Cole Yamane

John Choi: The Surfer’s Lawyer

By Lauren Rolland

Avid waterman, family man, surfer and fisherman, John Choi is far beyond your typical town surfer. In fact, the ocean athlete wears a pressed shirt with slacks, works on the 23rd floor of a high rise in the business district of Honolulu and presents cases to a judge and jury on a regular basis. As a trial lawyer, John Choi spends countless hours in the office preparing for a court case, yet believe it or not, still manages to get in the ocean for a quick surf or dive. How many trial lawyers do you know that make time for a session at Bowls?

Combine ‘surfer’ with ‘lawyer’ and you get a blend of professionalism and play. It is amazing how this man has developed his work/life balance and it’s evident in his presence. Happy and lighthearted yet intelligent and focused, John can talk about current insurance issues and the real meaning behind Shakespeare’s ‘kill the lawyers first’, and just as easily chat about the World Title race and Dane Reynolds being his favorite surfer.

Born in Seoul, Korea and raised in Manhattan Beach, California, John first learned to body surf at his local beach break, Marine Street, and then progressed to body boarding and surfing. “My first board was a bright yellow Rick twin fin,” he mentions. John’s parents owned a restaurant called Wiki Wiki Teriyaki, so it seemed almost inevitable that the beach town vibe and lifestyle of California would eventually lead him to Honolulu. “I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a lot of Hawaiian influences in Manhattan Beach when I was growing up,” John recalls, which inadvertently may have instilled his attraction to the islands.

A resident of Oahu for 16 years now, the surfer graduated from UC Irvine and got his law degree at Vermont Law. He worked as a deputy attorney general and then eventually started his own private practice in Honolulu. Surfing has allowed John to be the relaxed, passionate and cool person he is today, despite the stressful career. Living in Kapahulu with his wife Michelle and two daughters Jasmine (9) and Jocelyn (7), the avid surfer/lawyer is grounded when it comes to his work/life balance.

What comes first – surfing or work?

Definitely surfing. My job is so stressful that without getting in the ocean at least once a week, whether I’m diving, surfing or just going for a swim, it’s hard to get rid of that negative energy that builds. So I get wet as much I can. I remember doing double sessions, before and after work, that was BC days, before children.

As a lawyer, it seems your job would keep you pretty busy though.

There are bouts where I have to work 30 days straight preparing for trial. But even then I try to sneak a session in because I know that its counterproductive to work that much and not have a release. I go to the gym too, but there’s no greater release than the ocean, and the gym prepares me to get in the water and makes my experience in the ocean more meaningful.

How would you say your time in the water helps you connect with your clients once back on land and in the office?

Just being more relaxed helps me to relate with my clients, to connect. In order to effectively advocate to the jury or judge, I need to walk in my client’s shoes. My relationship with my client has everything to do with being connected to nature and the ocean.

Talk about about how surfing centers your life.

I grew up in a home with some issues, and the time in between sets just sitting in the ocean healed me, it was my time to pray or just talk story with other surfers and connect with the healing power of the ocean. Everything seems so much better after an ocean therapy session.

Tell us about surfing and growing up in Manhattan Beach with your family.

Going in the ocean was a total escape for me growing up. Sunny Garcia and Buffalo Keaulana’s lives and upbringing resonate with my own… I’m so grateful for all of my experiences and I believe that part of my background has really prepared me for the difficulties of being a trial lawyer.

I remember when I first started surfing in Hawai’i; it was like going from Pop Warner to the NFL with nothing in between, no training camp. And I realized the importance of that was to build my resolve to continue my work as a trial lawyer. Because when I take waves on the head it’s like taking trials on the head… you have to just keep paddling out and you have to keep looking for that perfect wave.

Where is your favorite place to surf?

The wave itself… there’s no better wave than Bowls. It has a combination of everything. When I’m surfing it a lot in the summer I’ll go out there as much as I can. But because the crowd is so gnarly, I don’t even think I went there all this year. That’s my favorite wave, but then I like to surf Suicides a lot because it’s not that crowded. But if I had my choice I would be at Bowls every time. Before I had kids I was surfing the North Shore a lot too – Rocky Point, Ehukai Beach, Himalayas, Avalanches, Left Overs… I surfed big waves, but I wouldn’t consider myself a big wave surfer.

Tell us about your other hobbies.

Pole fishing, SUPing, ocean swimming and spearfishing. Spearfishing has actually consumed my life for the past 3 years because I got into a car accident and hurt my neck, and decided to take a break from surfing to let it heal. My buddy Chris Cramer got me started on diving and now I dive every chance I get.

I’ve done the Waikiki Roughwater Swim and I do the North Shore Swim Series too every year. I’ve also competed in the Land Shark Surf Contest, which is held more or less every year at Kewalos. It’s for lawyers and their friends, and in 2011 I competed in all four categories – shortboard, longboard, SUP and boogie board. Of the four different categories, I took 1st in one and placed in two others. I think in recent history I’m the only one to have cross-placed in different categories.

Every Saturday is soccer Saturday. I played soccer growing up, so it’s nostalgic to relive that through Jasmine and Jocelyn. And then Sundays we’re always at church, then golf. We spend our weekends together, from sunrise on Saturday morning to sunset on Sunday.

As a family man, waterman and lawyer, what words of wisdom do you have for the Freesurf audience?

Never ever give up.


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