Asian Americans make up the largest minority group in large law firms, but still lack representation at the highest levels of firm management and on the bench, according to a recent study from Yale Law School.
Jessica Courtway, an associate for Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in St. Louis and president of the Missouri Asian American Bar Association, said the result was not surprising.
“I know in the St. Louis market at least, I can probably count on two hands, if not one hand, the number of Asian American partners in the city I’m aware of, and the same with judges,” she said.
The study, “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law” was released July 18 by Yale Law School in conjunction with the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
It examined long-term data on Asian Americans in the field, from representation at law schools to the top ranks of the profession.
The study found that since 2000, Asian American lawyers have grown from 20,000 to 53,000, making up about five percent of lawyers nationally.
That trend is in line with law school enrollment. The survey found that in the last 30 years, Asian Americans quadrupled in law school enrollment, the largest increase of any racial or ethnic group.
The survey also identified a post-recession enrollment drop of 43 percent, larger than any other minority group.
The researchers found Asian Americans to have the highest attrition rates and lowest ratio of partners to associates.
The study also identified only 25 Asian Americans serving as federal judges, making up three percent of the federal judiciary. They make up two percent of state judges.
Courtway said the study’s discussion of underrepresentation in law firm leadership and on the bench was still kind of shocking to see.
“There’s the old adage: ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,’” she said. “I completely understand that. If you’re going up the ranks and don’t have Asian Americans (as role models), it’s easy to lose sight of that goal.”
She said it’s great the issue is being studied and to have the raw data, and would like to see more research.
“While Asian Americans have made lots of strides in the legal profession, there’s still quite a ways to go,” she said.
Barriers to advancement
Another key finding in the study was the barriers that Asian Americans face in the profession. Participants in the study identified experiencing inadequate access to mentors and contacts as primary barriers for career advancement.
Many study participants also reported implicit bias and stereotypes as barriers to promotion. The study found that Asian American attorneys who are women are more likely to report experiencing racial discrimination.
Jennifer Stonecipher Hill, a partner in Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s Kansas City office and president of the Asian American Bar Association of Kansas City, said the study gives an interesting perspective of how Asian Americans are represented in the field and their views on how they are perceived.
While she didn’t have any examples of bias or stereotypes in her own career, Hill said the study’s findings rang true of what she has heard from her peers.
Hill said it was interesting to see the traits that Asian American lawyers believe others associate with them, from more positive ones like being hardworking and responsible to less positive ones of being introverted and quiet.
“There’s probably a perception that Asian Americans have certain qualities that are not necessarily strong qualities for a lawyer, and it’s just really difficult to always identify or kind of resolve those types of biases,” she said.
Ultimately, Hill said she’d like to see more studies of the data.
“The study does a really good job at raising a lot of questions, but before we can identify solutions, I think it would probably be helpful to understand the reasoning behind the discrepancies in representation,” she said.
‘It’s nice to have a support system’
Both MAABA and AABAKC work to provide networks of support to Asian Americans and to help advance their members’ career opportunities.
Courtway said MAABA works hard to recruit law students, bringing them in with free memberships as students.
“We want the law students, especially in St. Louis, to get in on the ground floor,” she said.
MAABA, which has about 45 active members and a total of nearly 100, was founded in 2001. Part of the group’s mission is to provide fellowship to its members and to allow its members opportunities for networking and sharing referrals.
The group has a formal mentorship program, pairing students from Washington University and Saint Louis University with mentors.
Courtway said being involved with MAABA has been a positive experience and it’s a great resource for Asian American attorneys in St. Louis.
“This isn’t L.A. or cities with a higher concentration of Asian Americans, or very high concentrations,” she said. “It’s a Midwestern town. It’s nice to have a support system of other Asian American attorneys.”
Across the state, AABAKC was founded in 2005.
Hill said the group has a membership of about 30 active members, with a mailing list of about 100 in the Kansas City area. Hill said the group has regular networking events and works to bring in area students into the fold as well.
The mentorship opportunities it provides are more informal, Hill said.
Beyond the work of the bar associations, Hill said mentorship in law firm settings, both informal and formal, could go a long way to help attrition rates of Asian American attorneys.
“I think that’s something my firm works really hard to do, to make sure that especially new attorneys, minority and non-minority attorneys both, find people that they’re comfortable with going to for questions about the practice and really just everything,” she said.
She added that talking about the issues also helps.
“Helping people identify these issues and feeling comfortable sharing these ideas and viewpoints can make any law firm more open and conducive to promoting minorities,” she said. MO