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Asian American Lawyers Still Underdogs

Vivia Chen

February 3, 2011

Chinese It's the start of Chinese New Year--the Year of the Rabbit--so what better time to check on the state of Asian American lawyers?

Arguably, all that "You-better-make-straight-A's-or-I-will-kill-you-then-commit suicide-myself" Chinese parenting style must be paying off, because Asian American lawyers seem to be at all the elite, swanky firms.

In New York, Asians represent over 50 percent of all minority lawyers, reports The New York City Bar in its latest diversity study. Nationally, they make up about half of all minority associates, reports NALP in its January bulletin. Moreover, even during the economic turbulence, when minority lawyer figures declined from 19.67 percent in 2009 to 19.53 percent in 2010, Asian Americans actually saw their numbers increase, from 9.28 percent to 9.39 percent.

Asian American lawyers are on a roll, right? Not exactly.

The bottom line is that Asian American lawyers thin out at the top. In fact, they are losing ground, says the NYCB study: "Over multiple periods of tracking the diversity benchmark data, the representation of Asian attorneys consistently declined with increasing levels." The study says that, among minority lawyers, they represented 55 percent of associates, 49 percent of partners, and 36 percent of practice group heads, as of March 2010.

What's puzzling about the data, says Lisa Levey, who led the NYCB research, is that there's no obvious reason for the consistent decline of Asians in the upper ranks.  Unlike women who bail out of the profession in greater numbers, "Asians have attrition rates that parallel the overall rate," says Levey. Logically, then, Asians should be rising through the system.

"We have to contend with the myth of the model minority," says Yang Chen, executive director of The Asian American Bar Association of New York, about how Asian lawyers are presumed to be successful. "People are surprised that we need an organization for Asian lawyers. They always say to me, 'But you're all so successful.'" It might be news to everyone else, but the lack of upward movement is hardly a surprise to the Asian American lawyers, says Chen.

But I thought I found a silver lining in the NYCB study: Asian Americans are increasingly heading up practice groups. In 2007, Asians represented just over 14 percent of all minorities leading a practice area, while in 2010, that figure jumped up to 36.1 percent.

Chen, however, is not that impressed. "Maybe they're leading an Asian practice group or intellectual property," he says, pointing to the two areas where Asians tend to get slotted. "If they're heading corporate or general litigation, then I'd be more impressed."

So are Asian Americans choosing other career paths as they get closer to partnership or are they getting sidelined?

On that cliffhanger, Happy Chinese New Year!


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I'm glad you are bringing attention to this issue. As an APA lawyer myself, I have personally struggled against breaking through the "social" hurdles in US law firms and organizations that keep APA lawyers in certain niches. My opinion is that APA lawyers have to make a concerted effort to not always conform to their counterparts. It should be okay to work very hard and represent those stereotypical "Asian virtues" while leading the litigation practice group and being a rainmaker. Asian lawyers get passed over not because they are not comfortable rainmaking or socializing or building relationships --- but because their non-Asian counterparts at the helm may not be comfortable grooming, mentoring and partnering with Asians. It is a two-way street.

To Jackson Indiana in Asia - Your comments seem a bit off the mark. The study Vivian writes about isn't about native Asians in US law firms, it's about Asian-AMERICANS in US law firms. If you are not of Asian ethnicity but still have "native" language ability (I know a few non-Asians who grew up in China), would you still not be considered for those BIgLaw positions in Asia? That seems the more analogous comparison. Alternatively, ask how well native Asians fair in the US legal market -- my impression (having been an Asian American partner in a Big Law firm and heard what other partners said) is that those native Asians, who speak English fluently (albeit with an accent) and graduated from US law schools, have two strikes against them.

Vivien - I enjoy your blog; your advice is usually practical and opinions tethered to facts. However, you are a little nearsighted on this subject.

Check out the job postings for lawyer positions in Asia - typically, they require "native Mandarin speaker," "native Korean speaker," etc... These are postings for jobs at major US law firms. The ads do not say "fluent" Chinese/Korean speaker - they say "native."

There is no question that non-Asian lawyers are at a per se disadvantage getting hired in Asia, even controlling for language. You can see the rosters of BigLaw Asia outposts scattered with Berkley grads whose Chinese experience is limited to arguing with their grandmothers at reunion dinners. Do a study of the numbers non-Asian associates at those outposts and then let us know your findings.

Further, check out the AmLaw article about the "death of China hands" and the smirking tone it takes toward non-Asians in Asia-related jobs. Flip that tone and see how you would appreciate it if the same were written about Asians trying to fit into American culture.

No question, there is discrimination at home. But there is legal redress for that. And the level of discrimination in the U.S. is nothing compared to that faced by non-Asians in getting BigLaw jobs in the fastest growing markets in Asia. Leave aside that many of these markets - such as India - flat out bar non-Asians from participating at all.

It's an attitude familiar to those who do business in China - what's mine (China) is mine, and what's your's (the rest of the world) - also mine!

There is no denying that minorities, whether African American, Latino, or Asian still face considerable challenges advancing in business. While those in the majority can simply discount this reality as nonsense, does not detract from the experience of these minorities. To the point of a previous poster, yes rapport is extremely important in business and perhaps in all facets of life. This has long been the rationale of the "old white" men who have been in power positions for ages. They simply feel more comfortable around other “old white” men. I commend this study and report; Asian Americans have long suffered under the misconception put forth by the model minority myth and therefore the challenges faced by this community have long been discounted and marginalized.

My theory: APAs thin out the higher ranks of big law firms because they realize making parter is not the end-all. They get smart... and go in-house!

Some people shouldn't even try to interpret statistics.

For instance, comparison solely to other "minorities" - rather than the total pool of attorneys - is ridiculous.

Secondly, I'd like to know how many Asian associates there were 10 years ago? If it was less than 49%, for instance, than they are over-achieiving relative to other minorities with respect to making partner.

Finally, when are we going to get beyond this racialist nonsense? Does anyone really think in 2011 there are major law firms denying positions to Asian-Americans on account of their ethnicity?

While Asian lawyers aren't dropping out of the workforce as women tend to during childbearing years, their reasons for not ascending into the law firm stratosphere may be similar.
Huge generalization here but women and Asians are particularly good at working very hard -- so hard that they overlook the importance of relationship building within the organization. The fact is that people tend to promote those with whom they feel comfortable. Essential to this dynamic are rapport and trust which can only be accomplished through an intentional relationship-building effort.
Women also are not necessarily comfortable being out front and asking for business and I suspect the same is true for Asians. signing business, or rainmaking, is essential to the viability of professional firms (especially now) and very few can afford to cover lawyers who just do the work.

So, for both women and diverse employees to ascend to the higher ranks, they must cultivate genuine relationships with colleagues, managers, partners and clients alike. It's no longer just about the work.

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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: [email protected]

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