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Fenwick & West Is Chock Full of Asian American Lawyers

Vivia Chen

July 10, 2019

Felix-Lee-Article-201906202151It’s not quite Caltech. But it’s arguably the MIT of Big Law.

For whatever reason, Asian Americans seem to be flocking to Fenwick & West. According to The American Lawyer 2019 Diversity Scorecard, Fenwick has the highest percentage of Asian American lawyers among Am Law 200 firms—23.4% of all lawyers, including 9.9% partners. That 23.4% makes Fenwick almost comparable to MIT’s 25.7% Asian undergraduate population—though far less than Caltech’s over 50% figure.

But before we explore Fenwick’s particular track record on this front, let’s get a quick snapshot at Am Law 200 firms with 15% or higher Asian Pacific American (APA) lawyer rates:

Fenwick 23.4%

Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear 20.6%

Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati 18%

Fragomen, Del Rey 17%

Davis Polk & Wardwell and Shearman & Sterling 16.9%

Morrison & Foerster 16.7%

Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Ga   15.7%

Paul Hastings 15.5%

White & Case  15%

Those numbers are fairly encouraging, though Fenwick's statistic puts it ahead of the pack. Indeed, for those of us who remember being the only Asian (and female) lawyer in a conference room, it seems amazing that there's now a major firm where nearly one in four lawyers is Asian.  

So I decided to find out how Fenwick became a magnet for APA lawyers. Below is an edited version of my conversation with Felix Lee, (photo above), a securities enforcement and litigation partner at the firm who’s been heading its diversity and inclusion committee for over 10 years.

Why are there so many Asian American lawyers at Fenwick? Did that just happen organically or was there a big effort to go out there and get some?It’s a combination of both. When I joined the firm [as a lateral from Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison] in the early 2000s, Fenwick had already reached a critical mass of Asian American attorneys. And having that critical mass allows you to snowball. And it means that you can transition those lawyers into leadership roles and partnership. It’s the culmination of decades of work. And we’ve done that in every department in the firm. And, of course, being in the Bay Area gives you a natural advantage.

So Asian Americans aren’t all nerdy IP types. But do a large percentage of them have science or tech backgrounds? Some do and some don’t. It’s not a necessity. But we do have a practice that’s focused on tech. We tell people they don’t need a tech background, but you need some fluency in the area. It’s not a place for Luddites. I had a political science background in college, though I did build a computer in my spare time.

Wait. You made your own computer? I don’t think most poli sci majors do that in their spare time. Well, I guess I fulfill a certain stereotype.

You mentioned that being in Bay Area makes recruiting Asian Americans easier. Do you think Fenwick’s record on APA stands out in Silicon Valley or is it not a big deal here? The gap is not so big in the Bay area. But I think our numbers are better with respect to our competitors. The firm has a long-standing commitment to diversity, and management at the highest levels has bought into it. The firm chair and multiple members of the executive committee sit on the diversity committee. They are often the ones who are most vocal, and some of them are white males. You can’t put the onus on people who are diverse. If you do that, when diverse people start lobbying for change, it sounds self-serving.

Is the diversity committee open to everyone at the firm?  No. It’s already a 25-person committee; any larger, it gets unwieldy. When we decide on the composition, the main consideration is that it be diverse and that it represents the ethnic background and practice areas and gender. We also make sure there’s enough from management so that it can effect change. They sit alongside fourth-year associates. It makes for an interesting laboratory. A lot of ideas have fomented from that environment. For instance, we started to expand the law schools we look at in order to identify underrepresented minorities. We need to do better with African Americans and Hispanics, and we make concerted efforts to expand the lens.

You’ve headed the diversity committee for over 10 years. So what’s the next frontier?Before the focus was on overt bias. Now the shift is to unconscious bias—and that applies not just to people in the majority. Everyone can engage in unconscious bias. We also want to focus on other under-represented groups. Not that we don’t have more work to do on the Asian American front, but I think we have reached critical mass.

They’ve reached critical mass, but are they on key committees, like the management or executive committees? Rajiv Patel, who’s head of the IP g​roup, sits on the executive committee. People cycle off and on, and currently, he’s the only Asian American. There are areas that we need to improve. To say that we’re a good firm by law firm standards is not a high bar; we try not to measure ourselves by those standards. At the same time, though, you don’t want to dwell only on the negatives—that can get you depressed.

Related posts: Asian American Woman Is New Leader at Elite Law Firm.


Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist. 


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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: VChen@alm.com

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