Business woman with bullhorn
Business woman with bullhorn ()

What are Asian-American lawyers complaining about now? By many measures, they are runaway successes. In 2016, Asian associates represented more than 11 percent of all associates in major firms, the National Association for Law Placement said, while Hispanics and blacks only made up 4.4 and 4.1 percent, respectively. Moreover, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) reports that 31 Asian Pacific Americans now occupy the general counsel seats of Fortune 1000 companies (15 of them in the Fortune 500 in 2016 versus just four in 2006). Not too shabby for a group that accounts for less than 6 percent of the American population.

But here’s the rub: Though they’ve been swelling the junior ranks of the profession for the last 20 years or so, Asian-Americans are still rarities at the top, particularly in Big Law.

“They go to the best law schools, the best firms, but the problem is the low conversion rate from associate to partner,” says Jean Lee, head of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. (NALP finds that Asian Pacific Americans, or APAs, represent 3.13 percent of all partners in big firms.) Compared with other ethnicities, Lee adds, “Asians are leaving [firms] at the highest numbers.”

In recent years, the default theory has been unconscious bias—Asians are penalized because they don’t fit the popular image of a leader. “APAs are thought to be better at technical or analytical roles,” says Victoria Reese of search firm Heidrick & Struggles. “[Some think that] if you need someone with communication or presentation skills, you look at a different slate.” And Reese notes that the image problem is even worse for Asian women: “We are frequently asked whether an Asian woman candidate is tough enough.”

It’s become a familiar trope: the quiet, proficient and—dare we say?—nerdy Asian worker bee. It might be an unfair stereotype, but, increasingly, Asian-Americans are also openly admitting there’s some truth behind it, and that they need to take action to counter it.

“Asians are more reticent and less vocal than your typical white guys,” says Selena Loh LaCroix, the global head of legal and compliance group for corporate search firm Egon Zehnder. “They are good at listening, but it’s a matter of translating that into action.” LaCroix, who’s active in NAPABA’s “20×20″ initiative to get 20 Asian Pacific Americans in Fortune 500 GC positions by 2020, says: “If you want to rise to the top, you have to make it known that you have a point of view, and that it’s valuable.”

MCCA’s Lee puts the issue even more bluntly: “How many times do you see an APA make a stink?” She adds that many managing partners tell her that “APAs still don’t speak up.” At the same time, though, when APAs do speak up, they can be perceived as super-aggressive, she said.

Lee expresses frustration that there’s no real consensus in the Asian legal community about how to tackle the problem—or even an agreement that there is a problem.

“We are not making a concerted effort to improve the numbers,” Lee says. “There’s a lack of awareness among APAs that it’s an issue.”

Part of that complacency is that Asian-Americans seem so successful compared with other minorities.

“Many Asian-American attorneys say they’ve experienced implicit bias,” says Goodwin Liu, one of the seven justices on California’s Supreme Court and the author of a forthcoming study on Asian-Americans in the profession. “I think that’s real, but there are other facets to the problem. For example, Asians know that they labor under the stereotype that they are quiet, and sometimes that stereotype becomes reality. We need to make choices, take risks and put ourselves out there.”

Indeed, the reasons are complicated.