J. Katelyn Kye, managing director of Major Lindsey & Africa
Many Asian American attorneys are finding they may have excelled in law school and were able to land their first job, but their careers are not moving forward the way they would like.
It has been described as a “bamboo ceiling,” and on May 14, 2014, Vedder Price, a well-known general practice law firm, and Major, Lindsey & Africa, a national recruiting organization for law firms and corporate legal departments, are trying to do something about it. They are hosting a networking and roundtable discussion for Asian American general counsel at Vedder Price’s Chicago office.
It is the first such roundtable discussion held by the organization and will feature Asian-American GCs from the Midwest. It will provide both networking opportunities and an open dialogue about how to further the cause of the Asian-American attorney community. Attendance for the event is by invitation.
To understand some of the issues, Asian Americans in the legal profession have talked about how they excelled in school – be it elementary, middle or high school or college – as well as in law school, but their career paths may tell another story.
The numbers show there is room for improvement as far as the number of Asian American general counsel. Last year, a Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) survey of Fortune 500 companies showed that only 13 general counsel at Fortune 500 companies were Asian American, which translates to 2.6 percent. When it comes to the Fortune 1000, only 1.8 percent of GCs are Asian American. There are also statistics from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), which show that while Asian Americans were getting hired as associates at law firms — they represent 10.5 percent of associates at law firms included in the survey — just 2.7 percent were partners. The percentages among Asian Americans making it to partner were lower than the percentages of African American or Hispanic attorneys who made it from associate to partner.
In addition, there are perceptions that Asian Americans who work in the legal field do not like to self-promote or take risks. Among the topics that could come up at the roundtable are offering more mentoring for Asian American attorneys, providing legal work to Asian American attorneys in law firms, and hiring more Asian Americans in corporate legal departments.
J. Katelyn Kye, managing director of Major Lindsey & Africa, expects there will be a “candid and robust dialogue. We all have shared experiences.”
One general counsel who will take part in the roundtable is Cathy Tang, chief legal officer for KFC Corp. She is the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan. After graduating from the University of Texas and the University of Louisville Law School, she worked in litigation for a law firm in Louisville, before getting recruited into KFC’s legal department. She later worked for Dell Computer, before heading back to KFC.
“I’ve been very blessed in my career to have mentors and sponsors along the way,” Tang recalled in a recent interview. That was the case despite at times being virtually the only Asian American at the offices where she worked.
She says Asian American attorneys can get typecast in certain areas of law. They may find opportunities in intellectual property or work for a company that does business with China or another Asian nation. And while it is good to have opportunities in these fields, it may limit careers. She says there is talk in the field among Asian American attorneys of a “bamboo ceiling.” There are, for instance, not many Asian Americans who have made managing partners or who serve on management committees at law firms. There are also a limited number of Asian Americans in the federal judiciary.
“Asian Americans are sort of the forgotten minority,” Tang said. “The Asian American lawyers are seen as successful, but it depends on how you define success.”
She says events like the General Counsel Roundtable are needed, with more opportunities for networking, nurturing and mentoring. Organizations give Asian American attorneys a way to discuss barriers or perceptions and a way for veteran attorneys to help those who are earlier in their careers, she adds.
Also, now that she has been at her current job for a while, she finds she is able to more openly discuss with colleagues some characteristics of the Asian culture. It can be hard to do that for an attorney early in their career, she confirms.
But with her level of experience she was able to open up during a recent interchange with work colleagues. KFC had set up a meeting to encourage employees to break down barriers and deal with perceptions. She spoke about the need to defer to authority and a reluctance to speak up at work. She urged her colleagues to “challenge” her and to push her to be more vocal. She knows they value her opinions – but felt she needed that push so she was more likely to interject her thoughts.
“You have to learn some of these skills,” Tang said, adding that if they are not acquired it becomes much harder to make it to the next level in a career path.
From her own experience, she said she has been fortunate, “I don’t feel I have been typecast.” And she has supportive colleagues – as well as a supportive family. Now, she wants to help others in their careers.
Looking ahead, the roundtable could become an annual event as Asian American attorneys continue to talk about diversity issues. “We’re trying to create an affinity group among Asian American leaders,” said Joseph H. Kye, shareholder at
Vedder Price, where he specializes in mergers and acquisitions. He is a member of the firm’s diversity committee and has been on the firm’s hiring committee.
For more information about the activities of the Asian American General Counsel Roundtable contact Sonya Olds Som, managing director at Major, Lindsey & Africa.