It is not many, but it is a start: Seventeen Fortune 1000 general counsel or chief legal officers are Asian or Asian American, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. These 17 have risen in the legal ranks despite Asian stereotypes and a lack of mentors with similar backgrounds.
“We’ve hit a milestone,” says Phillip Shinn, president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) and principal at Thornton, Taylor, Becker & Shinn in San Francisco. At its national convention last November, NAPABA honored nine general counsel.
According to Shinn, the landscape has changed for Asian American attorneys. “Twenty five years ago, Asian Americans in universities tended more toward technical majors such as engineering and medicine.” But, he adds, this is changing, as today’s Asian parents now view law as a viable career for their children. In addition, Shinn has noticed that more NAPABA members are now born in this country than in Asia. These changes mean more Asian Americans are in the legal pipeline, and, therefore, can become leaders, he concludes. “The fact that there are 17 general counsel is in itself an indication of Asian American advancement in the profession.”
Wendy Shiba: Sole Minority
Wendy Shiba, senior vice president and chief legal officer of PolyOne Corporation, agrees with Shinn, but says there is still work to be done to ensure more Asian Americans become leaders within the legal industry. “On one hand, we may say, `Wow, there are 17 of us.’ That seems like a big number. Yet we have to be careful not to just sit back and rest on our laurels.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Shiba advanced through school as the only minority. “I was acutely conscious of being a minority,” she reports, “but also, because there was no diversity, I felt like an all-American Midwesterner.”
However, Shiba, whose grandparents came to the United States from Japan, knew she was different. Her sister was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Shiba, born soon after the war, often heard ethnic slurs. “It was difficult—the pain [of the war] was very fresh,” she remembers.
After graduating from Temple University’s law school in 1979, Shiba clerked in San Francisco. There she met several Asian American attorneys, including women. “It was the first time I realized I wasn’t the only one. We were a very small, almost invisible, minority.” They shared thoughts about the stereotyping of Asian Americans as meek and submissive, along with their “double minority” status as Asian Americans and women.
After her clerkship, Shiba moved to Los Angeles to O’Melveny and Myers, and then joined the faculty at her alma mater. In 1993, she was recruited to her first corporate position at Bowater Inc., a pulp-and-paper company. Both there and at PolyOne, which Shiba joined in 2001, she was the only woman and minority officer.
As one of the few minorities in most of her jobs, Shiba hesitates to share experiences of discrimination.
“My concern is when we tell these war stories, it’s easy to fall into a ‘pity party’ mentality.” She prefers to focus on the positive lessons learned from enduring stereotypes: “It gave me the determination to be the best I could.”
Shiba also appreciates that PolyOne’s board includes three women and one African American male . “They’ve been very powerful role models for me,” she adds.
According to Shiba, as corporations continue their interest in Asian expansion, management will pursue Asian American attorneys. “The fact I’m Asian American has helped me build bridges to my colleagues in our Asian operations. They are very surprised, pleased, and proud that a senior officer of the company at the U.S. corporate headquarters is Asian.”
Ivan Fong: Law and Technology
Ivan Fong, chief legal officer and secretary of Cardinal Health, also recognizes the role his ethnicity may have played in his career. In one matter, Fong, whose parents emigrated to the United States from China, recalled he was able to speak with an Asian American client in her native language. In another matter involving intellectual property, he worked with an Asian American in-house lawyer to prepare an Asian American witness for a deposition. As they prepared, he recalls, “We remarked on how we were able to have the chemistry that occurs when you look around the table and share a common cultural background.”
As is true of some of the other Asian American general counsel interviewed for this article, Fong’s parents encouraged him to pursue the sciences. Fong received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1980s.
Fong realized that, with his engineering degrees, he was likely headed for a career in research in academia or industry. Neither opportunity was compelling. “I wanted to work with people, and I liked the analytical, problem-solving aspect of engineering. I realized law had some of the same things that attracted me to science and engineering.”
Fong graduated from Stanford University’s law school in 1987, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1989. During his year there, followed by seven years at a large Washington, DC law firm (including two years as partner), three years as deputy associate attorney general with the U.S. Department of Justice in the late 1990s, and his in-house positions at General Electric, Fong says he has seen more Asian American attorneys. “Our numbers have grown dramatically in the last five to 10 years,” he says, adding that he notices more diversity when he speaks at law schools, as well as within law firms and legal departments.
“The challenge now is the so-called ‘bamboo ceiling,’ ” Fong explains, noting there are still relatively few Asian American law firm partners, judges, senior government officials, general counsel, or tenured law professors. He and other general counsel, as well as other attorneys active in NAPABA, focus on mentoring up-and-coming Asian American attorneys, as well as speaking to groups on diversity and career development.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” says Fong. “I’ve been given great opportunities.”
John Chou: Taking Responsibility
John Chou, newly appointed senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary of AmerisourceBergen Corporation, believes that his ethnicity has helped him develop good people skills. “My general assumption is for many people, I’m the first Asian American they’re working with or encountering,” he says. “I’m conscious of that, but ultimately, I just act how I normally act. If you’ve grown up in a situation where you’re never going to blend into the woodwork, you try to adapt yourself to the circumstances, so having had to do that over my life has made me pretty good at adapting to different people.”
Chou, whose parents from mainland China met in the United States, grew up in Teaneck, N.J. As is true of many Asian American children, Chou says his parents “put some amount of pressure on me” to study science and go to medical school. Accordingly, Chou obtained his undergraduate degree in biochemistry in 1978 from Harvard.
After college, he traveled to the Philippines and Hong Kong on a Rockefeller Fellowship, ending up three years later at the University of Pennsylvania law school, where he was president of his class. Few Asian Americans were there then, he reports, though that has changed. “The test, as it is with diversity in general, will be over the next decade. If you look at the associate ranks, especially at big New York firms, there are high numbers of women, Asian American associates, and other minorities. It will be interesting to see how many of them become partners or rise in the ranks of legal departments. That will be the measure of whether or not there is progress.”
After several years at two large law firms, Chou joined ARCO Chemical, where he rose to chief corporate counsel and then chief European counsel based in London. When asked what it was like to be an Asian American in a foreign country, he replies, “The cultural style in England was very easy for me to adapt to. People tend to not toot their own horn very much, and that’s more my natural inclination. I felt very comfortable being in Europe [though] people found it interesting to have someone look like me with an American accent.”
Chou says his main responsibility is to his company and its shareholders. “At the same time, I’m conscious of younger lawyers looking to me as a role model. I’m interested in promoting diversity in the profession, but ultimately I think diversity only works if it complements the company’s business objectives.”
Simone Wu: Open-minded
Simone Wu, senior vice president and general counsel of XO Holdings Inc., agrees. “I’ve personally been trying to make more of an effort to do more outreach to law students and younger lawyers,” she says, adding that she sees more Asian Americans in the ranks than when she was at Columbia University law school in the mid- to late-1980s. “I try to be somewhat visible and speak at events, and make myself available to people who have questions. The key as a lawyer is to do good work, but to the extent I can help someone or impart some advice on the intangibles, that’s a good thing.”
Wu says she has had few negative experiences being Asian American and a woman in law. “It could be I was simply very fortunate, or the places I’ve been have been open-minded,” she adds.
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom had an Asian American female partner in the office where Wu started her practice as an associate in 1989. “Knowing her and seeing her there subconsciously made the environment welcoming,” says Wu. She worked mostly for white males, and says she learned that they and the firm cared about work quality rather than race or gender. “People were rewarded for what they did.”
The suburban Detroit native, whose parents are from China, says she found that same attitude in her corporate positions at MCI, AOL, and now XO Holdings. She does remember while at MCI being one of three women sent to Eastern Europe on a project many years ago. She says some of the Eastern Europeans “were a bit surprised” to see not only three women, but one who was Asian American. “They were unaccustomed to that much diversity,” Wu chuckles, though she says there were no negative comments.
“My personal experiences have been pretty consistently good,” she adds. “I realize there are many walls people hit, but I am fortunate I have not hit them directly.”
Don Liu: Speaking Out
Unlike some of his fellow general counsel, Don Liu of Toll Brothers Inc., was born in Seoul, Korea. He then moved to Philadelphia with his parents and younger siblings when he was 10. Though they came to the United States for higher education, says Liu, “After a while, nobody wanted to go back.”
Liu was always aware of his ethnic background, especially when the home of an African American family was burned. “I was never discriminated against, but I felt a lot of prejudice,” he recalls, including insensitive comments and assumptions such as that he did not speak English. However, “I don’t remember it being a major hindrance to my growth or education. I was just different and people misunderstood. Some of them were ignorant and some of them were curious and became good friends.”
While double-majoring in philosophy and religion at Haverford College, Liu spoke out often on the importance of diversity. “College wasn’t very diverse, but it allowed me to articulate it in a more formal way,” he recalls. There, he also became interested in law and ultimately graduated from Columbia University’s law school. “I wanted to help the Asian community because I saw my parents suffer a lot, mainly because of language deficiency and other difficulties they had being outsiders to the system.”
Liu clearly recognizes that minority attorneys often are outsiders due to stereotyping. When sitting on a panel with an African American general counsel, Liu discussed how Asians are considered smart, dull, nerdy, and lacking in leadership and creativity. But he is adamant that Asian Americans can change those assumptions. “Some of it is our own fault. We don’t do a lot to break the stereotypes,” he says, adding that Asian Americans should feel comfortable in networking, talking about their accomplishments, and thinking creatively.
That is why Liu helped create a mentoring program through NAPABA’s 1,200-member in-house counsel committee, which he chaired until last year. Liu also has spoken to Asian American attorneys about how to present themselves and get noticed.
“Nobody ever accuses me of being quiet or shy, or not being clear on where I stand,” he laughs. Being an Asian American general counsel also breaks stereotypes, he adds. “A lot of people are probably often confused or surprised by it. They don’t expect someone like me to be in the GC role. That’s okay with me.”
Javade Chaudhri: Cultural Pride
Javade Chaudhri, executive vice president and general counsel of Sempra Energy, also takes pride in his Asian heritage. Born in Kenya, Chaudhri came to the United States in the early 1970s to attend Yale University, where he majored in biology and obtained a master’s degree in applied biology. He graduated from Georgetown University Law School in 1980. “People sometimes ask if it has been a disadvantage to be a minority,” he says. His answer is no: “I’m sure there are some positives associated with being from the heartland [of America], but it was certainly no disadvantage to have the rich cultural and geographic diversity that was part of my DNA.”
Throughout his school years and legal career—both at law firms and in-house at Gateway—Chaudhri says he felt some discrimination. “I feel very grateful that the vast majority of people I dealt with quickly accepted who I was.” However, he does recall that when he interviewed for associate positions while in law school, he felt some of the New York-based law firms seemed uninterested in him because of his background.
In the summer of 2003, Chaudhri joined Sempra. Today, he continues to see his ethnicity, language skills, and extensive travel experience as positives. He says other Asian and Asian American general counsel and legal industry leaders should follow suit, for they have much of which to be proud. “Having those extra arrows in your quiver of being from a diverse background,” he says, “are all part of making one a more well-rounded, resilient, and effective person in the environments we all have to live in.” DB
- Lawrence Tu of Dell Inc.;
- Charles Y. Tanable of Liberty Media Corporation;
- Jim L. Kaput of ServiceMaster;
- Justin Choi of Andrew Corporation;
- Nelson Chun of Alexander & Baldwin, Inc.;
- Jackie Mahi Erickson of Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc.;
- Paul Tang of Burlington Coat Factory;
- Hyun Park of Allegheny Energy Inc.;
- Anatolio (A.B.) Cruz of E.W. Scripps;
- Art Chong of Safeco; and
- Sandra Leung of Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Melanie Lasoff Levs is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Ga.
From the May/June 2007 issue of Diversity & The Bar®