I just got back from the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association powwow in Atlanta, and here's my unedited gut reaction: This was a seriously goodlooking crowd. And I'm not saying this because I'm part of the tribe. By any measure, this was a very attractive group—nattily dressed, poised, and impossibly trim. Some looked downright hot.
Why am I focusing on such superficiality? Well, because I'm shamelessly shallow. Secondly, because one of the hot discussions at the convention was whether Asian American (the politically correct term is "Asian Pacific American,"or "APA" to the cognoscenti) lawyers are dweebs.
In other words, APAs have a reputation of working their tails off, which gets them to the right law schools and the right firms. But then what happens? They get stuck because they lack that je-ne-sais-quoi to get to the next level. (Asian Americans make up only 2.5 percent of all partners in the Am Law 200. See related article, "Asian American Lawyers Still Underdogs.")
This theme was explored on two fronts--first in a speech by the Tiger Mom Amy Chua, whose control-freak parenting technique arguably contributes to the high-achieving nerd phenomenon. Then, immediately afterward, there was a panel on how tiger cubs ultimately fare in corporate America.
But before I tell you what Chua said, can I digress and tell you that she looked really fetching at the lectern? Wearing a very form-fitting black suit and heels that towered at least 5 inches, Chua didn't look like a moldy bookworm.
A lot of Chua's speech was about how unfairly she's been portrayed in the press as this humorless monster mother. She called the title of her famous article in The Wall Street Journal ("Why Chinese Moms Are Superior," which was excerpted from her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) "distorting." She said, "I never chose that headline. And I don't believe Chinese moms are superior."
I'll let you decide if The Wall Strret Journal damaged Chua irrevocably. But here's the bottom line: Though she's softened her parenting style (news flash: her second daughter is now allowed to do sleepovers!), Chua ultimately stands by her Chinese parenting technique. Instead of producing a bunch of paper tigers, Chua argues, strict parenting makes kids stronger—teaching them that "they are capable of so much more . . . that they can break through barriers." Considering that Chua is herself a product of extreme parenting, and she's done fine, she's her own best argument.
But how do most tiger cubs fare? Not so well, according to the panelists, which included Javade Chaudhri, GC of Sempra Energy; Wilson Chu, partner at K&L Gates; Don Liu, GC of Xerox Corporation; Linda Lu , associate GC of Allstate Inc.; Larry Tu, GC of Dell; and me. (Chua was supposed to participate in our panel but ditched us at the eleventh hour. She's a rock star—what can I say?)
The upshot of the discussion: Emphasizing high academic achievement is myopic because it overlooks the soft skills that propel people to the top ranks. "Like I tell my daughter," said K&L Gates's Chu, "it's just as important to know how to read people as it is to know how to read books."
But the problem is that Asians just can't help themselves when it comes to academic obsession. As Xerox's Liu recounted, he gave a stern lecture to his son when the boy came home with a mediocre grade in his advanced math class. Later, Liu asked himself, "Why did I do that?"
In fact, there was quite a bit of chest-pounding about whether the fixation on academic excellence is making Asian Americans into ideal associates who can't morph to leaders. Are APAs too deferential to authority and too quiet about blowing their own horn? The audience said yes.
Personally, I found this discussion pleasantly ironic because I didn't get the impression that this was a shy, timid crowd. Quite the opposite--both the panel members and the audience were highly articulate and forceful. I'd go a step further and say those qualities hold true for just about everyone I met at the convention.
Which brings me back to my original point: This was not a dweeby crowd. Ten or twenty years ago, more APA lawyers might have fit that bill, but I think there's been a sea change.
So are APA lawyers still saddled with a nerdy, not-ready-for-prime-time image? Is this the way law firms and corporations perceive Asian Americans, or the way we perceive ourselves? Whose stereotype is it?
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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.