Leaders of Asian American Bar Associations: Anthony Ching, Peter Suzuki, Naoko Fujii and Renie Grohl
The year is 1978 and Anthony Ching, a young, talented, dynamic lawyer who began his career as a deputy district attorney in Martinez, California, has just accepted his first position as in-house counsel. Walter Treanor, then General Counsel at Western Pacific Transportation, mentioned to a district attorney friend that he was looking for a young, hot "prosecutor-type" to fill the position of Director of Litigation. The DA offered him three names; one was Anthony Ching. He was interviewed on Monday and was offered the position on Tuesday, making him the first and at that time, only Asian American attorney at Western Pacific.
Today, it's no secret that Anthony Ching's story does not fall within the norm. In fact, during the 1970s, very few Asians held positions in corporate or private practice; and the outlook for "making partner" was just as grim. According to Ching, "When I left the District Attorney's office to seek employment in private practice, the doors were closed. There were no role models to emulate at that time and law firms didn't see the utility in hiring a minority." He recalls that in many instances, he was the only Asian minority wherever he was employed.
While Ching's climb to the top may often have been a lonely journey, he was not totally without support. At Western Pacific, Walter Treanor recognized that although Ching was not the most experienced lawyer in-house, he certainly showed the most potential. And later, when Ching became Senior Corporate Counsel at Litton Industries, he remembers that the support he received from Jenny Crowley, then Director of Litigation, gave him the confidence and experience he needed "to go for broke." Today, twenty-two years later, he is the General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and a member of the executive management team at Wafertech, L.L.C., a $1.5B semiconductor start-up based in Portland, Oregon's "Silicon Forest".
Over the past three decades, numerous improvements have been made in the hiring practices of corporate legal departments and even more opportunities have become available to Asian Americans. But many challenges still exist. It goes without saying that breaking down barriers of any type is almost unachievable without struggle. As put forth by the American Bar Association's Diversity Initiative for the year 1999-2000, despite significant gain during the 1990s in the number of law students and lawyers of color that have been employed, there are still many more left in the wings. Currently, the legal profession is 90% white, while the general population is only about 70% white. And this disparity between the legal profession and the general population is increasing. With statistics like this, clearly the effort to achieve diversity in the legal workplace continues to be an arduous, uphill battle.
However, despite the seemingly daunting outlook for minorities in the profession, minority hiring for in-house counsel at law firms across the nation have been on the rise. According to the American Corporate Counsel Association, female and minority in-house counsel has steadily increased during the latter half of the decade. But, like any cause worth fighting for, the roller coaster struggle of highs and lows, setbacks and challenges can often diminish the glory of even the greatest achievements. In the face of adversity, it is hard to recognize accomplishments; and if the journey is lonesome, the task at hand appears even more foreboding. However, when a group rallies together to realize their vision and their efforts are strongly supported and championed by its members as a whole, the likelihood of that group achieving its goals is highly probable.
Such is the mission of the National Asian Pacific Bar Association (NAPABA). NAPABA is a non-profit, non-partisan professional organization, created in 1988 to represent the interests of Asian Pacific American lawyers across the country. Multifunctional in its abilities to address the needs of the Asian community, NAPABA focuses on promoting the professional development of all of its members. Various committees of the organization focus on the specific needs and interests of younger attorneys and law students, while working to assist them with their career development and advancement efforts.
For Ching, bar association involvement was an absolute necessity. At each and every firm where he found himself to be the "one and only," his recognition of the need to support others like himself became greater. A recognized bar and civic leader, his involvement with NAPABA dates back to its inception. Primarily involved in corporate sponsorship and contribution during the early years, he started the Asian American Partners Forum to address the needs of minority partners at majority firm conferences. In recent years, he has been a panel speaker at several NAPABA events.
Naoko Fujii, Chair of the NAPABA Corporate Counsel Forum and Senior Corporate Counsel at Pfizer Inc. is representative of a growing number of women—successful, talented and Asian—who have become a consistent presence in influential and highly visible positions. Ms. Fujii leads the NAPABA Corporate Counsel Forum because she believes that Asian corporate economic power can be leveraged to promote the advancement of Asian lawyers in law firms. Since many employers seek solid law firm training, leveraging corporate economic power helps more Asians obtain positions in corporate law departments.
NAPABA's corporate counsel members are employed by corporations that spend over $2 billion annually in outside legal fees. According to Fujii, as a group, these lawyers are in a unique position to leverage their economic power to drive diversity hiring in law firms. "We encourage our members to adopt corporate policies that require qualified minorities be given fair and serious consideration," she says. "We try to drill home the message that hiring minorities is important to attract business." To facilitate referrals of Asian lawyers, NAPABA publishes a Partners' directory that is distributed to its 800 corporate counsel members and is also posted on the organization's website. "This book is extremely important because for every one firm retained, each corporate counsel is asked for about four referrals," she states. "I believe that if each member uses the Directory for as few as four referrals a year, there could be a tremendous impact on the profitability of Asian lawyers in firms."
NAPABA past president, Peter Suzuki expressed his views on what he sees as the key challenges for Asian Americans attempting to obtain high-level positions in the corporate sector. "I think that the challenges for Asian Americans is similar to those of other minority corporate counsel," he states. In fact, he agrees with Anthony Ching's sentiments, stating "The common belief is that there aren't minorities in prominent general counsel positions; one of the key challenges is fighting the stereotype that minorities are not qualified to serve as general counsel of Fortune 500 companies." To further exacerbate the situation, Asian Americans are sometimes stereotyped as 'model minorities', a distinction that many see as harmful because, as Suzuki says, "it raises contention among minority lawyers in general, failing to recognize that all minorities continue to face discrimination and hurdles when applying for high-level positions. For Asian American attorneys, the 'model minority' myth fosters neglect and discrimination in the profession," states Suzuki. "The situation then becomes a serious concern because if people don't recognize that Asian Americans face the same types of hurdles as other minorities, then those hurdles will remain intact. Overall, there is a tremendous resource in the minority community that is being overlooked. Women in particular, bring immense talent and a different perspective to the legal profession."
Suzuki, who currently serves as "Of Counsel" at Lowenstein and Sandler P.C. in Roseland, NJ, spoke of some of the efforts that are underway in the Asian community to dispel myths and increase diversity in the legal profession. Last year, the organization declared 1999 "The Year of the Corporate Counsel," focusing many of its efforts on recognizing the growing number of Asians who have entered the ranks of corporate counsel. There are now over 800 Asian corporate counsel on the NAPABA mailing list. The organization has held corporate counsel dinners in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Seattle, with overwhelming attendance, a clear indication that Asian attorneys are increasingly becoming more 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," Suzuki indicated. Additionally, NAPABA's Corporate Counsel Forum works with other bar associations to promote Asian lawyers by nominating members for leadership and speaking opportunities.
According to Fujii, "We encourage our members to gain confidence and presentation skills by speaking on NAPABA programs with the goal being to train them for future leadership roles." The role of the Corporate Counsel Forum is a critical one in that it serves as a resource for employers and other bar associations who look to hire minorities. Opportunities are passed on to members at the organization's annual convention and regional meetings. Fujii, who was an associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges before moving to corporate practice, indicated that corporations are also a major source of funding for NAPABA programs and the NAPABA Foundation. "As Asian corporate counsel rise to management positions, NAPABA is seeing generous donations from companies such as Fannie Mae, Monsanto and Anheiser Busch," says Fujii.
And, Asian American in-house counsel have not limited their involvement to those under Asian leadership. Renie Grohl, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Fannie Mae, has been active with the Business Law Section of the American Bar Association for many years. The ABA's Business Law Section is made up of 34 sections, divisions and forums. Currently serving as the Section's Budget Officer since 1988, Grohl has held leadership positions in the section since 1989, including Chair of the Council's Strategic Planning Committee. She recalls that it was during her tenure as Chair of that committee, that they began to examine the leadership structure of the Business Law Section to find ways to increase the diversity of the section's leadership. "Historically, the active leadership of the Section was composed primarily of white male partners from large law firms on either the East or West Coast," she says. "Our goal was to increase the diversity in the leadership of the Section by encouraging more women and minorities to become active. We also encouraged more government attorneys, academics, solo practitioners, small law firm attorneys and young lawyers from all parts of the country to become part of the leadership of the section." Last year, the Section had its first minority Chair and for the second time, is currently chaired by a woman. According to Grohl, the Section's diversity plan, adopted in January 2000, has been a model for the ABA. Additionally, the Section has begun a Business Law Ambassadors Program to encourage minority lawyers to pursue leadership roles within the Section.
Grohl, who currently manages the Securities Group at Fannie Mae, speaks proudly of Fannie Mae's diverse legal population, stating that "the diversity of American society is represented at all levels throughout the corporation." She pointed out that in the legal department, 52 of its 86 attorneys are women and 20 are attorneys of color, including 3 Asian Americans. Having practiced in several law firms, worked for a trade association and the government prior to joining Fannie Mae, Grohl sheds light on some of her earlier experiences that were instrumental in shaping her blueprint for success. "I appreciate the pioneering that was done by attorneys of color and women who entered the profession before me. I worked in a small law firm with two senior Asian American partners. Their only options after law school were to work in a black-owned firm and in the government," she says. "One of these attorneys was among the top 10 graduates of a major law school. Observing their hard work and commitment to providing legal representation to the minority community, notwithstanding the obstacles, was an education,"" she continues.
For Grohl, these observations were most enlightening. "After working for them, it was hard to think that my race or gender should ever be an excuse for not succeeding. It is heartening to see the number of Asians in the profession increasing. It is important that the cultural diversity of our society be reflected in all areas and at all levels of the legal profession." Last spring, Renie Grohl's efforts to "give back" were recognized when she was honored with the "Glass Cutter Award" from the ABA's Business Law Section. The honor is bestowed upon a woman member who has achieved professional excellence in her field, demonstrated dedication to the work of the Section, and served as a role model and active mentor for other women in the Section. Grohl says "I feel fortunate that I have been given many wonderful opportunities during my career."
It's been 22 years since Tony Ching walked away from the public sector without looking back. He, Naoko Fujii, Renie Grohl and Peter Suzuki—have all made tremendous leaps and bounds, moving towards the pinnacle of their careers. But they didn't 'forget the rocky road to their success.' They have proven themselves to be excellent role models and continue to be extraordinary examples of leadership.
From the November 2000 issue of Diversity & The Bar®