As a young federal prosecutor, Carol Lam used to imagine the assumptions that would be made about her — a Chinese American woman — anytime she walked into a conference room dominated by White men.
“I’d think, ‘OK, you’re all looking at me. I know what you’re thinking about me. By the time we leave this room you’re going to be thinking something else.’”
That refusal to be intimidated — a word, Lam said, that never even entered her consciousness — has marked her career as a tenacious litigator and a trailblazing U.S. attorney.
Her tenure as Southern California’s first female and first Asian American U.S. attorney was cut short in 2007 after she was ousted from office in a very public bruhaha over low border prosecution numbers.
“It’s regrettable that it will always partly define my time in government,” Lam said. “But to hell with them. I’ll always be proud of the work I did there.”
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Lam had what she calls a privileged childhood living in New Jersey and studying in New York City.
As a philosophy major at Yale University, Lam was interested in organizations and why groups of people behave in certain ways.
But it wasn’t until her externship in San Diego as a Stanford University law student that her path crystalized. She remembers observing from the courtroom gallery one day when an impressive female prosecutor rose to address the court: “Joan Weber for the United States, your honor.”
Lam was struck by the powerful phrase. “I want to do that,” she decided then and there. Weber went on to be a well-known and respected San Diego Superior Court judge.
Lam joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego in 1986. She prosecuted a range of cases over her career, from routine border busts to complex fraud.
She cites her most important case as the one against La Jolla-based National Health Laboratories Inc. for a Medicare billing fraud scheme. The company’s president pleaded guilty in 1992, and the government secured the highest Medicare recovery at the time — $110 million. The case would serve as a blueprint for other nationwide health care fraud prosecutions.
All the while, Lam unapologetically pursued a career as a mother of four, with her geophysicist husband agreeing to manage many of the child-rearing and at-home duties.
She left the office to serve on the San Diego Superior Court bench in 2000, until she was tapped as U.S. attorney by President George W. Bush less than two years later.
She made it immediately clear that fraud and corruption would be priorities, along with a focus on building cases against the bigger fish responsible for driving border crime in the region.
It was under her leadership that Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham was prosecuted in one of the biggest public-corruption cases in U.S. history.
But several Republican politicians were not happy with her record on border crime — particularly immigration-related cases — citing low numbers overall and a demoralized Border Patrol union.
She was ousted in 2007, along with six other U.S. attorneys in other cities.
Lam could have been bitter. Instead, she chose grace.
She was immediately scooped up by Qualcomm, where she worked for the next 10 years as a deputy general counsel and senior vice president, overseeing litigation and compliance investigations, before retiring in 2018.