The GCs who answered anything but “yes” insisted
they hire the best lawyers, regardless of race. Showing
favoritism toward AAPIs suggests that such individuals
have limited abilities and talent, they explained.
Besides, high-achieving, diligent AAPIs don’t need the
help, they said.
Ryan Whitacre has encountered this point of view
throughout the legal profession.
“There’s a false sense of meritocracy,” said Whitacre,
a managing director of the Major, Lindsey & Africa legal
This is one of the topics that has been explored in
recent years at a series of roundtables aimed at boosting
the careers of AAPI lawyers—but along the way, it has
unearthed conflicted emotions among decision-makers
over whether to support peers in their racial group as
ardently as they pursue other priorities. And what should
that support consist of?
Organized by Major, Lindsey & Africa, the events have
drawn in-house legal chiefs throughout the Midwest,
plus a few lawyers from Vedder Price, which hosted
discussions at the firm’s Chicago office. A companion
event at Shearman & Sterling LLP in Menlo Park, Calif.,
drew West Coast in-house counsel, along with a few of
the firm’s lawyers. Invitations to each roundtable were
limited to AAPIs.
Promotions Are Never Just about the Work
Those who have attended at least one of the gatherings
say they encourage candid talk about the so-called “
bamboo ceiling,” common experiences across corporate law
departments and how to navigate misperceptions about
AAPIs as leaders.
One discussion thread has focused on whether AAPI
general counsel steer substantial amounts of business to
their ethnic counterparts at the firms. This generated a
variety of reactions—including skepticism and surprise.
Whitacre believes that AAPI parents often hand down
beliefs about meritocracy to their children, who grow up
and follow suit. He has heard similar opinions expressed
at bar association conferences for subgroups, whether
it’s Korean-Americans, Filipino-Americans or South
Asian-Americans. Take the path for professional advancement, for instance.
“Too many AAPI lawyers believe that if all they do is
keep their heads down and work hard, they will likely get
promoted,” Whitacre said. “It’s like back in school where
you think that if you score a certain grade on a test, then ev-
erything will be fine, but that’s not what happens at work.”
Instead, promotions also hinge upon an employ-
ee’s willingness to take risks—such as volunteering for
assignments outside his or her specialty—and to taste-
fully self-promote in order to remind supervisors of the
person’s value to the organization, said Whitacre, whose
career includes private practice and in-house jobs at large
“Promotions are never about just the work,” he said.
Yet, expectations at U.S. workplaces sometimes clash
with cultural norms that many AAPIs grow up with, such
as modesty, deflecting praise, avoiding risk, deferring to
seniority and not questioning authority.
Work Hard, but Enlist Mentors and Sponsors
Kathryn Kimura Mlsna tried navigating these kinds of
opposing ideas as a young working mother in the 1980s—
but without a mentor. Neither of her Japanese-American
By Lydia Lum
TH E Q U E S T I O N S F O R T H E A U D I E N C E of Asian-American and Pacific Islander general counsel seemed straightforward.
Do you hire AAPIs as outside counsel? Or as relationship part-
ners who receive credit for bringing the accounts to their law firms?
The responses, however, were not so clear-cut. In fact, some
of the body language—flinches, starts, eyes growing big—was as
provocative and nuanced as the gasps and utterances of “Why?”
Lawyers explore the benefits of pan-Asian cooperation
and collaboration to boost career trajectories.