Goodwin Liu. Photo credit: Jason Doiy/ALM.

Six years ago, there were about 30 Asian-American general counsel in the Bay Area.

Now, there are more than 100.

Wednesday night, the Bay Area Asian American General Counsel (BAAAGC), the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area (AABA) and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Silicon Valley came together in Palo Alto to celebrate this important milestone. The event was hosted by Varian Medical Systems, where John Kuo, the co-founder of the BAAAGC, is GC.

Julian Ong and Andrew Kim, GCs of NIO and Netgear Inc., respectively, and the other two co-founders of the BAAAGC, said they were shocked when they learned the number had passed 100.

“I was surprised,” Kim said. “I didn’t meet an Asian-American GC until 2005. And that was in Chicago.”

Ong and Miriam Kim, a partner of Munger, Tolles & Olson and president of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area (AABA), realized there were over 100 GCs after meeting and comparing their organizations’ lists.

Celebrating such a milestone is crucial, said Brian Wong, the senior counsel and director of Global Employment Law at Gap Inc. Because while there’s been tremendous progress for Asian-Americans in law, there’s still a long way to go. Events such as Wednesday’s boost the visibility of Asian-Americans in the industry, which he said is crucial for more change.

“It shows young people they have role models and it shows firms and companies that it’s a great idea to have diverse attorneys,” Wong said.

Despite the growing number of Asian-American GCs and lawyers in the Bay Area, underrepresentation remains a large issue. According to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in law, but the most proportionately underrepresented at the GC and partner levels.  Miriam Kim said Asian-American women are the least likely to make partner, and she’s also seen them lose out on advancement opportunities in legal departments.

California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin H. Liu, the event’s keynote speaker, discussed a report he recently co-authored called “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law” (Portrait Project), which highlighted the challenges, such as underrepresentation, that Asian-American lawyers still face. He spoke with 77 attorneys in 12 focus groups and used surveys to get qualitative and quantitative data.

“People said—especially women—that they’re often being thought of as not the lawyer,” Liu said of the data collected. “It’s still not natural for people to think of Asian-Americans as [lawyers].”

Asian-American women he spoke to had been mistaken for everything from the court reporter to the client’s girlfriend—but usually not the attorney. It was also common for women he spoke with to be repeatedly mistaken for the (usually only one or two) other Asian-American women in the office, even if they looked nothing alike.

Which isn’t a meaningless, innocent mistake, Liu pointed out. It means co-workers may be looking at them as Asian-American women and not individuals with distinct ideas and personalities.

Liu also discussed his findings that many Asian-Americans are missing out on key networking events, for a variety of reasons. He noted that many are taught to work hard, keep their heads down and let their work speak for itself. While this can help in entry-level positions, young lawyers should be spending time networking and forming real relationships to climb the ranks.

“Asian-Americans are seen as worker bees but not the person you put in front of the client,” Liu said. “And some of that is stereotyping and some of that is developing a social skill set.”

Liu and other events attendees noted this issue could be fixed with more mentorship. The Portrait Project surveys found Asian-Americans respondents viewed lack of access to a network and mentors as the biggest barrier they face in the legal industry. “A lot of Asian-Americans in our generation, we were the first to go to law school,” Kim of the AABA said. “We didn’t have contacts in the legal profession.”

The majority of Asian-American lawyers are second-generation Americans or came to the country as young children, with 95 percent growing up without a parent in law. This leaves them fewer built-in networks, like family and family friends, than Americans who grew up surrounded by people in the legal profession.

That’s why such groups as BAAAGC and AABA promote networking events and contacts within the legal industry.

“Now Asian-Americans are moving into the upper ranks and they can mentor people,” Liu said. “Mentorship makes a huge difference. Someone successful to pull them aside and say ‘these are the unwritten rules.’”

Now, the AABA is working with the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association toward a new goal: 20 Asian-American GCs at Fortune 500 companies by 2020. Currently, there are 17.