Portrait Vignettes

From The Practice November/December 2018
Asian American lawyers living the data

The lead article of this issue of The Practice, “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law,” by Eric Chung, Samuel Dong, Xiaonan April Hu, Christine Kwon, and Goodwin Liu, offers a comprehensive, data-rich, and largely data-driven picture of Asian Americans in the U.S. legal profession. The research, based primarily on a major career survey of Asian American lawyers from across the United States, presents a wealth of rich empirical data. Among the central findings that the article lays out is that while Asian American lawyers are more likely than any other racial group to attend elite law schools, they also have the highest attrition rate at law firms and the lowest ratio of partners to associates of any minority group. Many point to a lack of mentors, implicit biases, and stereotypes as significant barriers to advancement. While this collection of data offers a profound narrative on the state of Asian Americans in the U.S. legal profession, it remains, to an extent, abstract. While the numbers offer a much-needed, broad, and systemic analysis of the major issues facing Asian Americans lawyers, it is easy to lose sight of the individual narratives behind the percentages and statistics. In this article, we complement the data with a series of portrait vignettes, presenting the stories of three Asian American lawyers who have lived the experiences traced by the empirical research. In each vignette, we see how an individual’s career and life experiences cohere with—and deviate from—what the data suggests. What were their motivations? What barriers did they encounter, and what enabled them to achieve success? What do they perceive as the problems facing Asian American lawyers, and where do they see potential for progress? Taken together, these three individual accounts offer insight into what the picture described in the research looks like in reality.

Jeremy Tran: Overcoming culture shock

The first-generation son of Vietnamese refugees, Jeremy Tran grew up in Orange County, California’s Little Saigon neighborhood. “I had a pretty humble upbringing,” explains Tran. “My parents didn’t go to college, and I have no lawyers in my family. My older sister pursued dentistry but, much to my parents’ dismay, I did not pursue a degree in medicine.” Instead, Tran chose a career in the law.

There are certain implicit biases that, frankly, everyone has and certain innate qualities ingrained in the upbringing of many Asian Americans.

Jeremy Tran

Tran’s decision to enter law school was in many ways a product of his college experiences. During his undergraduate years at Harvard College, Tran surveyed the world of liberal arts and found that it suited him. He took to writing—in particular, writing persuasively. He also thrived as a researcher and enjoyed his time as a volunteer assisting people through small claims court. But even more than that, a legal career seemed to Tran the best way to channel his energy and ambition around tackling the injustices that had impacted his upbringing, whether those were matters of resource allocation or language barriers. Law school came to feel like a natural progression. “My senior year of college is about when I came to this conclusion,” says Tran. “At which point I basically dropped everything, scrambled to get the letters of recommendation together, studied for the LSAT on the side, and then submitted my application.”

Tran entered Harvard Law School’s class of 2012 directly after earning his bachelor’s degree, where he excelled as an active member of the campus community. Despite moving just a few hundred feet from Harvard Yard to the HLS campus, law school was a culture shock for Tran, as it often is for new students. Only, it was more than a simple personality-environment mismatch or the omnipresent “imposter syndrome” that plagues so many law students at elite schools (and that Susan Cain outlines in “Quiet Leadership”). There was a cultural component as well. “It’s not that I’m not inquisitive, and it’s not that I’m not interested in the classes I take,” Tran begins. “But adjusting to the law school classroom environment was still the most difficult part for me.” He explains:

I think this largely stems from the way I was raised and my cultural background—you learn by listening to what your professors, your teachers, your superiors are teaching you. You give them deference and listen to what they have to say rather than interrupting them, raising your hand, asking questions, or challenging their ideas. That style of learning was a little different for me and a little jarring at first, and something I had to take time to get used to.

None of this prevented Tran from excelling within the law school curriculum—he was even a teaching assistant for a legal research and writing course. He was also drawn to student organizations, whether due to his own experiences of culture shock or a corresponding desire to help create a more welcoming law school environment for others. Tran was copresident of the law school’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA), the main affinity group on campus for Asian students (for more on the role these groups play in law students’ racial identity, see “Incidental Racialization”), as well as a member of the law school’s Board of Student Advisers, a group dedicated to helping first-year students navigate the complexities of law school.

Tran entered private practice through a ritual familiar to many elite law school students: early law firm interviews, where top law firms compete to recruit talent from the country’s top law schools. “I definitely got swept up in this huge phenomenon we called ‘EIP,’ or the early interview program,” recalls Tran. “Every single classmate is interviewing with these fancy law firms while the school’s career services are telling you to try it out too. So I thought, OK, I’ll go interview. I wasn’t closed off to it; I just didn’t know much about it.” (For more on how public-interest-oriented students navigate this process, see “The Professional Identity Formation of Lawyers.”)

So, after spending seven years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Tran returned to his native Southern California where his parents still resided. He also knew he wanted to jump right into litigation. “I didn’t want to clerk,” he says. “I wanted to represent clients.” So he went about interviewing with firms in the greater Los Angeles area. Ultimately, it was the lawyers of O’Melveny & Myers’s Century City office that drew him in. Indeed, due in no small part to the office’s lawyers and the culture of the firm, Tran remains at O’Melveny & Myers (OMM) today, six years later.

On the one hand, Tran admits that as a practicing lawyer he continues to grapple with those cultural tensions he encountered during law school. Just as he was apprehensive about taking a professor to task over an argument then, today he is not any more naturally inclined to interrupt a more senior lawyer with an alternative point of view. That is why, as he describes, he must work to ensure he is not just contributing but contributing in a visible and consistent way. “When I participate in meetings with senior attorneys, I say to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to make sure I speak up at least three times,’” says Tran. “And as silly as it may sound, I actually often make a checkmark in my notebook each time I contribute a point—not because I need to make sure I am present but to ensure I’m making a conscious effort to show that I’m engaged.”

On the other hand, despite these challenges, Tran’s tenure at OMM has been marked by success in high-profile litigation. Not long after joining the firm’s 60-plus-lawyer Century City office, Tran found himself playing a pivotal role in the highly publicized Michael Jackson wrongful death trial. After that came the industry-changing Sirius XM lawsuits involving an unprecedented right to control the performances of sound recordings created before 1972. Then came the AT&T–Time Warner merger trial against the U.S. Department of Justice, which wrapped up earlier this year. And through all these cases, and all the time and work they have demanded, Tran emphasizes the importance of mentorship and trust among his colleagues.

Looking back on the Michael Jackson trial in particular, Tran describes a green lawyer fresh out of law school thrust into the middle of the day’s most-talked-about trial. “I’m a year out of law school, and I’m assigned to draft the cross-examination of the very first witness of the most highly publicized trial in the entertainment industry at the time,” he recalls. “And that’s where mentorship really comes in.” Tran quickly realized he was not facing these tall tasks alone, but as one member of a supportive team. Senior associates and partners worked with him through long hours to pull together the right strategy, and Tran was able to go to court the first day of the trial to see the examination.

 I was recently at a wedding where I got to catch up with a number of Asian American law school classmates and…maybe only one or two are still in big law. Everyone else has either left for a smaller firm or done something completely different.

Jeremy Tran

It was during the Sirius XM case that Tran found whom he describes as his biggest mentor, sponsor, and advocate. “She is not only brilliant and an excellent lawyer, but she is a friend,” says Tran. “And because she is Asian American too, she has navigated a lot of the same terrain.” To Tran, this has been invaluable in helping him navigate his own legal career. He explains:

Because of that shared experience, she can take me aside and say, “This is what you need to do.” For example, that trick to make sure I am visibly present in meetings is something that she shared with me. There are certain implicit biases that, frankly, everyone has and certain innate qualities ingrained in the upbringing of many Asian Americans. But she is a shining example of how to succeed as an Asian American woman in the legal industry, which means she has even more implicit biases to overcome. Her advice and mentorship is helping me become more than someone at the law firm just doing the work and meeting standards, but someone who can actually thrive and be promoted and seen.

Tran was recently promoted to counsel at OMM and has been recognized as a valued member of the firm through positions on various committees and leadership roles centered on diversity both within the firm and throughout the wider profession. At the same time, he is acutely aware of the high attrition rate among Asian American lawyers and, relatedly, the steep ratio of Asian American partners to associates (which, as Justice Liu notes in “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law,” is the lowest of any minority group). “I was recently at a wedding where I got to catch up with a number of Asian American law school classmates and friends from APALSA,” Tran related. “And of all these friends, maybe only one or two are still in big law. Everyone else has either left for a smaller firm or done something completely different.”

Tran’s view on a path forward: the effort is there, but the legal profession still has a lot of catching up to do. “They’re putting money and resources behind it, and I would say a lot of people’s hearts are in the right place,” notes Tran. “But it’s a slow process, and it’ll be a struggle for the legal industry to achieve the numbers that they ultimately want to achieve. And I don’t know what could expedite that.” Tran points to demands from big-name clients who demand diverse counsel from their firms as one strategy that could yield success down the road. “I always remind myself that we’re a services industry, and we don’t exist in a vacuum,” he says. “Many of us can agree that the legal industry is perhaps slower-moving than others, but to the extent that we already see these changes in our clients and in other industries happening at a faster rate, we have to catch up.”

Christine Sun: Taking part in civil rights history

Christine Sun was born in Queens, New York, to Taiwanese parents—parents who came from disadvantaged backgrounds yet earned elite educations from Taiwan’s prestigious National Taiwan University before moving to the United States. After moving from New York to South Carolina, where she spent her early childhood, to California, where she spent the rest of it, Sun earned her undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California Berkeley before jumping back to the East Coast to pursue a law degree at New York University.

There were a lot of Asian Americans and Asians in my class at NYU, but I’m not sure that I ever felt I belonged.

Christine Sun

Sun did not have any lawyers in her family before she attended law school, nor did she know any personally. It was her desire to enact positive change on the world around her that drew her to law school, coupled with her belief that lawyers were uniquely suited to make such an impact. “My mother in particular instilled in me this sense of wanting society to be fair,” Sun explains. “When she moved from Taiwan to the United States, she experienced a lot of discrimination because she didn’t speak the language very well. She was in a different country, and even though she was educated, she experienced discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.” Sun learned about civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education in high school and took to heart the central role that those lawyers played in confronting discrimination and injustice. “I thought, ‘Wow, these lawyers were instrumental in protecting people’s civil rights and civil liberties,’” she remembers. “‘Maybe that’s something that I can do.’”

Fueled by the inspiration of civil rights leaders, personal enjoyment in the subject matter, and a knack for critical reading and writing, Sun enrolled in New York University School of Law—only it was, as Sun puts it, intimidating. “I really enjoyed reading,” she says. “I enjoyed reading the cases. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of it. Did I enjoy the performance aspect of the classes, where you’re either called on or you volunteer to speak in front of a class of 100 really smart people that are trained to be supercritical? No. That aspect was very intimidating.” Without any lawyers in her orbit to offer advice and help set expectations, Sun had to adjust to her new reality as it was presented to her in real time.

While trying to make all the adjustments typical of settling in at law school, Sun was also balancing multiple identities that had significant impacts on her law school experience. She remembers that in that moment there was little space for some of those identities to overlap in the ways we may take for granted today. “There were a lot of Asian Americans and Asians in my class at NYU,” Sun notes, “but I’m not sure that I ever felt I belonged to the affinity groups that were on campus for Asian Americans, in part because—and this was perhaps very specific to that group of people at that time—it was pretty gendered.” She explains:

Even though I wasn’t out as gay at the time, I certainly didn’t conform to gender stereotypes. I felt like there was some aspect of my expected identity that was supposed to be very gender conforming, and I just didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the LGBT affinity group either, in part because I wasn’t out at the time but also in part because the culture of that group was mostly not Asian. There are different parts of my identity, like everyone has different parts of their identity. I think with the combination of my immigrant identity, my Asian identity, and maybe my nascent LGBT identity, you could say they were sometimes in conflict with one another. I joke sometimes now that I have often felt, “OK. I’m an Asian American female, so people expect me to be deferential. But I’m also a lesbian, so people expect me to be a man hater and oppositional.” My point being, like anyone else, I don’t fit into some neat category, which of course is what these stereotypes try to do.

My mother in particular instilled in me this sense of wanting society to be fair.

Christine Sun

After graduating law school in 1998, Sun landed one of the most coveted positions for any young law graduate—a federal clerkship. During a law school internship at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Sun had worked closely with an attorney who would go on to recommend her for a clerkship on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York under Judge Robert L. Carter—the same Robert L. Carter who argued against segregation before the Supreme Court alongside Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education. The way Sun tells it, her path to securing the prestigious post-law-school experience of a judicial clerkship was due more to blessing than design. “There’s some people that go to law school who know what they’re supposed to do. They know they’re supposed to get on law review. They know they’re supposed to do these internships. They know they’re supposed to get a clerkship on some circuit or this particularly prestigious district court,” she says. “I didn’t know any of those things. I made decisions on my own based on trial and error.”

To young Asian American lawyers, the process—formal and informal—for obtaining judicial clerkships and for gaining mentors offers a snapshot of the unique barriers they face in the legal profession. Sun explains:

During law school, I didn’t go and seek out professors because it seemed presumptuous of me to go and talk with them to take up their time unless I had a really well-thought-out question. I mean, that was just the way that I was raised. I think that that’s probably a common experience, and yet you need those relationships in order to later get clerkships. It was really because I had interned for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in my third year and because this lawyer took me under her wing that I was able to get to that point. And I expect I have this experience in common with a number of Asian American students.

After clerking for Judge Carter, Sun entered private practice as an associate for Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and then later at Keker, Van Nest & Peters, where she worked primarily on corporate and patent litigation. Sun lists off a number of motivating factors behind the decision: she found corporate work both challenging and interesting; working at a large law firm was a prestigious place to gain valuable experience, especially for a young attorney; and it was important to her—and her mother—that she be able to support herself financially, which working as a big law associate allowed her to do. “I had this idea that your worth was based on how much the company was willing to pay you,” recalls Sun. “I think that that was a very strong sentiment when I was growing up. My mother didn’t know anything about these firms, but she knew what they would pay me and thought, ‘Wow, that’s why I sent you to law school.’” That is not to say that Sun did not enjoy the work, respect her colleagues, or think highly of her firms. “I learned a lot,” she says. “I learned how to be a good lawyer. I don’t regret having spent that time in private practice at all.”

Nevertheless, Sun was eventually drawn away from private practice and into the world of legal nonprofit work. Despite the learning and wonderful colleagues at her law firms, Sun asked herself, “Is this it? Is this going to be my whole contribution to society?” Serendipitously, around that time, Sun got the opportunity to take a temporary position as staff attorney with the ACLU around its LGBT work just as the marriage equality movement in the United States was in its early stages. She took what was intended to be a leave of absence from her law firm to fill the temporary position, but that temporary position then transformed into her new career track. Sun went on to serve as a senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s national LGBT rights project in the Deep South and as a deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center before returning to the ACLU and eventually becoming the legal and policy director of the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, the largest of the ACLU state affiliates. “I’m sure I would have been fine had I stayed in private practice,” Sun thinks back. “But there was a part of me that really wanted to be Judge Carter or to be like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney I interned for because of what my mother had instilled in me. And here I have the opportunity to be part of a really important time in civil rights history.”

Sun’s message to young Asian American lawyers and law students: you are worthy of other people’s time, so do not be afraid to ask them for help.

Notwithstanding she had found her passion at the ACLU, Sun notes that some of the challenges highlighted in the research (see “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law”) remain—regardless of practice setting. “I would say occasionally I am not seen as a person of color,” she says, choosing her words carefully. She continues:

I think that is something that’s been true in the private sector but is also true in the public-interest sector where you would expect people to be more aware of different identities. I guess that’s been a little surprising to me. There are times where I’m seen as essentially white—and all the assumptions that come with that—whether it’s about what my experience has been or how I operate in the world. Maybe invisible is not the right word, but it’s as if my Asian identity doesn’t count.

Looking back, Sun identifies some of the broad themes present in the Portrait Project. “It is so ingrained in the culture that there is a certain type of person that’s seen as a leader,” she says. “And while I could give you this answer of “Well, we need to mentor more,” I don’t know how these stereotypes shift without society as a whole shifting.” For Sun, if she were to do it all again, she would take a different mindset from the start. “I would think of myself as someone deserving the time of others,” she says succinctly. “I feel very lucky to be where I am today, but I do think the feeling of not wanting to be an imposition on people—particularly powerful people—is one of the biggest obstacles for Asian Americans that stands in the way of things like mentorships, clerkships, and really any kind of mobility within the profession.” Her message to young Asian American lawyers and law students: you are worthy of other people’s time, so do not be afraid to ask them for help.

Bijal Vakil: Law firm success with a strange name

The son of Indian immigrants with no ties to the legal profession, Bijal Vakil has forged a legal career that challenges the prevailing narrative—and statistics—that flow from the Portrait Project’s core findings (see “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law”). “My parents didn’t really encourage their kids to go to law school,” says Vakil. “A part of their thinking was we had a strange foreign name and we didn’t look the part of a traditional lawyer, but also the calibration methods for a lawyer can seem much more subjective than objective. The emphasis was always, well, we have these differences, so perhaps you should focus on those more-objective careers where the subjectivity is taken out.” (As we have documented in The Practice, law remains a relationship business—see “Corporate Purchasing: A Center on the Legal Profession Study.” As such, points of common connection are arguably all the more important.) Looking back, while he appreciates his parents’ motivations behind encouraging him into engineering, medicine, or accounting, Vakil nevertheless opted for a career in the law and hasn’t looked back since. Indeed, despite having little connection to law at the start, Vakil climbed to the heights of the legal profession, becoming a partner at one of the world’s most prestigious firms.

Why did he choose law? “For me, it was a combination of factors,” Vakil says. “It was the opportunity to understand the legal system better. It was an opportunity to have a voice in trying to change things so those that followed after me would have, hopefully, an easier time. And finally, it’s just an extremely interesting job.”

The emphasis was always, well, we have these differences, so perhaps you should focus on those more-objective careers where the subjectivity is taken out.

Bijal Vakil

As a law student at the University of California Davis School of Law, Vakil was active in the Asian American community. “I was at a really small law school where we had a very small APALSA—that’s the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association,” he recalls. “We were a small group, but we formed deep bonds through that shared experience and having been there for each other. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t talk to one of my APASA friends from law school.” From this perspective, the Asian American community offered Vakil—strange name and all—a home and a source of support during what is often an alienating experience, irrespective of one’s background.

Throughout law school, Vakil knew he wanted to enter private practice to focus in intellectual property. After graduating in 1996, he made partner at McDermott Will & Emery in 2003. Most recently, in 2008, he moved to White & Case, where he has served on management as the executive partner in charge of their Silicon Valley office since 2010. Vakil found what many consider the height of success in private practice—achieving partnership at a major law firm—despite the grim outlook forecasted by the data. As the lead article of this issue documents, only around 3 percent of equity partners in the United States are Asian American. Reflective of this lack of Asian American leaders in law firms, Vakil recalls that in the early part of his career, it was rare if ever that he had someone who could take him aside and help prepare him for what it means to navigate the legal professional as an Asian American. “In later phases of my career, I was fortunate to have mentors that were Asian American and could provide feedback that would be helpful and could address concerns about being a diverse member of the profession,” he recalls. “But it was hard to find those early on in my career, because they simply didn’t exist.”

Now that he is a leader in his firm, Vakil brings his own experiences to bear. He has a seat at the table when the firm determines how and whom to recruit; he has a seat at the table where strategy is set around which clients to pursue and why; and across all his responsibilities, his voice is elevated with his position. “Being an Asian American, my presence and voice means everyone at that table is getting at least one Asian American perspective,” he affirms. Whatever stereotypes one conjures up around what a leader can be, Vakil is one, and young Asian American lawyers will take notice.

Vakil has also returned to UC Davis as an instructor. From his vantage point, Vakil sees a reluctance on the part of Asian American students he encounters to enter private practice. “Back when I was a law student, it was pretty lonely in terms of diverse people in the law school who wanted to take the private law firm route,” he remembers. “Now, there are more Asian American students, which is a positive signal. But when it comes to encouraging students to see private practice as a place where they can thrive, I don’t see much difference.” Vakil attributes this to a confluence of circumstances: students are compelled to make career decisions earlier and earlier in law school and, without the support of mentors or other key guidance early on, decisions are made that can make it harder for students to alter their intended career tracks. Thus, if they do not think they will be successful in private practice early on in law school, it is increasingly less likely they will choose to pursue it as a career.

Vakil found what many consider the height of success in private practice—achieving partnership at a major law firm—despite the grim outlook forecasted by the data.

For Vakil, the way forward for Asian Americans in the legal profession is written in the data. “We’ve taken baby steps toward progress,” he acknowledges. “But there’s so much more work to do.  We are far, far away from a level playing field.” Much of the work Vakil identifies is corroborated in the Portrait Project:

We need to assess why the numbers of Asian American associates transitioning into the partner role is so much smaller than for any other minority group. Clearly the “model minority” myths and stereotypes affecting Asian Americans are affecting the chances Asian Americans have of moving up in their firms. The perception that Asian Americans are timid or lack gravitas has to change. We still need to make progress on all these fronts.

At the same time, he is optimistic about the future. “I think, fortunately, we’re seeing clients now demanding diverse lawyers on their teams,” lauds Vakil. “That’s both because diverse backgrounds will bring different and better perspectives to achieve any type of business or litigation goal. Also because it’s the right thing to do.” His message for students is one of encouragement and support. “Make friends in this profession, create networks, mentor others, and keep in touch with those friends as you become leaders,” he says. “The future is quite bright.”

Three portraits of Asian American lawyers

Through the journeys of Jeremy Tran, Christine Sun, and Bijal Vakil, we see the echoes of the research presented in the Portrait Project: the culture shock of law school, the importance of Asian American mentors, the steep climb for Asian Americans in law firms, and the loneliness at the top. Moreover, we see what is not conspicuous in the data: the influences that family, culture, and identity can have on individual decisions and how those influences can linger on for better or worse. While these three lawyers may share career success and panethnic identity in common (for more on Asian American panethnic identity in the United States, and specifically how it is reinforced in law schools, see “Incidental Racialization”), their different backgrounds, trajectories, and motivations suggest that no two stories are the same. Tran, Sun, and Vakil do, however, offer similar views on the path ahead: there is no simple solution that will address the challenges facing Asian Americans today, but for starters it helps to have more Asian American voices in the rooms where decisions are made.