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Widening Your Door for Success: How We Can All Break the Bamboo Ceiling

“Asian Americans have a firm foot in the door of the legal profession; the question now is how the question now is how wide that door will swing open.

Recently, a comprehensive report on Asian Americans in the legal profession titled “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law” discusses the evolution of Asian Americans in the legal industry. Asian Americans were initially an excluded group– mere subjects of the law– and over the past thirty years, have reached unthinkable levels of visibility and participation across the
legal industry. As a group, however, we have yet to crack the “bamboo ceiling” to become  leaders and architects of the law.

Based on the report and my experience observing leaders in the legal profession of all backgrounds and practices, here are my five pieces of advice to go from “a foot in the door” to  widening your door for success (it’s great advice, even if you aren’t Asian):

Identify, and cultivate relationships with mentors. The report cites this as one of the key factors that determines success: law students and attorneys that have relationships with at least two mentors obtain more success and recognition in their careers. Most law schools, firms, and bar associations have mentoring programs that law students and attorneys can easily sign up for. Firm websites and apps like LinkedIn make identifying potential mentors easy.

The step most overlook is that it is important to cultivate a relationship also. As with any relationship, this requires time, communication, and care. The best mentor-ships are horizontal, and the mentee is able to offer something to the mentor: fresh insights, creative ideas, effort and energy. And while there’s a tendency to seek out a mentor that shares your background and story, I encourage you to look beyond the familiar. Identify and cultivate relationships mentors who are different from you so that you may grow and see things differently.

Maintaining a strong relationship also requires consistent communication (no one likes being contacted only when something is needed of them). Once you have identified a mentor and established a connection, remember that time is valuable– be creative and thoughtful in offering something of value to the relationship. What can you share about blogging? Social media
marketing? Your background or culture? Industry insight or trend?

You are assembling your own personal board of directors: you want a diverse and comprehensive board that is engaged and invested. You don’t want there to be any blind spots…and you certainly don’t want them to feel that sitting on the board is not worth their time.

Shifting from “what you know” to “who you know.”

Although so much of law school is numbers and grade driven, practice isn’t. Performance is not evaluated by a report card or transcript– it is evaluated on the business you bring in and your results. You don’t obtain great mentors that champion your candidacy because of your grades. The game shifts, and now, in addition to what you know, it is about who you know.

I have written many posts about the importance of networking and shared different tips about what to do in different settings. The reason why there are so many tips out there is because each
individual will develop their own style. You might be the “life of the party” at a happy hour networking event, or you might be more of a “one-on- one lunch” type– there’s no wrong way to
connect and build your network, so long as you do it.

Often, we look externally (to bar organizations, networking events, industry conferences, etc.). For many Asian Americans who are the first in their families to become attorneys, this can be
very overwhelming. Your practice is demanding enough. So consider networking internally as well. Get to know people within your own firm (this should be easier to do one-on- one lunch
style), in your law school class, or other community and civic organizations and activities.

Reaching out to students.

Representation matters– and without a healthy pipeline, the supply of talent will dwindle. The report reveals data of a decreasing number of Asian Americans attending law school (as of 2016,
the numbers are still decreasing, and have not yet plateaued). It is important for attorneys to engage and motivate the younger generation (because if no one is there to keep pushing the door
that has been swung open, the door will shut). This means that as much as we focus on our own careers, to the extent that we can extend opportunities to law students and engage undergraduate
and high school students, we should. This raises the visibility of the legal professional and provides a positive interaction with the law. Just as it is important for attorneys to seek out
mentors, it is also important for us to serve as mentors to those following in our footsteps.

The more visible we are in our communities, the more likely we are able to positively engage members of the community to participate.

Paying attention to wellness.

Wellness of lawyers is an important topic generally, but the report discusses that this is particularly important for Asian Americans because of the unique pressures faced by our community. The key takeaway here was best summarized by the report: don’t be afraid to ask for help. There tends to be a stigma about seeking help to deal with stress and anxiety. As with
networking, consider looking internally to a friend, family member, or personal resource to work out solutions. You can also look to external resources in community groups and professionals.
Asking for help does not always mean signing up for therapy– it can be as gentle as signing up for a community sport activity, seeing a nutritionist to eat healthier, or even allowing yourself to
splurge on a few massages and have some time for yourself. We are the engine to our careers, and it is important to keep ourselves well maintained.

Self-directing our careers.

The report discusses that most Asian Americans select law as a career for the challenge, prestige, and compensation of the career. It will be important for any attorney to ensure that the factors
that make their legal career fulfilling continues to grow with them– and if it should change, that it adapts with them. The responsibility of this lies upon the shoulder of the attorney– it is your job
to learn how to manage the matters you work on, how you spend your time, and whether you get projects that you find satisfying. In addition to seeking out mentors to help you navigate your
career growth, you must always keep your options open and have your hand on the pulse of what is going on in your practice.

Rather than just finishing your work and clocking out, take the time to reflect and assess your level of self-awareness. What do you find rewarding? What do you want to do 5 years out? 10
years out? Is there a way to do this where you are now? Are there better opportunities to do it elsewhere? Developing a relationship with a great legal recruiter is a great way to learn about
opportunities that may lead to a more satisfying career, for example.

Click here to access the report: “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law”

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