Asian American Attorneys Share What Has Made a Difference in Their Careers

A young lawyer and businesswoman are discussing legal advice on signing a business contract. Insurance or financial contract signing.A 2022 study from the American Bar Foundation and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association notes that, while Asian American attorneys are the largest minority group at law firms, they have the lowest partner-to-associate ratio and the highest attrition rate.

“This is alarming,” said Sang Yup Lee, President of the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago. “As the study notes, major obstacles to career advancement include a lack of formal leadership training programs, inadequate access to mentors and contacts, and a lack of recognition for their work.”

There has been much discussion nationally about the underrepresentation of Asian American attorneys in top legal jobs, but we wanted to hear about the experiences of those closer to home.

We asked Asian American lawyers and law students in Illinois to share their thoughts on how law firms can better support Asian American attorneys, what has been important to their success in legal practice and law school, and how legal organizations can support their career development moving forward.

asian american attorney

Leveraging the support of others

Several attorneys and law students mentioned that access to supportive mentors, sponsors, and role models has been essential to their professional growth.

“I’ve had the distinct pleasure of having great mentors and sponsors that I have met through the Asian American legal community including organizations like NAPABA, the Asian American Bar Association, and [the] Chinese American Bar Association,” said Yankun Guo, a partner at Dinsmore & Shohl LLP and Vice President of the Chinese American Bar Association of Greater Chicago.

Eunsoo Choi, an incoming associate at Reed Smith LLP, noted the importance of mentors in her journey through law school. Choi received a JD from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 2024.

“As the eldest daughter of an immigrant, single-mother household, I was skeptical that I would make it far enough to earn a professional degree,” she said. “This was possible because many teachers and mentors placed their faith in me when I had nothing but maybe tangible goals.”

Suet Lee, an associate at Irwin IP LLP, said sponsors can play a key role in career development too and access to these influential individuals is something law firms should prioritize for their Asian American attorneys.

Sponsors, who are often organizational leaders who can use their networks and influence to advocate for attorneys, can help “champion” the advancement of Asian American attorneys and uplift their voices “in rooms of leadership,” she said.

Bar associations provide critical support

The Asian American lawyers and law students we spoke to also looked to bar associations as playing a key role in their career development. Bar associations, they noted, can specifically offer opportunities to expand their networks, connect them to those from similar backgrounds, and provide activities to support their professional growth.

“Bar associations have been instrumental in mentorship and providing opportunities for advancement in my career thus far,” said Eirene Nakamura Salvi, an attorney at Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard P.C. and a Commissioner for the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism.

“You will meet incredible people at the top of their game with whom you may connect over shared experiences,” she said.

Eunsoo Choi stressed the significance of bar associations in her legal career so far. While at Loyola Law, Choi served as an Executive Board Member for the National Asian Pacific American Law Student Association and Vice President of Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Asian Pacific American Law Student Association.

She views Asian American bar associations as “the bedrock of professional and personal growth” and places where Asian American attorneys can come to support one another, form relationships, and potentially expand their career opportunities.

Getting a ‘seat at the table’

Many of our respondents said more institutional support – from law firms and other legal organizations – is needed to boost the advancement of Asian American attorneys into leadership positions.

John Kim, Chair of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism and Associate General Counsel at Edward Jones, noted that this can mean going beyond mentorship to sponsorship.

“Often throughout my time in private practice [in central Illinois], I did not see anyone in partnership or leadership who looked like me when I gazed up or across,” he said. “While in private practice, I was fortunate to have role models who included me in pitches, assigned me to complex matters, and invested in my development.”

Another example is a “Perfect Your Pitch” event that the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago held in 2023, with the support of Sidley Austin LLP. The event brought in-house counsel from Chicago together to “help Asian American mid-level law firm attorneys build their books of business, specifically by honing their verbal pitching skills,” Sang Yup Lee told us in 2023.

Irwin IP Associate Suet Lee said institutional support can also come in the form of improved communication about decision-making.

When it comes to promotions, case assignments, or even performance, law firms should have “direct and transparent communication with the Asian American attorney as to why a certain decision or rejection was made” rather than avoiding the lawyer or their request, she said.

Clear communication is especially important in spaces where Asian American attorneys can feel undervalued or where they must advocate for themselves, Lee said.

Cultivating inclusive workplaces

“Law firms need to continue creating equitable spaces for diverse attorneys to develop and grow in the practice and in client development,” John Kim said.

Caroline Kim, an associate at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, agrees.

“By actively seeking out and supporting individuals from different backgrounds, such as Asian American lawyers, the profession dismantles systemic barriers, opens opportunities for advancement and leadership, and, importantly, fosters greater professional satisfaction,” she said.

Yankun Guo said that this commitment to diversity in leadership is real at her firm Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, which she joined as a partner in August 2023.

“I am excited by the leadership’s commitment to increasing the pipeline of diverse partners,” she said.

Zejian Zhou, a 3L law student from China who is attending the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law, emphasized that “people naturally like to connect with [someone] who comprehends their own culture.”

Caroline Kim noted the importance of this connection in today’s environment.

“The legal profession must promote and cultivate inclusive and supportive workplaces, thereby creating more just and equitable environments for success, regardless of background or identity. Ultimately, this will enhance the ability of lawyers like me and others to thrive in an increasingly diverse and globalized world,” she said.

For more information on the issues impacting Asian Americans in the legal profession and opportunities to support them, check out the resources below.

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