The Careerist is chatting with Sang Kim, the co-managing partner of DLA Piper’s Silicon Valley office. A tax lawyer, Kim is also a member of the firm’s executive and diversity committees.

Today, Kim discusses diversity in Silicon Valley, what associates should be doing besides working, and the (slow) art of client cultivation.

Let’s start with diversity in Silicon Valley. With so many Asian techies and entrepreneurs running around, I have to assume that being an Asian-American lawyer in the Valley is a major advantage.
Asian-Americans are aware of each other but there’s not much of a collective mentality—which is typical of Silicon Valley culture. There are so many Asian-Americans here, they are a dime a dozen. Being Asian here is a nonissue.

What about blacks and Latinos in the Valley?
They represent a very, very small segment in the tech industry. They are the true minorities. [Unlike Asian-American lawyers,] they lack critical mass from the beginning. It’s a different kind of pipeline issue.

If there’s no pipeline issue with Asian-American lawyers, why aren’t we seeing more of them leading firms in Silicon Valley? Are they still hampered by the stereotype that Asians make great foot soldiers but not leaders?
I think [the stereotype] is a nonsequitur. It’s valid point only if you’ve done everything possible to position yourself properly then don’t make it. But I don’t see people trying enough. Before you can get to the institutional problem, you have to ask what you are doing…. If you’re Asian-American, and you think, “I’m not cut out for this,” you’re cutting yourself short.

As an Asian-American who’s running the office of a big firm, you must be a magnet for diverse associates who want your advice.
I can think of very few times when [any] associate approached me. Most don’t. So much of being successful is gathering intelligence, then creating a roadmap.

So what should associates be doing?
They should ask at least five partners to lunch in the next six months. Ask them about their career path, what they wish they had known at their age, how their career [was] affected when they had a family. After a while, certain themes will emerge.

I can understand why associates don’t take that kind of initiative. Maybe they’re scared of you.
Exactly. But you shouldn’t be. People will be honest if you ask them questions. You get tons of information, and you’ve started a relationship. Someone might say, “You know, she’s sharp and she’s the only person who’ve asked me to lunch.”

Did you actually do a lot of lunches when you were a junior lawyer?
I had an epiphany when I was in my third or fourth year of practice. I realized that I needed more of a sustainable group of people. I had lunch with people three or four times a week: competitors, colleagues, clients, potential clients. I didn’t discriminate. I’d have lunch with anyone. Then all of a sudden, this person I’d been having lunch with became a head of a division…. I didn’t know what I was doing with the lunch program but I had a network.

Wow. I don’t think of tax lawyers doing this kind of thing.
If I can do it, anyone can.

At what point during those relationships, do you pop the question, “Hey, can I get your business”?
I never ask for work. Maybe that’s the Asian side of me. People know what I do. I usually say, “Let’s stay in touch, and I hope one day, we’ll have the opportunity to work together.”

And how long does it usually take for those relationships to turn into business?
I’d say it’s a three-year process. It’s a long-term investment. You fundamentally have to be interested in people and learn about what they’re doing. Business is a by-product.

After this interview, you’ll be swamped with lunch requests.
You’d be amazed how few will ask.

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