As an Asian-American woman, it is important to me to work in an environment that values and encourages diversity. This article will focus on my experiences as a young, diverse law firm associate and on what matters to me and keeps me at my firm.
This last year has shown all of us, both inside and outside of the legal profession, how quickly circumstances can change. All of us in the legal community were dismayed to see some historic firms either close or conduct large- and small-scale layoffs. These events were, of course, not limited to the legal profession but spread across industries and affected all Americans and their families. As a result, one fact emerged: Something has to change.
Everyone, lawyers included, is now re-evaluating best business practices. There can be no argument that one of the best business practices is our collective commitment to diversity. The promotion of diversity will catapult forward all other best business practices, such as the recruitment and retention of the best talent and the formulation of creative and balanced solutions. It is clear that law firms have already dedicated efforts to the promotion of diversity. However, law firms need to assure that, in the promotion of diversity, they also use best practices.
As a best practice, law firms need to promote diversity as it relates to all people, not just minorities. I am of Chinese descent, but that is not all that I am. I am also of Irish descent. I am a woman, a wife and a daughter. We are all many different things all at once. In order to properly respect diversity, and its importance to the legal community, we must recognize that we are all diverse. It is through this type of effort that the legal community will be able to attract and retain diverse talent. This must be our overarching goal in building a house for diversity.
In my experience, I have observed and engaged in several practices that have been important to my professional development. First, I quickly learned the importance of mentorship, whether formal or informal. My mentorship experiences have been largely informal, garnered by personal and professional connections to certain people with whom I have crossed paths.
Second, I have, since the beginning of law school, valued the significance of bar associations to the creation and development of a network of professional support. The significance of bar associations continues from law school into the legal professional world.
Finally, both mentorship and professional associations translate into, and exemplify, the necessity of an open forum for the exchange of new ideas. I have personally benefited from mentorship and through connections made through bar associations. I am a second-year associate at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel. I first came to Obermayer Rebmann as a summer associate, when I was one of the lucky and grateful law students to obtain a position through the on-campus interview process.
I owe my summer opportunity largely to Joseph J. Centeno, a partner in the firm's labor and employment department, with whom I initially interviewed. At the interview, Centeno and I recognized each other from previous meetings at events sponsored by the Asian American Bar Association of the Delaware Valley (now called the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania), of which Centeno was then president. I had attended such events as a member of Villanova School of Law's Asian Pacific American Law Student's Association, or APALSA. Our previous meetings provided an icebreaker and allowed us to have an honest conversation about his experiences and my hopes for my future career. Had it not been for our previous introductions, that interview may have turned out differently. I would have been simply one of 20 or more scheduled interviews. As it turned out, my involvement with Villanova's APALSA chapter and local bar associations directly affected my future career.
I have continued my involvement with both local and national bar associations. Centeno is currently president-elect of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and in charge of planning this year's NAPABA national convention. I have been assisting him in organizing the November convention. Centeno has given me the opportunity, through the convention planning activities, to have contact with attorneys from all over the country.
Also, the convention is being held in my home state of Massachusetts, where my father, Carl Chan, works as an attorney and software engineer for a software engineering company. He also has been involved with convention planning through Boston-area bar associations. Thus, my involvement with NAPABA has helped me to make connections across state lines and has allowed me to work with my father.
Mentorship has also continued to be an important part of my development. Throughout my summer at Obermayer Rebmann and continuing into my career today, Centeno has been instrumental in my development as a lawyer. I have several times found myself going to him to ask questions I might otherwise be afraid to ask. Since starting my career, I have also formed other informal mentorship relationships. I have had the opportunity to work closely with a couple of partners who have taken significant time in helping me to improve my lawyering skills, both through writing and in the courtroom. I also regularly seek advice and assistance from more senior associates. This open-door atmosphere has helped me grow in my transition from law student to lawyer.
It is easy to forget how scary the unknown can seem at first glance. Young lawyers face a great many challenges in finding their way in the legal profession. It is important that law firms learn how to retain the diverse talent they have recruited from law schools. There is a disparity between the number of minorities graduating from law school and the number of minorities working in law firms.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's report on diversity in law firms published in 2003, as of 2002, 7.2 percent of J.D. recipients were African-American, 5.7 percent were Hispanic and 6.5 percent were Asian-American. By contrast, 4.4 percent of lawyers in law firms were African-American, 2.9 percent were Hispanic and 5.3 percent were Asian-American. These statistics demonstrate that, despite the importance of past efforts, law firms must continue to push forward with their work in diversity. We must find ways to attract diverse talents to the legal profession as a whole and to law firms specifically. The work must be done at all levels, from new attorneys graduating law school to the leaders at the firm.
One of the most basic ways that we can start to build a house for diversity is through the creation of an open forum for the exchange of ideas. As I have described, participation in bar associations has provided me a forum outside of my firm. Mentorship has likewise provided me a forum to voice concerns, but on a more personal level.
In addition to these forums, it is important that firms have their own firmwide forums for the exchange of ideas. To that end, I am a member of Obermayer Rebmann's diversity committee. The committee is composed of both partners and associates and meets monthly to discuss various initiatives with a goal toward addressing a broad range of issues facing all lawyers in everyday practice and to increase diversity by supporting all attorneys at the firm.
In the past year, the diversity committee has sponsored and planned several firmwide events. The purpose of these events was to informally promote mentorship by fostering working relationships. By taking time out of our busy schedules to interact with our colleagues, we are given the chance to learn more about each other's professional and personal experiences. These events recognize that many of us spend our days in front of the computer and often work with the same few people. By simply taking the time to interact with people outside of our departments, we are able to broaden our wealth of knowledge and open ourselves up to new practice areas.
This past winter, Obermayer Rebmann held a Chinese New Year Banquet. The event was held at Joy Tsin Lau in Chinatown and included a cocktail reception with a traditional dragon dance followed by a 10-course dinner banquet. The banquet was a new cultural experience to many people at the firm, in addition to simply an occasion to spend time with our friends and colleagues. At the banquet, Obermayer Rebmann took the opportunity to invite clients, thereby including clients in our efforts to promote diversity. The inclusion of clients is recognition that diversity helps both the firm and its clients. The people that we serve are as diverse as each of us. A diverse firm, with people of various backgrounds and experiences, is able to provide a greater range of perspectives and innovative thinking to its clients.
These are just a few of the best practices that can be implemented by law firms. What is most important to me, however, is to assure that we are not promoting diversity for diversity's sake. Diversity is not solely about race or gender; it is about varying viewpoints and shared experiences. In order to properly build a house for diversity, we in the legal community must continue to move forward in our efforts, with a foundation based in diverse perspectives and innovative thought.
Catherine M. Chan is a second-year associate at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel. She is a member of the litigation department and practices civil and commercial litigation. Chan earned her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law.