The Glass Ceiling, the Bamboo Ceiling, the Rice Swamp: If you follow the progression of Asian-American lawyers, you’ve probably heard those terms. They describe a troubling trend: While they are swelling the nation’s top law schools and the junior ranks of Big Law, Asian-Americans are rare birds in the top echelons of the profession.
The recently released report, “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law,” by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) and Yale Law School confirms this phenomenon. And it names some familiar culprits: lack of mentoring and access to power, plus lingering stereotypes and biases.
Here’s a snapshot from the report:
• In 1983, there were fewer than 2,000 Asian-American law students; in 2009, the number peaked to over 11,000. But since 2009, there’s been a 43 percent drop, the largest decline of any racial/ethnic group.
• For almost 20 years, Asian-Americans have been the largest minority group at major firms. At the same time, Asian-Americans have the worst conversion rate of associate to partners and the highest attrition rates.
• Asian-Americans represent 10.3 percent of graduates of top-30 law schools in 2015, but make up only 6.5 percent of federal judicial clerks.
• Very few Asian-Americans cited being influential or going into government service or politics as motives for going to law school. (Fun note: “Parental expectations or influence” didn’t ranked high as a factor either. Take that Tiger Mom!)
• Asian-Americans report the lowest satisfaction with their decision to become lawyers.
Not a happy picture. But while it might be easy to read the report as a confirmation of how the system fails Asian-Americans, I think it paints a more complicated picture that suggests other factors at play.
So I asked Goodwin Liu, a justice on the California Supreme Court and one of the report’s authors, about these issues. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Two things surprised me in the report: the big growth in Asian-American lawyers in a relatively short time [there are now over 53,000 Asian-American lawyers—more than double since 2000]; and what looks like an equally rapid decline. I’m talking about that huge 43 percent drop in law school enrollment. Is law out of vogue for Asian-Americans?
This is one of the biggest surprises, and one that hasn’t been paid attention to. I have a couple of hypotheses: Asian-Americans are conservative, so when law took a downturn, they turned away from it. Another is that if you see other people in your group not choosing law, word gets out that maybe law is not hospitable.
Is the inhospitable environment the reason Asian-Americans are leaving law firms in droves?
It could be a good-news story if they are going for better opportunities, like a top job in-house or the government. At the same time, it could be that they’re not getting mentoring, and they see no future beyond being a worker bee. Or it could be both.
Lawyers are miserable, but Asian-Americans seem the most miserable. The report says they have the lowest satisfaction of all groups in the early stage of their careers. Why?
You find the lowest dissatisfaction rate for those who chose law firms, and Asian-Americans tend to skew toward law firms, so they will be more dissatisfied.
It sounds like too many of them are making the wrong choice from the get-go. Which brings up their motives for going to law school. They say they don’t want to be influencers or politicians. They say they just want a satisfying career and intellectual challenge, which sounds a bit nerdy. So are Asian-Americans uninterested in being leaders?
It’s a chicken and egg thing. You have societal perceptions, and society has not normalized Asian-Americans as leaders, so that perception shapes Asian-Americans about what they pursue. How they are perceived and what they gravitate to are symbiotic. All this calls for introspection. We have to ask why Asian-Americans are so conservative but also examine what type of people are getting promoted.
Speaking of chicken and egg, I was fascinated by how Asian-Americans think they are perceived. When asked about traits associated with Asian-American lawyers, they answered “hardworking,” then “responsible,” “logical,” “careful” and “quiet.”
Those characteristics described how Asian-Americans exist in the popular mind. It’s not necessarily negative to be perceived as “hardworking,” “responsible,” “logical,” but the problem is that they might not be associated with leaders.
Your report talks a lot about obstacles in career advancement. But what really caught my eye was how women felt implicit bias much more keenly than the men.
Women were more likely to register barriers to career advancement. What came across in our focus groups was that Asian-American women felt they had a harder time being recognized as the lawyer. Quite a few said, they were mistaken for the interpreter, the client or the client’s girlfriend. They’re thought of as anything but the lawyer.
The report—and you—seem frustrated and baffled that Asian-Americans aren’t going for the brass rings—like clerkships.
The clerkship data was surprising. Asian-Americans do well getting into top law schools—and that’s where the clerks come from—but they are only 6.5 percent of federal judicial law clerks. Whites are the only ones who capture a very significant percentage [over 80 percent] of those clerkships.
A lot of barriers that Asian-Americans face are informal: lack of mentors and contacts. In our survey—we got 600 respondents, about 1 percent of Asian-American lawyers—95 percent said they did not have a parent who is a lawyer. This is a community without that inter-generational transfer of knowledge. Law is a very American profession, and Asian-Americans don’t have that deep well of knowledge. That’s true for my own story. Growing up, I knew nothing about law. I went to college as a pre-med.
But your children will be in a different position.
Yes, that’s right. On the whole I’m hopeful. As there are more Asian-American judges and more Asian-Americans in the top firms, the horizons for the younger lawyers will be extended.
Contact Vivia Chen at email@example.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.