Despite being the largest minority group in major U.S. law firms, Asian-Americans are still underrepresented on the partner level, with the lowest ratio of partners to associates among all minority groups. Many Asian-Americans report experiencing “inadequate access to mentors and contacts” and “implicit bias and stereotyped perceptions” as obstacles to their careers, according to a 2017 study published by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and Yale Law School.
A current partner at Jenner & Block with over two decades of experience at the firm, Tony Ling has succeeded in overcoming these obstacles. He is also a member of the firm’s diversity inclusion committee as well as the founder of the Asian Forum, a group for Asian lawyers within the firm.
Could you talk about diversity (or lack thereof) in the legal profession?
If you look at the statistics for the diversity metrics for lawyers in the United States, it can be pretty depressing. The representation of minorities—all minorities within the legal profession—are low. A lot of law firms have made a call to action with respect to diversity, to try to increase the number of minority attorneys within the nation, and it is very difficult. Firms are struggling with not only hiring but also retention. There hasn’t been any clear cut answer to how you accomplish any goals from a diversity perspective.
How do you try and increase diversity in the legal profession?
We have been looking at this over the last ten years on how we can do better to encourage diversity. How you try to change culture, how you can focus on unconscious bias, and things like that. You can try to change the culture and mindset of the work environment to be more inclusive, so that people of color or other diverse attorneys have the same level playing field and platform to be successful. This is not something that’s going to happen overnight. Change is going to take time, especially when you have to change the way people think, the way people interact.
There’s no right or wrong answer on how you do things—if the effort is there, that’s what’s important. Even from a business perspective. A lot of clients and businesses are stressing the importance of diversity and wanting to ensure that whatever matters they bring in are being handled by a diverse set of attorneys. So not only do firms have a moral obligation to want to do this thing right, but they’re increasingly finding that there is a business reason to this as well. A law firm is still a business, and in order to be successful, you need to make money. That’s another way you implement change, and that’s how clients are finding a way to help push the narrative of change.
“Change is going to take time, especially when you have to change the way people think, the way people interact. “
How do firms avoid simply establishing shallow diversity quotas and promote actual pushes for diversity?
The issue of quotas is that you may feel the need to meet your quota, but not necessarily do it in a constructive way. What’s really important is that the growth should be organic and natural, because it should be a progression of a firm. You don’t hire somebody just because they’re the first. You need to hire them because they’re a good lawyer, a good person, and they will bring value to the firm. When the growth is organic, you know there’s a substantive reason and value in bringing that person in and that leads to more success, when it’s not forced. But the issue is, again, organic growth can be very slow growth. You don’t see numbers jumping off the board overnight. And it’s got to be; otherwise, you set yourself up for failure.
Are there issues that are specific to Asian attorneys or other minority attorneys? What about the myth of the model minority?
If anything, there are cultural issues that Asian attorneys may face that other attorneys don’t. I was raised by my parents to respect my elders. Don’t talk back. A lot of times that comes into play, like “Wow! Tony doesn’t say much, he just listens and responds only if you ask a question” or something like that. That goes back to the unconscious bias, or [lack of] understanding of cultural differences amongst the different ethnic minorities within the firm. People don’t realize that they have a way of thinking that impacts how they interact with these different groups.
I can’t say that I ever thought that I felt like I was overtly facing those types of issues. My experience may be unique in that I work in a small group, so you get to know the people within your group pretty quickly. You see situations where you’re in a much larger practice where there’s a lot of lawyers who you don’t necessarily get that close interpersonal relationship.
“People sometimes don’t necessarily put in enough time work or value in terms of having someone be the mentor or be their sponsor. … In order to be successful individuals, they have to put in the effort to be mentored, to be sponsored as well as to be someone’s mentor; to be someone sponsor.”
On the topic of interpersonal relationships, could you talk a bit about mentorship and sponsorship for minorities? How was your experience being both a mentor and a sponsor? How should one go about utilizing this resource most efficiently?
When I interviewed [at Jenner & Block], I had such a good first impression of the people at the firm, particularly those in my department. And I think that that’s something that’s very important, because the practice of law at big firms is pretty much the same. Big firms have big clients and significant matters, and I think what separates the firm from other firms are the people. At the end of the day, you’re going to be spending the majority of your working life with these people; I think you want to be with people who you genuinely like.
I found good mentors who helped me adjust to adult life. I had gone straight from undergrad to law school and never really had a full time job. I have to act like an adult and so I got a lot of that from the people in my group. … In law school, you don’t learn how to practice law; in law school, you learn the basics of how to think like a lawyer, but the practice is much different.
Your [mentor] can help you navigate your career, in terms of developing the appropriate skills, providing constructive criticism and feedback. Most firms have a mentoring program where you’re assigned a mentor, but a lot of that can feel forced because it’s not by choice. I always find that mentoring relationships that develop organically are more sustainable and more genuine. …
In conjunction with that in order to have a successful career in terms of advancing from year to year as an associate and then to a partner and then as your partner and I mentioned earlier you need to have someone who is willing to stand up for you as an advocate. … A sponsor is more critical in terms of career and advancement, as someone who will look out for you for the advancement of your career. The sponsor is someone who has to have political capital within any organization, someone who has enough clout that that individual will be listened to.
These types of relationships are a two-way street. If you want to have a mentor, you have to put in the effort to find a mentor to maintain that relationship. Similarly with the sponsor. … People sometimes don’t necessarily put in enough time work or value in terms of having someone be the mentor or be their sponsor. Honestly, it’s very difficult to succeed in any career by trying to do it yourself unless you’re your own boss. In order to be successful individuals, they have to put in the effort to be mentored, to be sponsored as well as to be someone’s mentor, to be someone sponsor.
“One of the key things that need to be focused on is people need to take the time to invest in people. … If a person feels valued and wanted, they’re going to stay. “
Is there anything else regarding diversity in the legal field or mentorship/sponsorship that you think is important?
One of the key things that needs to be focused on is people need to take the time to invest in people. Whenever we have a new Asian lawyer joining the firm, I make it a point to go to that person, individually welcome them to the firm, take them out for lunch or coffee to get to know the person, and give that person another resource. If a person feels valued and wanted, they’re going to stay.