- On May 31, 2021
Yes, diverse attorneys face bias whether at firms or in-house. I have heard hair-raising stories from minority attorneys about being mistaken for the help. The Recorder recently ran an interview with Olivia Luk Bedi, an Asian American woman partner, who tells this story: “I was at a contentious hearing in federal court about eight years ago for a patent case. We’re at the bench in front of the judge, and the opposing counsel said, ‘Your Honor, she’s wrong. Her little mind can’t get this right.’” OK what do you do in situations like this?
You can respond with humor. Olivia’s response: “I was a young partner, and he’s this older white male, clearly has a lot of experience. And I was like, What do you do? In your mind you have to race through all the different scenarios like, Can you ignore it? Do you complain about it? I just doubled down and decided to highlight what he said without letting it go. And so I said, ‘Well, your honor, my little mind read the statute, and the statute says this.’” She won the matter, and the person did apologize.
Humor is difficult to come up with under pressure, so I would say next best thing is to just respond. I remember when I was a first year associate, the general counsel of a non-Bay Area client told an off-color joke using an Asian slur to my face (and yes, I am Asian American). I didn’t cut off the client (after all I was a first year), but I did raise to my partners, and we discussed it at least. I wouldn’t say that was a great victory, but I am glad I said anything at all.
Develop allies so they can support you in times like these. Bystanders can easily pretend they didn’t see or hear bias, but the better people you know, the more likely they will stand up for you when bias comes up. Job offers and promotions also require support, so build those alliances.
Develop strong relationships with your clients. Go to where they are. Olivia, the lawyer who experienced the belittling opposing counsel, took up golf and got to hang out for 4+ hours at a time with existing and prospective clients. She also has business development events “geared towards female attorneys, towards our clients and potential clients who are women,” doing things that “we may bond over and have great conversations over, where we do want only women in the room.”
Mentors are also crucial not only to back you up, but also to advise you on getting through tough scenarios. Olivia notes knowing how to respond “only comes with a couple of years under your belt, with a little confidence, with some experience” in that situation. Get advice from senior attorneys who have seen everything.
Consider the track record of employers on diversity and inclusion efforts before joining. For law firms NALP breaks down employees by gender, race, etc. You can also research who has diverse hiring and when in a position of power praise when it happens well. In the ongoing Apple v. Epic trial, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers recently lauded the diversity of the lead trial teams, finding it “refreshing.”
Finally, take advantage of programs offered by companies and bar organizations aimed at developing the next generation of leaders. For example, Cisco has an executive sponsorship program for high-potential AAPI senior managers, resulting in a high percentage of participants becoming Directors in the next 18 months. Bar associations also offer formal mentor/mentee programs and programs to develop leadership. See, e.g., AABA’s Pathways Program, APABA-SV’s LEAD Program, California Minority Counsel Program, Charles Houston Bar Association, etc.