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Hark! An Asian American Woman Is Leading Elite Law Firm!

Vivia Chen

May 20, 2019

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How often do you see an Asian face, particularly a female one, in the role of managing partner?

I'll tell you how often: Almost never. 

Meet Hailyn Chen, the new co-managing partner of Munger, Tolles & Olson. (Her cohort is Malcolm Heinicke, a fellow Munger lifer who also started at the firm as a summer associate.) Chen, a litigator of Chinese descent, seems to hold the distinction of being the second Asian American woman to assume the top leadership position of a major firm. Cravath Swaine & Moore's Faiza Saeed, whose parents are Pakistani immigrants, appears to be the first (she's served as presiding partner since 2016).  

So how did Chen, who’s only 43, achieve this rare feat? Does she feel added pressure as a woman of color in her new role? Does she hustle for clients? Does she have a different leadership style?

I was curious about these questions and more. Below is an edited version of our phone conversations.

Asians have a reputation for being quiet and not raising their hands for high-profile jobs. You obviously didn’t conform to that stereotype. Did you actively go after this position? We don’t campaign for it. We have a committee that makes recommendations.

Why do you think you were picked? I have a robust practice and served in leadership roles. I was the founder of the women’s initiative, which took a systematic look at how women are promoted. I was also co-chair of associate retention and served on the business development and compensation committees. I’m active with the bar [as co-chair of the ABA's Woman Advocate Committee], as is Malcolm. All these things helped me develop relationships both within and outside the firm.

You sound like you do a lot of extracurricular activities. What about role models or mentors in your life? Sandra Seville-Jones [Munger's former co-managing partner who died unexpectedly in March] was a real mentor. She was my champion who made opportunities happen for me. She was someone I could confide in and she helped me navigate political issues. She listened when I was down and cheered me on when I was up. She set a great example and was a real champion for women.

And my parents were role models. Even though we had differences—as children of immigrants do with parents—I saw how hard they had to work to make their way in the world.

Did you have Tiger parents? My god, yes! They encouraged me—actually, they insisted—that I go into science, engineering or medicine. Those were the only options. They didn’t know anything about the legal world, and they’d say, “Why are you going to law school?” When I told them I made partner, their reaction was, “OK, so?”

As one of the very few Asian women running a law firm, do you feel extra pressure? Yes. Absolutely. I’m aware that because of my race and gender that some people will think I’m less competent to lead. I know I don’t fit the typical image—an old white guy. I’m aware that my words and actions will be put under more scrutiny. I know that when I walk into a room that I’ll be underestimated. I’m aware that I need to prove myself. It doesn’t bother me. It’s a fact of life.

Your practice includes complex business litigation, white-collar defense and government investigations. You also do work for the University of California. It must be a heady time to work on university stuff, especially with all the college admissions scandals and the #MeToo cases. The sexual misconduct cases and campus assault cases have grown exponentially. We do investigations and also work on CRISPR [genome editing] technology. UC is a big client and an exciting client. There’s a lot of talk about how Big Law is not satisfying, but I find representing UC personally gratifying.

Did you develop UC as a client? UC was a client of the firm on First Amendment and race-based issues, but I grew it as an associate.

Wow. You were developing business as an associate? We’re always told about how hard it is for women to get clients, so how did you do it? I’m fearless about asking. I’ve done fundraising for political campaigns, and I’ve given a lot of thought to self-promotion and firm promotion. UC also has a ton of women of color in-house, who’ve become my personal friends. We’ll say to each other, “Did you see how that guy talked to us? I don’t think he’d do that if we weren’t women of color.” We just bond. It’s awesome.

Were you always fearless or did you have to work at it? I did have to work at it. By nature, I’m someone who listens and process things before I speak up. I’m always hearing my mother’s voice: “Who do you think you are?” I had to overcome that and work on speaking up more. I tell Asian women that you have to promote yourself and put yourself out there. If you get used to doing that, it gets easier.

Do you think your leadership style is different because you’re Asian and female? My style of relating to people is certainly different from white male leaders. In mock trials, consultants say that I bring a different energy. White men have more of a controlling tone, whereas I project a different kind of authority. I’m more of a teacher and adviser. Having grown up speaking a different language [Mandarin] at home, and not feeling entirely American gives you a different perspective that helps you to relate to different people. You know, I didn’t know how to use a knife and fork until first grade.

So being an outsider is not all bad? Growing up as a first generation American, I’m used to code switching—behaving in different ways, depending on context. When you’re with Chinese elders, you’re very deferential, while you comport yourself differently with white people. That’s served me well because it makes me attuned to other people. Being a child of immigrants has its advantages.

 

vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist

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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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