Why there are so few Asian lawyers at the top

Why there are so few Asian lawyers at the top
Xerox’s Don Liu says he works hard to break down stereotypes of Asian lawyers that can impair their careers. Photo: Jennifer Brown
The general counsel for Xerox Corp. says there are too few Asian lawyers in positions of power in the legal profession and more should be putting themselves forward for leadership positions both in-house and at law firms.

“My sense is that at the top of the pyramid in Canada, certainly in Toronto, there are very few Asians at the top — it’s certainly the case in the U.S.,” said Don Liu, general counsel and secretary for Xerox.

Speaking to the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers in Toronto last week, Liu talked about breaking down the stereotypes of being “academic” and “reserved” that can actually impair Asian lawyers from moving to the top.

“There’s a stereotype that only has a kernel of truth. Yes, we do well academically but we’re not viewed as risk takers,” he said. “We are assumed to not have aspirations and not have proper leadership skills and I think the stereotype really hurts us. I go out of my way to make sure I don’t fit into that so-called stereotype. The stereotype needs to be eliminated and you have to work at it.”

The Westport, Conn., lawyer told the group of about 200 lawyers that “success in life comes after college.” He promoted the benefits of public speaking and other networking activities that push people beyond their comfort zone.

“I didn’t grow up in a typical Asian family. I went to a lot of parties. They never pushed me academically or pushed me to a particular profession but they did say study hard and you’ll get ahead,” said Liu as he spoke about what he sees as an important distinction between “tiger moms” and how he describes himself as a “pussycat dad” who encourages his kids to do well both academically and socially.

“Studying music may help develop your IQ but it doesn’t develop EQ — the ability to relate to people, group activities, and things around you. Those activities and skills are what matter in the workplace.”

Liu presented statistics on the number of Asian Americans in positions of power in the legal profession.

“Twelve years ago I had the odd position of being the only Asian American in the Fortune 500 who was a general counsel. I couldn’t understand why,” he said.

He decided to do some research and found that in the top 200 largest law firms in the U.S., the odds of an Asian American becoming a partner at a top firm was 6-1 — of every six Asians, only one became partner. That compared to 4-1 odds for non-minorities, 5-1 for African Americans, and 3-1 if Hispanic.

“When I started publishing those stats people said, ‘It’s just a tiny issue — we’re so new in the profession these odds will become better.’”

But they haven’t. The 6-1 odds that existed more than a decade ago are now more like 8-1 odds.

“It’s gotten worse. Even though there are more Asian Americans working in law firms and eligible to move up, very few are moving up to the top,” said Liu.

By comparison, the numbers for the other ethnic groups stayed the same.

Those stats exist outside the profession as well, said Liu. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the U.S., nine per cent of all professionals in the U.S. are Asian Americans including doctors, lawyers, bankers, and accountants. Less than one per cent hold roles as corporate officers.

And in the recent recession, between 2008 and 2009, roughly 5,800 lawyers — or six per cent — at the top 250 law firms lost their jobs and nine per cent were Asian Americans.

“So if you were Asian American you were more likely to get laid off than any other in the country. So what’s the problem? We were the Ivy League grads who are hard working but if you look at the stats they kind of suck. My hypothesis is that in the interest of getting kids into an Ivy League school we fail to prepare our kids to do that which is most important in the work environment, which is to have the people skills necessary to succeed.”

When it comes to addressing the problem, Liu said success in professional life goes beyond academics and that Asian Canadian lawyers should build on their networking, communication, leadership, and people skills to help them rise to the top.

“I have my job as Xerox’s general counsel based on reputation. An executive recruiter asked other people who could fill the position and my name came up a lot — it’s an issue of reputation,” he said. “I went to an interview and the CEO loved me in 20 minutes. Networking gives you both reputation and the practice of social skills.”

He also suggested mentoring — he has 10 mentees at any given time ranging from law students to senior executives at other companies.

“It can help you too. To help somebody helps you articulate what works for you.”

Also, in-house counsel need to ask for a diverse roster of lawyers from their external law firms and Asian Canadian lawyers could seek to hire Asian-Canadian outside counsel.

“I find Asian Americans particularly have a hang up on this issue. For some reason Asian Americans have this tremendous guilt or shyness about wanting to go out and hire other Asian Americans as their outside counsel,” he said. “When I push them on it they say things like, ‘I feel like I’m being racist — I feel like I’m being biased about who I pick.’ I say to them, ‘So do you think when a white male chooses a white male outside counsel they are being racist?’”

By doing so, an in-house department could start to effect change elsewhere.

“When you do that it has a domino effect. Non-minorities within your organization start to feel like it’s a good thing too,” he said.

Liu first went in-house in 1992 for insurer Aetna, with a passion for business, something he had learned growing up working for the small businesses run by his family. In junior high school, because his parents didn’t speak English, he ran their businesses including a small grocery store, a luncheonette, gift shop, and beer distributor. He realized all the things he learned translated well to a large company — such as profit and loss, costs, revenue, people management. All were comparable skills needed for large companies.

“When I first went in-house I had no idea what I was doing. In 1992 in-house was where you went to retire but I was only 31 years of age. I’ve been at it for 20 years. What I did like about it was the senior leadership and formula they had for group success in business,” he said.

Today, the legal team at Xeorx boasts 150 lawyers worldwide.

“I love what I do. I have the perfect job of being a lawyer with a plus, which is being a businessman and the majority of my work is not the practice of law but helping my management team make business decisions with the addition of a legal background that helps them make decisions about things they might not always think about. It’s a perfect blend of practising law and business.”

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