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Big Law's Bamboo Ceiling—Is It Finally Broken?

Vivia Chen

April 24, 2013

© ryanking999_FotoliaEditor's note: This is part two of series on Asian Americans. (Click here for part one.)

Have Asian Americans broken the racial barriers when it comes to career success? You'd think so, judging by the recent Pew survey, which I reported on a few days ago, that finds Asian Americans to be better educated, wealthier, and happier than most Americans. In fact, a sizable percentage of Asian Americans no longer regard discrimination as a major issue in their own lives (over 80 percent say it's a "minor" problem or "not a problem").

Arguably, Asian Americans have never been more confident. But does that confidence extend to the elite circles of the legal sector? The short answer: no.

On the surface, Asian Americans seem well positioned in the world of big law. According to NALP:

    - They account for half of all minority associates nationally and in Big Law.

    - Among partners, Asian Americans are better represented than either black or Hispanic partners.

Even more impressive is this statistic from the Major, Lindsey & Africa 2012 partner compensation survey: 

The average compensation of white partners was $682,000 (+5 percent). Asian-Pacific and Hispanic partners reported significantly higher average compensation ($712,000; +39 percent) and $655,000 +28 percent, respectively), whereas black partners’ average compensation declined 11 percent (from $550,000 to $489,000).

Despite that big rise in earnings, you'd be hard-pressed to find many Asian Americans who are the primary movers and shakers in Big Law.

Xerox general counsel Don Liu says the Major Lindsey stats are "promising and a bit surprising." But he cautions: "If you look at the conversion rate from associate to partner, APAs [Asian Pacific Americans] are not doing so well. APA partners may be doing better financially, but far too few APAs make it to partnership in the first place."

Indeed, though Asian Americans are overflowing the associate ranks, they constitute under 2.5 percent of the nation's partners in big firms, according to both The American Lawyer and NALP.

"The ones who are well paid or on management are not the APAs," says Andrew Hahn, a partner at Duane Morris. "At least not from what I've seen." Hahn adds that Asian American lawyers tend to work hard and not make a lot of noise about the advancement challenges they face: "Maybe they complain less and tend to look at things in a positive way . . . it all goes hand in hand with the model minority myth."

Though Hahn says he represents the "older" generation of APA lawyers, his views are shared by the younger generation too. Says an APA Yale law student: "For me and others here, we've come to understand discrimination as being something more insidious—acts of micro-aggression that may not seem particularly overt, or structural injustice." Some of that subtle discrimination has to do with access to power, explains this Yale student: "So much of getting hired in the legal industry is about being about to schmooze and network, and there often feels like there is a cultural barrier in place."

So are Asian Americans still the outsiders? Well, it's complicated, because I think it's a combination of how others see APAs and how they perceive themselves.

William Lee, the former co–managing partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, cautions that it can be self-defeating to assume that race or ethnicity is the root of the problem: "If you don't get a job, the first question shouldn't be whether it's because you're Asian."

Racial stereotypes about Asian Americans have also evolved, he adds. When he started practicing law in 1976, Lee was a novelty who didn't fit the image of the tough, all-American litigator. "Now the bias is that the Asian litigator is smart and straightforward," says Lee. "That’s what my jury consultants tell me!"

Lee sees "real progress" in the profession, but he also says that "race and ethnicity will always be an issue. It may be less of an issue. It may be a more subtle issue." Even today, Lee repeats his father’s advice to young lawyers: “Don’t forget you are Chinese, because no one else will.”

What do you think? Are APA lawyers now accepted in Big Law? Or do they still face long odds in attaining partnership?

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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.

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We can't forget how pervasive implicit bias is. Read about the study demonstrating a bias against Asians as litigators: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1442119.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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