NAPABA President Peter Suzuki says Asian lawyers’ prominence in corporate America is on the rise
Peter Suzuki, president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and corporate counsel for Lucent Technologies recently spoke to Diversity & The Bar about the state of Asian Americans in the legal profession.
How are Asian-American lawyers fairing in their efforts to obtain high-level positions in corporate America?
There are several Asian-Americans working as general counsel of a subsidiary of a Fortune 500 company and many who work as associate general counsel for major corporations, but we haven’t broken into the mainstream of general counsel positions in the Fortune 500.
However because of the growing numbers of Asian Pacific-American lawyers in general, you are going to see more Asian-Americans in those positions. It’s partly a question of demographics. Ten years ago, you might have had 1,000 Asian Pacific Americans in law school. Now you have 6,000. The numbers of Asian-Americans in the largest law firms is growing at an astounding rate. You see more Asian-Americans as managers in national law firms, and as the number grow, very soon you’ll see lawyers who are prominent in law firms move over to in-house counsel positions.
What are the key challenges for Asian-Americans seeking the position of general counsel?
I think that the challenge for Asian-Americans is similar to that for other minority corporate counsel. The praciice or the norm is that there are not minorities in prominent general counsel positions, so it’s fighting the stereotype that minorities are not qualified to serve as general counsel of Fortune 500 companies.
Asian-Americans are sometimes stereotyped as “model minorities”. How does this affect their workplace performance?
The problem with that stereotype is that it fails to recognize that Asian-Americans, like other minorities, continue to face discrimination and continue to face hurdles as minorities when applying for high-level positions. Additionally, when companies are seeking minorities, they often times think of African-Americans or Hispanics, and Asian-Americans are sometimes forgotten. The model minority myth fosters that neglect of the discrimination against Asian-Americans. And if people don’t realize that Asian-Americans face those types of hurdles as well, then those hurdles will remain in place.
What efforts to increase diversity in the legal profession are underway in the Asian-American community?
One of the noteworthy things that has happened within the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) is that we declared this year “The Year of the Corporate Counsel.” We’ve had corporate counsel dinners in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Seattle, and the number coming out to these dinners has been overwhelming, showing that Asians have been successful and are growing in the ranks of corporate counsel. We are also focusing on and encouraging Asian Pacific-American lawyers to practice in-house, and through our professional development programs are contributing to their success as corporate counsel.
From the November 1999 issue of Diversity & The Bar®