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Where Are All the (Asian American) Female Lawyers?

In my ongoing discussion about why women lawyers leave law firms, I want to take a look at why one subset in particular leaves at higher rates than all others:  Asian American women.  So why are Asian American women leaving law firms?  My personal answer:  Statistical Probability.  Google this question, and you’ll see article after article about Asian Americans and the practice of law.  And in my very unscientific survey of these articles I note the following: (1) for the last two decades Asian Americans make up the largest minority group within big law firms; (2) Asian Americans have one of the lowest conversion rates from associate to partner; (3) Asian Americans have the highest attrition rates at law firms of any racial group; and (4) Asian American enrollment in law schools is down by 40%.  For more  statistics, see Yale Law School's Portrait of an Asian Americans in Law.

Now where do we all go?  The largest percentage of Asian American lawyers go in house.  So then we contrast the above statistics with a growing number of Asian Americans being named General Counsel (in large part due to a concerted effort by groups like NAPABA – National Asian Pacific American Bar Association).  In the Bay Area alone, there are now more than 100 Asian American GCs, just six years ago there were only 30.  As of last year, among Fortune 500 companies there were 23 Asian American GCs – and though that number is still small, it surpassed the expectations of current Asian American GCs whose goal was to have 20 by the year 2020.

As an Asian American woman practicing in BigLaw, those numbers are very telling. They tell me and others like me: the odds are not in my favor.  If you are ambitious (as most in this profession inherently are) then you might look at these numbers and say, I need to find a path where my hard work and my ambition have a better probability of being rewarded.  I would be lying if I said I didn’t look at these numbers and contemplate the same thing…I do, every damn day.      

So how do law firms change this?  Do they even want to change this?  This change is in many ways no different than the change that needs to happen to keep women in law firms in general.  We need mentors that look like us.  We need firms that create resource groups and programs for people like us. And we need a plan of action.  We need to know our firms see and recognize the problem.  We need to see concrete goals and plans of action, not just talking points.  And it often starts with asking what kind of professional development programs or opportunities are needed to serve us in particular? We are not all created equal when it comes to what we need professionally.  

Take for instance the action plan laid out by groups like NAPABA.  NAPABA understands that its members are perceived as lacking in soft skills.  Asian American lawyers are not lacking hard legal skills, they lack (or are perceived to be lacking) soft skills – people skills (to make it rain) and presentation skills (to be viewed as a leader or one with a impactful presence).  To counteract that NAPABA has designed a boot camp for individuals in the pipeline to teach them the soft skills required to move from staff attorney to GC and associate to partner. They are meeting with and working with Asian American lawyers that have succeeded and are learning from them what it takes to be seen as having those soft skills by the people that matter.

If law firms truly want to keep us (women, Asian Americans, any other minority or underrepresented group), then they need to understand how our statistics affect our mindset. They need to start digging into what stereotypes are prevalent with respect to the group they want to retain.  They need to know what soft skills that group may be missing.  There is no one size fits all approach to retaining talent.  Only after you understand what difficulties a particular group faces, can you truly create and implement a concrete plan of action specifically targeted at cultivating (and in the process retaining) the talent you want to keep. 

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