Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Position: Leading Asian American Criminal Defense Attorney, Los Angeles
Don’t play cards with Mike Yamaki unless you enjoy losing your shirt. If you go to trial against him, he’ll litigate circles around you so bad you’ll end up recommending him for the police commission. That’s exactly what his opponents on the police force did when they nominated the Vegas-card-dealer-turned defense attorney.
Yamaki is the first Asian American to have sat on the Los Angeles Police Commission. Those same arresting officers and DA’s whose cases collapsed under his scrutiny showed their respect by supporting his nomination. He was involved in rewriting policy guidelines after former chief Darryl Gates split the city along racial lines.
“When you’re the first, you have to open the doors so there can be a second and third,” says Yamaki. “Unfortunately too many people want to be the only.”
For Yamaki making his way through the political ranks serves two purposes. The contacts he makes helps him transition his practice from the trial arena to the business market. 19 years of defending the underdog has worn on him. He recently won a case defending Steven Song, a Pacific Palisades, California man accused of murdering his wife. When the jury deadlocked 9-3 to acquit, he persuaded the judge to dismiss the case. Yamaki showed that the three holdouts could not articulate any reason why they felt Song was guilty. They were simply biased from the start. Yamaki’s investigator, a former homicide detective accustomed to prosecuting, told him after the trial, “Defending innocent people is really tough.”
Yamaki now represents numerous major American and foreign companies who, thanks to him, deal directly with the folks in charge. Part of representing these companies is having to dine at the finest restaurants, golf on the most prestigious greens, stay at the most luxurious hotels and hang out at the most exclusive country clubs. Not bad, as long as the client picks up the tab.
The cream lifestyle is only half of it though. Yamaki firmly insists that the Asian American community needs to get involved in the political process.
“Matt Fong is a Republican and I support him though I’m a Democrat because he’s an Asian American that I believe has the best interest of Asians at heart,” says Yamaki, referring to California’s State Treasurer.
“We need to support the business of politicking because without that part, you have no business. They can take it away from you at any time. And that’s exactly what they did with the Japanese during World War II. People are fooling themselves if they don’t think that can happen again.”
Yamaki’s strong convictions can be rooted to his past. He was a wild child, out to make some noise. Born in South Central Los Angeles, he ran with a fast crowd, what today, he says, people would call a gang. They got into fist fights and basically had a good time, a far cry from the drug lords that try to run modern cities. He got kicked out of high school for fighting and was placed in a “social adjustment” school for a time. Exactly how long, he declines to say. But the fast life of his youth readied him for faster days as a student.
A couple of sharks named David Yick, then the craps manager at Caeser’s Palace, and Jim Sugita taught Yamaki the card trade. They hooked him up at Silver Slipper, a casino where he spent the next four years dealing cards and paying his way through law school at the University of West L.A. Yamaki took day and night classes Tuesdays and Wednesdays, day classes on Thursdays, then flew to Vegas to deal Thursday through Sunday nights. He studied in between shifts. Yamaki knew a pilot who made the flight between L.A. and Vegas who let him on for free. He learned quickly the value of contacts. After he graduated law school, he found many lawyers happy to scratch his back if he could get them a good room or tickets to a show. Vegas was still a mob town.
“A lot of people thought, ‘Wow, man, what a tough schedule,” says Yamaki. “In actuality when you’re young, it keeps you from wasting your time fooling around because you’ve got to get something done.”
He admits, though, that it was fun. Six months after graduation, he was still in Vegas. If Robert Takasugi, a federal judge and long-term friend, hadn’t told him to get his act together and practice law, Yamaki might still be partying in Vegas. Now, he and wife Tritia Toyota party with a different crowd—company presidents and political leaders.