By Vivia Chen
White women are big winners in the legal world’s diversity initiatives, but why are Asian American women the big losers?
In Big Law’s diversity sweepstakes, guess who’s the runaway winner in scoring business from corporate clients?
“White women receive significantly more of the business that the respondents assign to diverse outside counsel,” finds a study by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, noting that they beat out lawyers who are racial or ethnic minorities, LGBT+, or those with disabilities. “Well over half of the matters that respondents assigned to [diverse] outside counsel were assigned to White women lawyers who were given primary responsibility for the matters.”
It makes sense. White men dominate the top spots at major law firms and corporations, so if they’re doling out credit or business to an underrepresented group, why not give it to someone comfortingly familiar—someone who reminds them of their wives, daughters, or mothers?
While it’s a no-brainer that White women would come out on top, what shocked me is the group at the absolute bottom: Asian American women.
To be perfectly clear, White men are still the winners. While White women have made greater strides in recent years, few are represented among top rainmakers at most major firms. And the majority of corporations in the study give out a paltry amount of business—less than 10%—to racial or ethnic minorities.
Among racial minority groups, Hispanics, followed by Black lawyers, fared the best—though that seems to pertain to the men in those groups. Black and Hispanic female lawyers received “a very tiny amount” of business, the study finds.
As for the bottom of the bottom, Asian Americans, along with Native Americans, reign, with women in those groups receiving “almost none” of the work.
For a group that some have dubbed “honorary Whites,” it’s stunning that Asian American lawyers are failing so miserably at business development. Also baffling is why corporate America seems to be dissing Asian female lawyers in particular.
“The findings confirm what APA [Asian Pacific American] lawyers and myself have felt—that we don’t get the attention,” Alan Tse, the general counsel of Jones Lang LaSalle, a Fortune 500 company, said about Asian American lawyers generally. “When people talk about diversity, we are left out of the conversation. The reality is that while 12-14% of associates are APAs, they are only 4% [of] equity partners.”
Tse, who’s held several general counsel positions—at Petco, LG Electronics Mobilecomm, and Churchill Downs—said that he sometimes writes to law firm management “to make sure that people of color get the credit.”
“But on more than one occasion when we give Asian American lawyers work, they’re not getting credit,” he said. “I had to step in, and I’ve never had to do that with White men.”
One prevalent theory as to why Asian Americans are so easily ignored is that they are not perceived as leadership material.
“White men are accorded the presumption of competence,” said Hailyn Chen, co-managing partner of Munger, Tolles & Olson. “They fit our ideal of a leader. They’re right out of central casting.”
Some Asian American lawyers also fault themselves for being much too polite and reserved. “There’s no doubt it’s part of our culture,” Allen & Overy partner Sapna Palla said. “I was like that when I came here when I was 18. I was much more deferential.”
Even Asian Americans who grew up in this country “are polite to a fault,” noted Angela Hsu, a counsel at Bryan Cave’s Atlanta office. “And that’s interpreted as you’re not a leader. We were raised to believe that you can’t go wrong with being polite but we get penalized for it.”
For Asian American women, it’s an especially toxic brew: racial stereotyping combined with sexism. “They are either sweet and docile or Tiger Mom or Dragon Lady—and those are not favorable notions of what lawyers should be,” Sandra Yamate, CEO of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, explained.
“People often assume my male associate is my boss,” said Chen. “At the firm, I’m known as a leader but when I go out into the world, as an Asian woman, I’m in a cloak of invisibility.”
But Asian American female lawyers, Hsu added, sometimes self-sabotage: “I hear from APA women that, ‘I don’t want to be wrong so I won’t give my opinion.’ Well, White guys are wrong all the time and they don’t beat themselves up!”
The Asian American female lawyers who’ve made it to partnership or top in-house positions have heeded that message. “I’m a natural introvert but I realized I have to talk—a lot,” Chen said. Being assertive can be “off-putting” to some people, she added, but “sometimes you have to give up likability.”
“Whether you’re a litigator or a corporate lawyer, there’s advocacy involved,” Palla said, adding that she had to learn the techniques of self-advocacy.
Despite their success, both Chen and Palla said their self-assurance didn’t come easily. “I didn’t feel confident as an associate or young partner,” said Chen, who’s been in the co-managing partner position for three years. “I didn’t feel sure of myself until recently.”
Palla noted how she doesn’t share interest in sports or play golf like men in her office. “Always in the back of my mind, I wonder, do I really fit in?”
So what’s the upshot of all this? Clients and law firms need to put Asian American lawyers on the diversity radar and be more mindful of unconscious bias? And Asian American female lawyers, in particular, need to be less deferential and make more noise?
What could move the needle, it seems, is that more women and minorities are becoming potential clients.
“As in-house legal departments diversify, I have seen more diversity in assigning business,” said Thy Bui, a partner at employment firm Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Los Angeles. “My clients have largely been women, and not necessarily Asian women.”
Palla, whose clients include life sciences companies, also noted that women are increasingly in the role of a company’s chief of intellectual property, or the GC. “I feel my business development has improved in recent years.”
Chen also emphasized that she’s benefited from female clients of all races. “I’ve developed close relationships with women clients, and some of my closest relationships are with White women,” Chen said. “We’ve become each other’s champions.”
Signs that the rule of White men is on the wane? One can only hope.
For more from Vivia on Big Law’s gender gap, check out her appearance in our recent On The Merits podcast episode.
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By Vivia Chen