the marriage and was against So beforehand. So was grateful she could change one person’s perspective on multiculturalism and reach even to those who had once hated her.
Another outcome from these services is that it became a valuable foundation for Gonggam. After years of sincere work, members have built positive relationships with civic groups. Even today, dispatch services and collaboration with local citizens’ groups constitute Gonggam’s major work.
“At first, some people from NGOs were not all that positive about lawyers,” So said. “Some were dismissive and others were doubtful. They doubted our sincere motives and some expected us to be arrogant and not show enough dedication. However, we have earned their trust, and it is a precious asset to Gonggam.”
So’s activities in Gonggam are not limited to free defense or legal consultation. The members of the firm study structural problems that pose difficulties for the socially weak and alienated, and they try to amend laws to offer broader protection. So especially tries to make fundamental change in law for the safety of immigrant women and children.
“One of the bills that I have been trying to get enacted for years is a protection act for undocumented migrant children,” So said. “There is virtually no measure to protect these children in Korea. I have seen countless cases where mothers cannot take their kids to school or even to the hospital. But this issue always ends up neglected because it is not related to any major interest groups. I am hoping we can make a difference this year.”