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"Money" Is the Reason Asian Americans Are Rejecting Law School

Vivia Chen

June 9, 2020

Kids-1508121_1280You've probably been hearing about the big drop in the number of Asian Americans going into law. Since the Great Recession, they've had the single biggest enrollment decline among any racial or ethnic group, sparking worries that Asians will lose voice and clout in the American legal system.

Like me, you probably assumed Asian Americans are giving up on law because of the dearth of role models or opportunities in the profession. Maybe they're discouraged by the low conversion rate of Asian Americans into partners. Maybe they still feel an undercurrent of bias at play.

It turns out the reason for the Asian American brain drain in law is a lot less sentimental: It's money. And I'm not talking about the cost of law school—though financial considerations must be a factor to many. Instead, it's because they feel they can make more money in other fields.

That's according to a newly released study by California Supreme Court Associate Justice Goodwin Liu and 2019 Yale Law School graduates Miranda Li and Phillip Yao. (Law.com's Karen Sloan wrote about the report before its official release.)

Compared to other ethnic or racial groups, more Asian American undergrads picked "Too few jobs in this field pay enough money" and "Little advancement opportunity in the field/takes too long to move up" as their reasons for skipping law school. And more than other groups, Asians selected “Potential to earn a lot of money” as one of the three top characteristics driving career pursuits.

Moreover, the report cites another study that finds, "Asians, to a greater degree than other groups, rate 'whether my family thinks it would be a good choice' as an important factor in their selection of a career." Perhaps because of parental pressures, the report notes that Asian American are increasingly enrolling in medical school (12.5% increase over the past five years) and business school.

Whoa. What's with the preoccupation with earning potential and parental approval? This is not what I'd expect from young Asian Americans today. I hate to say this, but it plays right into the stereotype of Asian as dutiful and risk-adverse.

That was a disappointment, so I wanted to find out what's going on. I posed my question directly to California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu and other participants during a recent Zoom call when the report was officially unveiled.

"It's hard to grasp exactly why Asian American numbers are declining in law school," said Liu, adding, "there's a general decline in the number of humanities majors and an increase in STEM majors"—a shift he attributes to the sharp job losses in the last recession. (The study finds an overall drop of 25% in the number of law students nationally since the Great Recession, though Asian Americans saw the single biggest enrollment decline—a stunning reversal considering that they were the largest minority group in law school throughout much of the 2000s.)

I pressed on: Are Asian Americans culturally more materialistic and less motivated by justice?

"Our generation tends to be more pragmatic," said Susan Shin, a litigation partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York. Career choices, she added, were based on "what will yield more income." But she predicted that attitude will change. "With my kids, it's less rigid. Their generation is more mission-oriented. The younger ones are more focused on doing the right thing."

Though Asian Americans didn't cite career impediments as the reason for not pursuing law, Liu said there are subtle forces at work. A surprising percentage of Asian Americans (28%) don't even consider going to law school until they've graduated from college—more than other groups, he pointed out. "That was true for me because I didn't have any lawyers in my family," he said. "We need to make a concerted effort to change perceptions of what careers are possible."

One influential sector that has failed Asians in delivering this "possible" message is mass media. "During 'Law & Order''s long run, there was not a single Asian American that was cast as a defense lawyer or prosecutor," said Liu.

These days, the media is filled with awful news about racism, including instances in which Asian Americans have been taunted because of the coronavirus and its association with China. (It doesn't help that President Donald Trump calls it the "Chinese virus.") So will this spur more Asian Americans to become lawyers?

"It's concerning that we're seeing a decline in Asian American enrollment just as Asians are being used as scapegoats," said Liu. "I hope this is a call to action."


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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