Dispelling myths during AAPI Heritage Month


Tom Chen

Dispelling myths during AAPI Heritage Month

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May heralds Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the US. Tom Chen of Haynes and Boone unpacks the issues that still affect US lawyers from this ethnic minority background.

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is celebrated in May and recognises the contributions and influence of AAPI Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the US.

My parents were first generation Chinese immigrants, and this month is a good time to take stock of how our community is faring in the legal industry and at large law firms such as the one I am a member of.

At Haynes and Boone, a firm of 600 lawyers, I have been privileged to receive opportunities that have helped me become a partner in the IP practice. I also serve as a member of the executive committee, on the board of directors, and as co-chair of the firm’s attorney diversity, equity and inclusion committee.

My sincere hope is that more of my AAPI colleagues are afforded similar opportunities.

I have seen our ranks swell at Haynes and Boone and other firms but, sadly, we are not making similar strides in partnerships, management roles, and client relationship roles. I want to share my impressions about why this may be the case and what law firms can do to address the problem.

First, the good news. Over the past three decades, Asian Americans have dramatically increased their presence within the legal profession. We also are relatively well-represented in the IP bar, fuelled by our success in attaining advanced scientific and technical degrees at top colleges and law schools around the world. AAPI law graduates have been able to “get in the door” at large law firms in greater numbers than some other races, such as African Americans.

A high rate of attrition

But here is where the story turns. A 2017 report, titled “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law” published by Yale Law School and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, offers some sobering data points:

  • The number of Asian American lawyers grew from 20,000 in the year 2000 to 53,000 in 2017, comprising nearly 5% of all lawyers nationwide.
  • The number of Asian American lawyers will keep growing for at least another decade as the number of my cohorts coming into the profession continues to exceed the number of my cohorts aging out.
  • For nearly two decades, Asian Americans have been the largest minority group in major law firms.

However, they also have one of the higher attrition rates and the lowest ratio of partners to associates among all groups. How do we explain this disconnect? Why are AAPI lawyers not reaching their full potential at firms? I believe AAPI lawyers are sometimes held back by a persistent stereotype that we are quiet, introverted, and non-confrontational, or that we lack the sort of soft skills viewed as necessary to build books of business and to rise to the top of the organisational chart.

“Many AAPI lawyers are raised by first-generation immigrants who value educational attainment and assimilation over the ability to confront and engage in self-promotion.”

The stereotype is somewhat rooted in fact. Many AAPI lawyers are raised by first-generation immigrants who value educational attainment and assimilation over the ability to confront and engage in self-promotion. AAPI lawyers often assume that their skill and diligence alone, without salesmanship on their part, will suffice to elevate them to partner and upper management. Sadly, true meritocracies are the exception.

A related challenge can plague IP lawyers. Whether or not they are minorities, IP lawyers typically are trained in scientific disciplines, which are rooted in objective, black-and-white truths as opposed to the law, and where there is often no right answer. It is the best argument that wins the day. It takes training to make the mental leap from science to law, a learning curve that has further slowed the progress of many AAPI law students and lawyers.

Language barriers

Language barriers can also serve as a deterrent. While corporate clients want to be represented by diverse legal teams, in-house lawyers and decision-makers can still be unforgiving of their outside counsel who are not native English speakers. I have seen instances where clients lose confidence in lawyers who commit even slight grammatical or rhetorical missteps. This can have huge professional repercussions at law firms, where loyal client followings are often a prerequisite to entering the ranks of management.

Finally, there are more subtle cultural barriers that plague AAPI lawyers and other minorities, who often do not share the same hobbies, pastimes and cultural reference points as their white colleagues. This can prevent minorities from forging the sort of professional bonds needed to land choice work assignments, develop firm clout, and advance their careers at some law firms.

How do we improve the picture? A vital starting point is to require mandatory, periodic implicit bias training, so that lawyers are fully aware of the assumptions and misconceptions that govern how AAPI lawyers are sometimes treated and managed at firms.

It takes careful training to understand not only the subtle, pervasive ways in which racial and ethnic stereotypes take root in any organisation, but also to understand how to interrupt bias before it takes hold.

A fair starting point for implicit bias training focused on the AAPI community is to explore the “model minority” myth, which makes invidious comparisons between Asian Americans and other racial groups across academic, economic, and cultural domains. The myth implies that Asian Americans, as the “model minority,” are already fully flourishing and accepted in all ranks of society.

Dispelling the myth

During this month in particular, it is vital that we lay bare this myth and recall the long history of racism faced by the AAPI community in the US and in other countries—a legacy that continues to impose overt and implicit constraints on our academic, professional and social advancement.

Even a cursory review of current headlines—rife with stories of hate crimes, discrimination and prejudice—underscores the truth that we remain on the margins of society in many communities. 

In addition to education and training, law firms need to be more diligent about mentoring AAPI lawyers. Often, firms try to pair minority associates with senior lawyers from similar ethnic and racial backgrounds. It is an understandable impulse; it certainly empowers minorities to believe they can ascend to the highest ranks of a firm when lawyers who look like them previously have done so.

“There are more subtle cultural barriers that plague AAPI lawyers and other minorities, who often do not share the same hobbies, pastimes and cultural reference points as their white colleagues.”

Still, law firms need to get creative given that there are too few AAPI and other minority role models in partnership ranks and senior management. The key is for firms to find allies, mentors, and sponsors who will invest the time to truly get to know the AAPI and minority attorneys, including their backgrounds, career aspirations, and professional struggles.

Firms also need vigilantly to ensure that they are receiving choice work assignments, are given meaningful opportunities within the firm and with clients—and feel that they truly belong.

The importance of mentors

Mentors play a key role in helping to shape and guide the careers of minority lawyers, but it is vital that firms also develop robust sponsorship programmes, in which senior, influential managers are explicitly tasked with advocating for the professional advancement of minority lawyers.

By dint of their prestige and standing, sponsors are in a position to make things happen for associates. Sponsors also typically have the requisite training and experience to ensure that key personnel decisions are as fair and equitable as possible. Again, due to the low numbers of AAPI and minority partners, it is vital to have non-minority sponsors who are fully invested in the growth and success of AAPI and underrepresented lawyers.

Ensuring effective allyship, mentorship, and sponsorship are not easy tasks, but they can make all the difference in retaining minority lawyers and helping them mature into the sorts of seasoned professionals who will in turn be in a position to guide the next generation of minority associates.

I encourage everyone this month and beyond to continue celebrating the contributions and influence of AAPIs to the history, culture, and achievements of the US. But take some time to consider the challenges that remain for the AAPI community.

With careful thoughtful leadership, law firms can more fully integrate AAPI lawyers into their management ranks and client relationships, drawing on the unique perspectives, experiences and skills of a community that for too long has lacked a seat at the executive table.

Tom Chen is a partner at law firm Haynes and Boone in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at: tom.chen@haynesboone.com

Haynes and Boone, ethnic minority, Asian American, heritage, Pacific Islander, AAPI, law graduates, hate crimes, role models, racism