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Tiger Mom Chats With The Careerist

Vivia Chen

January 11, 2012

Amy_Chua_WikipediaFirst, a news bulletin: Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom, is my size! Which is to say, she's a small woman. When I met up with her last month at her office at Yale Law School, I had to contain myself from blurting out, "I thought you'd be at least 5-foot-10!"

Unlike me, though, Chua is the perfect Chinese daughter. She was always an A-plus student (I was more than fine with an A-minus). She graduated from a tippy-top law school: Harvard (I went to the more pedestrian NYU Law School). And she's a law professor at Yale, which gives her parents endless bragging rights (trust me, being a blogger won't cut it with Asian parents).

But here's the show-stopper: Despite her formidable drive and tigress reputation, Chua struggled with what she wanted to do—just like many of us who got sucked into a profession for which we have little affinity.

Once upon a time you were a Big Law associate, practicing corporate law at Cleary Gottlieb. From your book [Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother], I gather you weren't into it.
As soon as I got there, I applied to graduate school and tried to write a novel. . . . At Cleary, I worked on privatizations for Mexico. I worked really hard, killing myself. Everything—legal memos, even grunt work—took me so long to do.

Sounds like you actually worked harder than the firm realized.
Oh, I couldn't possibly have billed all the time it took me to do something! But I got great reviews, and the clients liked me. Cleary is a great firm. But I felt like a fraud, pretending to be a lawyer.

Interesting you used the word "fraud" to describe yourself as a lawyer. You know, I always felt I was faking it when I was practicing too.
The fraud thing was huge for me. What made it worse was that my husband [Jed Rubenfeld, also a professor at Yale Law School] was really into the law, and loved every detail.

You didn't like practice, but how did you feel about law school?
Law school tore down my confidence. I hated being called on. It's not a discipline that comes naturally to me. I did not click with law. I'm the hardest worker, but I could not retain the information.

I find that shocking, considering you've hit all the high notes you're suppose to hit in a legal career. You were executive editor on the law review; you clerked for a federal judge [Patricia Wald, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit]. How could you possibly do so well if you didn't have an affinity for law?
I credit my parents. They taught me to work hard. I spent a huge of time trying to get on law review. When I clerked, I did it for all the wrong reasons . . . and I didn't like clerking very much.

Wait a minute, aren't academics suppose to love legal theories and clerking? So how did you end up teaching?
My father is an academic, so that influenced me. It took me 14 years to get into teaching; it was very hard to break into it. When I was pregnant with Sophia [while on sabbatical from Cleary Gottlieb], I started applying for teaching jobs. I had 40 rejections. My only offer was from Buffalo.

It's hard to picture you in Buffalo. Obviously, your options have broadened considerably since then. What was your ticket to academic fame? 
I knew that trying to write about securities law or affirmative action was not really me. So I wrote about law and ethnicity in the developing world. I just fell into it. It was the convergence of my own ethnicity, my undergraduate major in economics, and my background in law. I've basically turned my outsider status into a strength.

Of course, it's your nonacademic work that's put you on the world map. You became a cult figure overnight. What's that like?
It's strange. I got an e-mail from my mom yesterday. She said, "Watch out for the celebrity thing! Go back to your normal life." I think teaching is the right fit for me. I'm teaching a full load, though I'm still flying around promoting the [Tiger Mother] book.

And will there be a sequel to Tiger Mother?
No plans for a sequel at the moment. My next book will be an academic book.

Don't tell me you're going back to a quiet academic life. I feel we all know your family—Sophia, Lulu, Jed, and Coco and Push [the family dogs]. I mean, you're the Kardashians of the legal world! There must a reality show in the works, no?
Ha! Sophia and I were asked to be part of The Amazing Race. No, we're not doing it.


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Dirk...have agreed with you on many things regarding biases voiced in these blog entries...

But, come on man, have you E V E R said A N Y T H I N G positive about this blog?!?!?!?!

This was a good entry (missing words here and there aside).

Give Vivia credit once in a while...

At the very least, it would reflect better upon you when you lash-out at her... because you were once jilted by a beautiful asian woman... (wait, that was just me reading your unvoiced motivations for being so venomous in your comments--shouldn't make any assumptions).

By-the-by, how on G-d's does going to a "ivy-league" preclude you from being an outsider in the "academic" world... when you've never taught; but, rather, practiced.

"Harvard, Yale, and Clearly Gottlieb: SOME outsider." That's just unsound-logic... the conclusion, from that syntax, is all borked.

But, you go ahead with you bada$$, misogynistic-self.

Personally, always though that, it was better to be sweet to the women that I was attracted to... instead of ripping into them, like some sort of grade school boy who has a crush on the pretty girl.

Just remember man: It's nice to be smart; but, it's smart to be nice.

Good luck brah!

Harvard, Yale, and Clearly Gottlieb: SOME outsider.

Wonderful interview, Vivia. Good work.

Great interview. Puts a human spin on the cartoonish portrait that most of the media has put out on Ms. Chua.

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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: [email protected]

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