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Asian American Lawyers: Still Too Nerdy to Get to the Top?

Vivia Chen

November 21, 2011

Fotolia_2090849_XSI 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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A bit late to the party but would like to offer my $0.02; perhaps Asians don't succeed at big law firms at the same rate as whites (assuming that is true) because many Asians are driven to the so-called "professional" pursuits by their parents who only consider medicine/law/finance to be worthy pursuits. This is rooted in the notion that money = success. I am not criticizing Asian parents because they want their children to be financially secure and maybe this is an extension of having lived through the hardship associated with starting a new life in a foreign land. My point is, not everyone is cut out to be a lawyer,a doctor or a Gordon Gekko. In order to succeed at anything, it helps to actually enjoy what your doing. Take Jeremy Lin as an example...Harvard Econ major but his dream is to play ball. Look at him now.

I totally agree with what ER says in their post of Nov 29. This is not unique to the US alone. I am an Indian lawyer in India; an Asian among Asians and I find the same thing. The hardworking ones are rewarded with more work while the superflous ones are rewarded with promotions.
Dont blame your education,. Without it, you would not even be here. on the contrary, It is only because of your educational credentials that they are unable to throw you out of the coterie. It is our ingrained sense of respect for the other person and inbred humilty that has become our achilles heel.Time to lose it ;-)

Could it be that APAs are not moving up because their upbringing not only includes a strong academic lean but also and equally strong bent towards respecting others, humility and lack of cutthrotitness(yeah i made up that word) that is par for course among their american counterparts? Just saying... most American children arent even taught how to properly address an adult, what makes us think that they arent rising to the top because they are good on stepping on who ever they need to...its not people skills APAs need, its a lack of people skills I say.

As a first generation Asian-American and an undergrad at UCSD, I agree that most Asians are placid but there's always an exception. Albeit a few. In order to burst through the glass ceiling, I believe APAs must possess great people skills and a comprehensive understanding of American culture. The majority of folks believe that the amount of friends and the ability to engage in conversations with strangers fulfills the qualities I stated above. It's more than that. It's truly a 'skill' that you can not gain from a textbook or professor. It's an empirical trait that an individual acquires.
And to Curious, Asians constitutes roughly 5% of the US population.

Following up on Curious' comment, if the stats cited by Curious are correct, than APA's are actually over-represented among partners since more APA's than whites or African Americans are recent immigrants for whom English is not a first language and for whom law school attendance and a career in the law is not practical.

The rules are different for APA attorneys at law firms - there is a presumption of incompetence with certain "soft" skills, there is a lower tolerance for mistakes made by APA attorneys, senior white attorneys are vastly more likely to mentor other white attorneys, less face time is provided at marketing opportunities, less likely to be provided leadership opportunities, etc. This is reality. Survival and success in this environment requires a thick skin...

I think one other thing that should be mentioned is the fact that many Asians, when among other Asians, may feel and act differently than they might around mostly white men, like the environment in law firms.

Interesting post. Although not APA, I too have noticed how well put together many of my APA colleagues seems to be. It's nice and perhaps I notice because I try to be well put together too. I have had different experiences with APAs speaking up, being deferential, sarcastic or not. In fact, I just read another article about how the stereotype that APAs are well educated, financially stable, and hard workers can be a detriment to those who do not fit the model. It makes life challenging for those APAs who are not in the stereotypical group. I am also surprised that as an African American, I share many of the stereotypical qualities that represent APAs and the perspective of the "tiger mom" -- word hard, be polite, professional, and deferential to authority. (At least I used to be, then I became a lawyer.) So, it makes me wonder, yet again, about the source of stereotypes and their impact on non-white peoples. All very interesting.

it's very Asian of us to point the finger inward towards our own failings. Can we start blaming other people for our problems more like real Americans?

Let me start. I blame the white man.

PS: Would "African American Lawyers, Still Too Stupid to get to the Top?" have been an acceptable title to a post on similar issues confronting similar issues with stereotypes?

Asians, not angry enough.

I think people skills are equally important as knowing the law. Doing good work is always paramount, but clients have their choice of a number of lawyers; it's those with whom they have a relationship that get the work. Same thing goes for navigating firm politics; you build support through relationships with those in your firm. Growing up in an Asian culture, where you're not encouraged to speak up or stand out too much, does have some disadvantages for APA attorneys who are trying to work their way up the ranks.

You state that Asian Pacific Americans are under represented because they make up 2.5% of all partners. Don't APA's make up about 2.5% of the total US population? That would mean representation is in line with population

Sorry can't agree that sarcasm is characteristic of Western humor. It is a poor excuse for humor; a cheap shot at someone elses expense.
As a none APA parent with children who attend a public school with a majority APA student body, I have to say that our school district gets high marks for preparing kids for college. They have raised the bar and my own children are driven to compete with classmates who come to school with a different work ethic.
As for nerdy - most of the kids are polite and respectful and can carry on intelligent conversations. Maybe the practice of law would benefit from a little attitude adjustment.

Interesting piece, Vivia. A devil's advocate position: I agree that social skills are very important, but unlike academics, I'd argue that social skills can't be taught. So while I'm no fan of tiger momming, I don't think lack of social skills is a fair argument against it. Liked the post, though.

"Considering that Chua is herself a product of extreme parenting, and she's done fine, she's her own best argument."

No, this is not an argument, at least not a logically sound one. Correlation does not equal causation. The fact that she was the product of exreme parenting and was sucessful does not mean that she was successful because of extreme parenting. The real (and, unfortunately, untestable) question is how she did RELATIVE to how she would have done without extreme parenting.

Asians are not hindered by being nerdy. That is the wrong word, as I don't think Asians are any more likely to be nerdy than people from other races. But they are hindered by being distinctly Asian. For example, Asians (stereotypically) are less likely to have a Western sense of humor, which is characterized by sarcasm, something that is developed in most well-liked Americans at an early age and likely not modeled by Asian parents, relatives, and friends. While few would describe this as "nerdy", they might fairly say "boring". Of course, you are right that such trends are weakening.

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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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