More Asian Americans on the federal bench; progress lacking at Big Law

  • New report highlights career movement for Asian American lawyers
  • Social and political issues are increasingly more important

(Reuters) – A new study has found that Asian American attorneys continue to be underrepresented in the top echelons of the legal profession, but are making progress in federal courts, in-house legal departments and law school enrollment.

A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law 2.0 — a collaboration between the American Bar Foundation, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and several law schools, with California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu among the authors — is a follow-up to an influential 2017 reports on Asian Americans in the law. That study identified the hurdles of Asian Americans face in the legal profession, including stereotypes and a lack of mentorship.

“In terms of representation, I think we’ve seen some interesting progress,” Liu said Monday during an online presentation on the new study. “But across the broader range of the profession, we still see a lot of disparities and gaps – law clerks, law firm partners, state judges and top prosecutors.”

The percentage of active federal judges who are Asian Americans now sits at 6% — up from 3.4% in 2016, the study notes. The number of Asian American general counsel at Fortune 1000 companies went to 45 in 2020 from 19 in 2009. And the number of Asian American and Pacific Islander enrolled law students has been ticking up since hitting a 20-year low in 2017.

But progress has been slow or non-existent in other areas. Asian Americans comprise 13% of associates at major law firms, but just 4% of equity partners — the lowest ratio among minority groups, the report notes. Only one of the current 93 Senate-confirmed US Attorneys is Asian American, and their representation among law clerks has been stagnant for the past 25 years.

The latest survey — based on responses from more than 700 lawyers and focus groups — indicates that Asian American attorneys are increasingly focused on social and political issues. The study attributes that shift to a rise in anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic and the larger recognition with racial justice that followed the 2020 killing of George Floyd.

Among respondents, 46% cited a desire to change or improve society as one of the reasons they went to law school — the second most common behind developing a satisfying career. That was the fourth most common motivation cited in the 2017 survey.

But the percentage of survey respondents who reported that they were overtly discriminated against in the workplace because of their race rose from 30% in 2016 to 41% in 2022, while 64% reported implicit discrimination — up from 58% in 2016.

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