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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Expanding the image of leadership for Asian Pacific American lawyers

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

In honor of May being Asian Pacific Heritage Month, we take a look at how the leadership attributes of Asian Pacific American (APA) lawyers are perceived

When Andrew Yang became the first man of Asian American descent to run for president it “was a culturally significant moment for Asian Americans” and many predict it will change how Asian Pacific American (APA) leaders are perceived.

In honor of May being Asian Pacific Heritage Month, we interviewed several APA attorneys to discuss how best to expand the image of leadership for APA lawyers. Throughout the month of May we will present several interviews with APA legal community members and articles that focus on areas of interest.

Seeing yourself reflected in leadership

Expanding an image of leadership has direct implications for APA lawyers simply because when APA attorneys are promoted to leadership ranks it begets more APA leaders. Arlene Arin Hahn, a partner in the Technology Transactions Practice within the Global M&A Group and Global IP Group of White & Case, notes that “seeing yourself” reflected in leadership is beneficial. Hahn says she never desired to make law partner until she saw a female partner who “resembled me, whose life resembled mine, or who seemed to be someone whose life I wanted to have.”

Athena Fan agrees. Fan, founder of rent dispute start-up Bite Size Legal, says that APA attorneys need to become the change they wish to see. Thus, we need to actively prepare and seek leadership opportunities within organizations, she explains, adding that a good focus is to increase emotional intelligence and build relationships before opportunities arise, which requires constant self-awareness and an understanding of organizational politics.

Gary Zhao, partner at Chicago law firm SmithAmundsen, says that the progress to date for APA attorneys into leadership ranks has been mixed, and the opportunities for APA attorneys to become partners and general counsels need to improved. “There are many Asian American attorneys who became federal judges and state judges, but not very many Asian American attorneys have rose to the highest ranks of law firm leadership or legal department leadership as general counsel, associate general counsel, or deputy general counsels, or managing partners at law firms,” Zhao says.

Gary Zhao

Part of challenge is that “Asian American lawyers are not seen as leaders, especially in the legal profession,” Zhao says, adding that this perception needs to be changed. APA lawyers are just as capable as any other ethnicity, yet “are seen more as ‘workers’ who do great work, crank out a large number of hours, and earn respect as great lawyers,” but are seen as not having what it takes to be leaders, he explains. “These perceptions and cultures need to be changed.”

In fact, one of the conundrums of APA attorneys face is that cultural norms of deference to elders and more senior persons as well as an emphasis on being the “model minority,” all perpetuate the belief that APA professionals are not leaders. Even though there is plenty of evidence of APA attorneys at the top ranks of the legal profession, the inaccurate perception remains.

And it is not something the APA community can disregard. Alan Tse, Global Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary at Jones Lang Lasalle. Tse says he knows it is something that he cannot ignore. “When I walk into a room, the one question I need to answer whether it is consciously asked or not is, ‘Can I as an APA lawyer be seen as a leader?’”

Changing the face of leadership

The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), is working to enhance the leadership of APA attorneys and increase representation of its community members at the general counsel level. Part of NAPABA’s motivation is that APA lawyers account for 10% to 12% of all lawyers graduating from top law schools in the US; yet, they currently only account for 4% of the general counsel roles at Fortune 500 companies. “Our numbers in leadership are not reflective of the number in the legal profession, and it is a problem that we need to solve,” says Tse, who co-chairs the NAPABA In-house Counsel Network.

Fan is pursuing her own path to changing the image of APA attorneys: While working in-house as an early career attorney, Fan founded a legal tech startup. Indeed, younger attorneys have more T-shaped technological competencies, and this is true for APA attorneys as well.

Athena Fan

Because of this, such lawyers can market their more modern skills and take initiative in projects or transformations within legal departments, Fan says, adding that it’s important to constantly align the skillsets of APA attorneys with the goals of the organization. “When I found out about a technology improvement project within my legal department, I immediately shared my legal tech project experience, and how it could be helpful to the organization’s goals,” Fan says. “Now I am more involved in additional opportunities to sharpen leadership skills.”

In addition, she has practiced the guiding principle of “leading from wherever you are,” which holds that any individual — from an early career professional to a seasoned person with 35-plus years of experience — has the opportunity to practice leadership.

From the moment Fan earned her undergraduate degree, she made a commitment to challenge herself, working in sales and business development for various technology companies before law school in order to gain experience and confidence. “Taking a sales job is something that everyone should do in their career because working in sales and business development will train you to talk to people and market yourself,” she says.

Hopefully, visible APA leaders like Andrew Yang and industry associations such as NAPABA will continue to break down barriers of leadership in new and existing political and business frontiers in the US.

“You have to see it to want to be it,” Hahn says.

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