A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law

Originally published: http://www.americanbarfoundation.org/news/847

Groundbreaking new study from NAPABA and Yale Law School builds on American Bar Foundation research

Asian Americans have been the fastest-growing minority group in the legal profession for the past three decades, but they have made only limited progress in reaching the top ranks of the profession, according to a new report released today by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) and Yale Law School.

The report, titled A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law, is the first-ever comprehensive study of Asian Americans in the legal profession. It draws from the research of the American Bar Foundation’s (ABF) After the JD project, a longitudinal study that examined the career paths of a national cohort of nearly 5,000 lawyers, including more than 200 Asian-American lawyers.

“…There has not yet been a comprehensive study of the career paths of Asian-American law students and lawyers. Perhaps the closest effort is the wide-ranging longitudinal study, After the JD…” the report states. “Building on that study and others, this project — A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law — is an initial effort toward a systematic understanding of how Asian Americans are situated in the legal profession.”

According to the study, there are more than 50,000 Asian-American lawyers today, compared to 10,000 in 1990. Asian Americans comprise almost 5 percent of lawyers in America and roughly 7 percent of law school enrollment. Asian Americans are the largest minority group in big law firms, but they have the highest attrition rates and the lowest ratio of partners to associates.

Asian Americans comprise 3 percent of federal judges and 2 percent of state judges, compared to nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population. Only three out of 94 U.S. Attorneys in 2016 were Asian American, and only four out of 2,437 elected district attorneys nationwide in 2014 were Asian American.

The two-year study — authored by California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin H. Liu, recent Yale Law graduates Eric Chung, Xiaonan April Hu and Christine Kwon, and Yale Law postgraduate associate Samuel Dong — included a dozen focus groups and a national survey of over 600 Asian-American lawyers.

The survey revealed that Asian Americans identify lack of access to mentors and contacts as a primary barrier to career advancement. They also report being perceived as careful and hard-working, but not assertive or creative. “Whereas Asian Americans are regarded as having the ‘hard skills’ required for lawyerly competence, they are regarded as lacking many important ‘soft skills,’” the study found. More than half of the Asian-American lawyers surveyed said they “sometimes” or “often” experience implicit discrimination in the workplace.

“Our study shows that Asian Americans have a foot in the door in every sector of the legal profession,” said Justice Liu. “The question now is how wide the door will swing open. Despite much progress, Asian Americans still face significant obstacles to reaching the leadership ranks.”

“This new empirical study is a significant contribution to our understanding of the challenges faced by Asian Americans in the legal profession,” said Ajay K. Mehrotra, director of the ABF and professor of law at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. “It is only by first identifying the factors that have impeded the long-term leadership success of Asian Americans that we can find potential solutions to this vexing problem.”

For more information on A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law, please contact portraitprojectresearch@gmail.com.

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