Getting to Know Hellen Hong
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Hellen Hong is the CEO of CalBar Affinity, which operates CalBar Connect. CalBar Connect is a CLA member benefits provider which offers exclusive discounts and special deals on goods and services for California attorneys. All net revenues from CalBar Connect fund diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, civics engagement efforts, and support legal aid organizations and fellowships for law students and new lawyers through programs through CLA and California Lawyers Foundation. We wanted to learn more about how she got into that business and what inspires her.
Can you tell me about your background and experience that led you to the position of CEO of CalBar Affinity?
Like so many other Californians, I was shaped by my immigrant experience. My family came to the U.S. when I was young, and my parents tirelessly ran small businesses (a milk mart and a coffee shop) in Los Angeles, eventually sending their four daughters to college. The 1992 LA Riots changed my life and spurred my interest in community building through service and advocacy. I started law school while working full time but had to drop out when my dad became very ill, and I took over running my parent’s deli. I started over again at Loyola Law School, working full time as a government relations director at UCLA.
After law school, my career evolved from social justice advocacy to public interest law to running multimillion-dollar nonprofit organizations. I worked as the executive director of a legal aid organization, an executive of a national nonprofit supporting foster and probation youth, and then as the first Director of Access and Inclusion at the State Bar of California.
Now as the CEO of CalBar Affinity, I am thrilled to support solo and small firm attorneys running their businesses while raising revenue for access to justice initiatives, fellowships for law students, and lawyer and legal aid programs.
Can you provide an example of when you faced a significant challenge as a leader and how you overcame it? What lessons did you learn from that experience?
I began my stint as the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization in the first month of the Great Recession in 2008. When I started, there were months when I wasn’t sure we could make payroll. I had a very steep learning curve in financial management, and we survived and ultimately grew and thrived. I learned three valuable lessons:
- You must always know your financials. In law school, we learned that you must know the facts of your case; in business, you have to know your numbers.
- Build a team, both inside and outside your organization, whom you can rely on and ask for help. I had an amazing team of leaders in the organization and a trusted cabinet of advisors. I could not have succeeded without them.
- Make a contingency plan. Hope for the best and plan for the worst. So many things are out of your control as a leader, so you must always plan for multiple scenarios.
What are some common questions you get about your job or the company?
What Is CalBar Connect?
CalBar Connect is the platform for special products and services for California attorneys. We administer State Bar of California-sponsored insurance programs and California Lawyers Association (CLA) member benefits. CalBar Connect is available to all licensed attorneys (active or inactive), and CLA members often get even deeper discounts.
How do we get discounts?
CalBar Connect meets the legal business needs of attorneys by leveraging the collective buying power of 200,000+ attorneys to obtain discounts, specialized educational content, and other benefits. Attorneys can learn more and access these benefits.
Who is our audience?
CalBar Connect focuses on supporting solo and small firm practitioners by offering a variety of products to increase efficiency and compliance. Licensed attorneys can find professional liability insurance tailored to various practice needs, life insurance for their family, trust accounting software, flexible office spaces, court forms, and savings on lifestyle products like student loan refinancing and travel services.
What’s the catch?
There’s no catch! We use the collective buying power of over 200,000 California licensed attorneys to negotiate special discounts and benefits. Companies want to do business with attorneys. They incentivize your engagement by offering discounts, free MCLEs, and other educational content. Plus, any royalties or revenues CalBar Connect receives through the partnership support our legal profession. All the net revenues fund legal aid organizations, enhance justice initiatives, fund fellowships for law students and new lawyers, and support CLA Foundation initiatives. It’s a win-win proposition!
How do you stay updated on industry trends and advancements and apply that knowledge to drive innovation and develop CalBar Connect offerings?
I subscribe to five or six online papers, including legal, insurance, financial, and mainstream. I attend a variety of conferences and webinars that are focused on solo and small firm attorneys and also talk to solos directly. I follow what is happening with regulatory changes with the State Bar. I also talk to vendors and entities to learn about trends in other jurisdictions similar to California. All of this knowledge helps ensure that we offer products and discounts that are timely and responsive to attorneys’ needs.
What do you wish you had known when starting your career?
I wish I knew I didn't need to sacrifice my financial security for what I believed in! I spent most of my twenties volunteering and doing nonprofit work. I wish I had put the little money I made into retirement funds. I didn't understand compound interest back then when the stock market was at 8,000!
Who is a person that inspires you and why?
I find the day-to-day heroes inspiring—nonprofit leaders who lead their teams during tumultuous times, the quiet volunteers who dedicate their time and energy to causes they care about, and parents who balance careers, kids, and aging parents. As I get older, I am more amazed by the people around me!