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Haynes Boone diversity chair: how firms can uplift AAPI lawyers

Tom Chen, partner at Haynes Boone

Tom Chen, co-chair of the diversity and inclusion committee at Haynes Boone, reflects on mentorship, gathering feedback, and the model minority myth

When Tom Chen, partner at Haynes Boone in California, was growing up, he attended a predominantly white high school in Southern California.

“We had about 300 to 400 students in my class, and I was about one of four Asians. I felt very self-conscious about that. When people asked me to say something in Chinese, I’d say I didn’t know Chinese. I would try to hide my identity because I wanted to fit in,” he says.

Chen, who is now co-chair of Haynes Boone’s Attorney Diversity and Inclusion Committee, is speaking to Managing IP to commemorate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month. AAPI Heritage month is recognised in the US during May.

The lawyer adds that his father, who has a Ph.D. in physics, also experienced discrimination. His father bought a motel to run in Southern California but was treated poorly by customers.

“They would just treat him horribly because his English wasn’t that good and because he was Asian,” notes Chen.

Chen says he didn’t experience as much discrimination post-high school but that he is keen to ensure prejudice is kept out of the workplace.

He says his early experiences stuck with him, which is part of what prompted him to get involved with diversity and inclusion efforts at his firm.

“I’ve grown in this role, and it’s just something I really want to improve, and not just in our firm,” he says.

Chen explains how his firm has enacted mentorship programmes and how other firms can best support their AAPI lawyers.

How do you support AAPI lawyers in their career growth?

We look at each person individually and what stage they are in their career. The main thing is giving them a strong mentor no matter where in their career they are and seeing what they want.

Sometimes we assume everyone wants to pursue that typical path of being a summer associate, a partner, and even into senior management, but that’s not for everyone.

Some AAPI attorneys I’ve talked to like doing under-the-radar work and making good money, but don’t have aspirations of being promoted into a management role.

So, we need to understand that not everyone has the same thoughts on what a successful career at the firm would look like and not push everyone down the same path.

We’ve also had each of our offices organise in-person events for our AAPI lawyers, which include lunches, dinners, and social events such as bowling.

This gives them a safe space to talk about issues they’re facing and what they’d like to see the firm do.

We’ve collected data from the feedback and we’re taking action to see if there’s something specific that we can do in response to some of the concerns and comments.

In some of our offices where we don’t have a lot of AAPI attorneys, we fly them into an office that does, so they have an opportunity to have a decent sized gathering to talk about things that are on their mind.

We’ve also launched inclusion networks. These groups aren’t just attorneys that identify with the group.

For example, we have an AAPI inclusion network, but we have a lot of people who aren’t Asian in there.

We did a study and found that lot of white partners wanted to support certain groups but didn’t know how. Now we have people who aren’t Asian understanding issues that Asian lawyers face, meaning they can go out and help.

How have you implemented mentorship programmes at Haynes Boone?

We haven’t found the secret recipe yet. We’ve had different programmes.

In our most recent one, we’re creating mentorship pods. They have between 10 and 12 attorneys, and we try and make the pods very diverse. This includes gender, ethnic and practice diversity, as well as differences in the level of experience.

The goal is to potentially have organic mentoring. We’ve found that forcing it doesn’t always work because the best experiences often involve people gravitating towards each other.

The pods have specific goals including work allocation and introduction to clients, so there’s a lot that’s packed into that. Hopefully, that will allow our diverse and AAPI attorneys to have more opportunities to keep moving along the path that they want.

People often talk about the model minority myth, the idea that people from certain minority demographics, such as Asian American, have achieved a higher degree of success and therefore don’t need assistance. What effect does this have on the way that AAPI attorneys are treated at firms?

It’s a topic that comes up fairly often. Sometimes people think you need to be the squeaky wheel to move ahead and if you don’t say anything, people think you’re happy. That’s where the model minority myth comes in.

Some Asian lawyers, especially first generation, may want everything, but they’ve been taught to keep their head down, do great work and not speak up. They think the work will speak for itself.

Management sometimes view that as that person being happy where they are and think it’s not necessary to do anything more for him or her in terms of promotions or elevations.

It’s a two-way street. I’ve advised Asian attorneys about whom to talk to if they want something and to make what they want known to people. Otherwise, we’ll never know.

Have you seen the representation of Asian American lawyers improve at firms?

I’ve seen more Asian lawyers in management positions and higher roles and positions of power and influence within law firms.

I think that’s driven by clients. When you have more C-suite people who are Asian at clients, and more diversity with in-house lawyers, law firms probably mirror that a little bit.

There’s always been the perception that there has been a glass ceiling for Asian lawyers, and I think we’re pushing past that.

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