I don’t think there is a glass ceiling,” says Naoko Fujii about Asian Americans climbing up the corporate law ladder. “Not if you work hard, are smart and have social skills.” Most important of all, she adds, “You have to want it.”
Fujii always knew what she wanted. Within nine years after law school, she carved out a space for herself as corporate counsel at the $252 billion pharmaceutical firm Pfizer Inc. As one of about 800 Asian Americans who holds the corporate counsel title (and are National Asian Pacific American Bar Association members), Fujii heavily advocates the mentoring of upcoming generations so that they can reach such goals.
To help further the possibilities for young lawyers entering the field, Fujii says she devotes about 20 percent of her time weekly to community service via organizations such as the Asian American Bar Association of New York, [a local chapter of NAPABA], where she serves as Chairman of Corporate Counsel Section.
Because there were still relatively few Asian American attorneys in high positions, the roles that these organizations play for newcomers are extremely important, she points out. “We do a lot to teach people coming up what it takes to become a judge, corporate counsel and a partner. We mentor them because they still don’t have a lot of role models. It’s the biggest thing we can do for them,” says Fujii. “That’s what we wished we had.”
Indeed minority lawyers, consisting of Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans today make up only 10 percent of the American lawyer population, according to the National Bar Association. And, Asian Americans are a minority within the greater minority group. “NAPABA has about 800 Asian corporate counsels on its mailing list and in New York, there are about 150.” she says. Yet the number of young attorneys vying for positions in New York is growing dramatically. So accordingly, matching new attorneys with mentors is high on AABANY’s priority list. “We’re becoming overwhelmed,” she laughs. “There aren’t so many of us older people and there are so many coming up. At our last mentor meeting, we were saying ‘I can’t take another one!'”
Beyond numbers, the evidence is visually there, she adds. At Pfizer, which she joined in 1997, the number of Asian Americans joining the legal department has doubled over the last five years. And this August, three out of six offers the company made for new positions in the department went to Asian Americans.
A position with a large corporation pays well, allows for better hours than the private sector, and for employees with families, afford wonderful perks such as day-care. But to succeed in the corporate sector, a lot of groundwork must first be paved: “You basically have to go to two excellent schools and work at a Wall Street firm. To get the job at the Wall Street firm, you have to be in the top 30 of your class at a top 20 law school, and then survive at the law firm for three to eight years.”
She should know. She’s done it.
Shortly after graduating with honors from Stanford University in 1985, Fujii entered Georgetown University Law School where she completed her law degree in 1988. Immediately afterwards, she joined Weil, Gotshal & Manges for three years where she served as an associate. After three years in its trade regulation department, she left for the corporate sector, landing her first job in the pharmaceutical field at Merck & Co., where she held the title of senior attorney, international law.
In 1995, Fujii’s continued on to become Schering-Plough Corporation’s director of international law, where she handled its pharmaceutical marketing operations for the Japanese and European markets.
Along the way, she retained bar memberships with New York State, Washington D.C. and the Court of International Trade.
Today at Pfizer, Fujii enjoys a position that offers plenty of challenges, a lot of travel and time to reach out to future generations of Asian American attorneys to boot.
From the November 2000 issue of Diversity & The Bar®