Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sunday Reading: Asian Americans in the Legal Profession

via NPR

This story is a few months old now, another one of those serious topics that linger in my queue of drafts for weeks and weeks while I gather my thoughts. Things aren't excellent for Asian Americans in the legal profession (first link), which I always knew, but hadn't previously seen much comprehensive documentation for. We're extremely well-represented in law schools and the junior echelons of the field, but quite underrepresented at the higher levels. California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu and a few students at Yale recently published a very comprehensive report explaining that. None of the statistics are at all surprising, even for someone barely two years in to their legal career, but it's good to see it all gathered in one place.

Of particular relevance to me, and this also goes to diversity problems affecting all other minority groups, not just Asian Americans, was the discussion of clerkships starting page 12. White students are 58.2% of the graduates from top 30 law schools, but obtain a whopping 82.4% of federal clerkships, an almost necessary prerequisite to many important and highly influential legal jobs (think academia, the judiciary, and federal prosecution, among others).

A federal clerkship is, from firsthand experience, also a job that comes with massive financial opportunity costs, at least for those who would otherwise be going into biglaw. Just by choosing to do one, I was basically guaranteed to lose two year-end bonuses entirely, passed up a year of biglaw salary to take a large paycut, and needed to postpone refinancing my massive (despite a half tuition scholarship) student loans for at least an extra year, which probably cost me nearly $10,000 on its own, just in that one year. All that is somewhat offset by the prospect of a clerkship bonus upon returning to biglaw, but that covers maybe half at most. Nonetheless, I'd happily do it all over again, though probably would still grouse about the financial implications. I absolutely wouldn't have my current, wonderful job if I hadn't clerked. I expect that my clerkship will also be an integral component to getting future "dream jobs." Yet there's no getting around how one can only make that choice from a place of financial privilege. It is a staggeringly expensive choice.

Then there was Justice Liu's recent follow-up (click first link), which also discussed another, more recent, relevant study. Of particular relevance was an anecdote that I (and too many of my friends) could relate to:
There is a little bit [of a] paternalistic attitude towards women,” reported one Asian-American woman litigator in the AJD study. “You can either be relegated to the role of being sort of a submissive little worker bee or, if you’re more assertive, and I'm definitely more on the assertive side, I feel that sometimes I scare the guys a bit.”
I may discuss this with more specificity someday in the future, but well, I know that feeling all too well. This isn't something that has yet, to my knowledge, obviously affected my career advancement , but I've often found that colleagues and law school classmates get confused on the rare occasions when I speak up in a noteworthy way (when doing a mock trial exercise during my firm's summer program, a male colleague was horrified and scandalized by my very standard performance, "you turned mean" he'd hissed at me under his breath, shaking his head - excuse me?), or when I disclose something that's against stereotype, including that I had bad grades for much of high school and undergrad (people have straight up told me "no, you didn't" - you have no way of knowing that, jerkface).

Even in as cosmopolitan and diverse a city as NYC, among a set of professionals quite well-versed in anti-discrimination law, discrimination, and implicit bias, is often apparent. Interviewers compliment natively born Asian-American job candidates on their English. Colleagues mix up different Asian-American attorneys who don't look at all alike, are of different seniorities, and work on entirely different projects. During a recruiting lunch, where everyone should be on their best behavior, a white partner awkwardly and repeatedly, out of nowhere, directs and redirects the conversation to topics such as their impressions of how annoying it is to go to Beijing and how "ABCs" (American-born Chinese) differ from those born elsewhere, at a table with several Asian-American juniors and summers. Two of those three things have happened to me personally in biglaw, and I wasn't there long. Oh, and much like when I was a summer, minorities and women always got noticeably less substantive work and fewer opportunities than certain other demographics.

Anyway, I recommend the report, it's very interesting, and there are a few odd new trends brewing. Among other things, Asian American enrollment in law school has dropped precipitously since the 2008 recession, more than for any other group. Diversity issues, for all minority groups, in law generally, and clerkships in particular, are near and dear to my heart, so I probably can't help returning to these topics again at some future date. 

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