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Law School alums pave the way for fellow Asian Americans in the legal profession

September 01, 2021

The Honorable Stella Tsai L’88, Tsiwen Law ’84, Tanya Xu L’16, and Adam Tsao L’17 are among the Law School alums helping to obliterate the so-called “Bamboo Ceiling.”

In 2017, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and Yale Law School published a report, titled A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law, which aimed to “describe the rise of Asian Americans in the law as well as the incentives and choices that influence their career paths,” over the past three decades. The report found that, generally, the number of Asian American lawyers has grown from 10,000 in 1990 to over 53,000 today, comprising nearly five percent of lawyers and seven percent of law school enrollment nationwide.

Tsiwen Law L'84 Tsiwen Law L'84That kind of growth feels like a significant, positive step when you consider stories like Tsiwen Law L’84, who joined the Law School as part of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association’s (APALSA) advocation for the admission of Asian American students under its then special admissions program.

“I didn’t come from a traditional background,” Law said. “Very few Asian Americans had lawyers in their families. I was a labor organizer, but I was a truck mechanic and a welder. Before that I was a factory worker. So I always joke with people that I’m the original Cousin Vinny.”

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School has seen an increase in diversity of incoming 1Ls from 34% to 43% since 2015, and APALSA, founded in the mid-70s by Anthony Ching L’75, is the largest student-run affinity organization at the Law School. Moreover, in March, as part of the Law School’s “Achieving Racial Justice Series,” Cecillia Wang, deputy legal director at the national ACLU, director of the Center for Democracy, and a leading advocate in the fight to end racist scapegoating and anti-Asian discrimination, analyzed the rise in hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander community during a virtual event.

However, recent statistics from the American Bar Foundation illustrate that Asian American student enrollment declined 28% from 2011-2019, though overall law school enrollment dropped across the board for all demographics. But the Portrait Project report also revealed how social structures and barriers still create obstacles for Asian Americans to progress in areas professionally.

The history of Asian Americans in the legal profession

“We call it the Bamboo Ceiling, it’s still there, it hasn’t gone away,” says Law. “I know that there was an issue of the decline in the number of Asian American applicants to law schools generally. And there’s some concern as to whether that will affect the pipeline. Because you have to have people in the pipeline in order to break the Bamboo Ceiling.”

For instance, even as Asian Americans have been the largest minority group in major law firms for almost twenty years, they also have the highest attrition rates and the lowest ratio of partners to associates among all groups, according to the Portrait Project findings.

And it seems not much has changed in the four years since. A June feature in the New York Times, “The Cost of Being an ‘Interchangeable Asian,’” posits that the perceptions of Asians as the perpetual foreigner and the inability or refusal of some to recognize Asians as both individuals and colleagues may shut off work opportunities or chances at promotion. It also cites various studies that show while Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. population, they are the least likely to be promoted in the country, often peaking in middle management positions.

“If people are deciding against law school and legal careers, then that’s going to adversely impact our success on that level,” said Law. “The fortunate thing is that we are seeing more appointments of Asian Americans to the judiciary, but percentage wise we’re still a very appallingly small percentage of the total number of both federal and state judges.”

The Honorable Stella Tsai L'88 The Honorable Stella Tsai L'88For context, the Honorable Stella Tsai L’88, Adjunct Professor of Law, is only the third Asian-American judge in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, after the late Honorable William M. Marutani, the first Asian American state judge in Pennsylvania and the Honorable Ida Chen, the first Asian American female state judge to serve in Pennsylvania.

“Out of the thousands of judges in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania there have only been the three of us, at least at the state level,” says Tsai. “So, we need to do something about that. I think with more Asian Americans across the country becoming judges either by election or appointment it will change, but whatever the process is, we need to bring more people into the pipeline.”

Looking toward a promising future

Judge Tsai participated as a speaker for a virtual event presented by the Penn Law Asian Alumni Network (PLAAN) as part of 2021 alumni Reunion Week efforts.

Adam Tsao L'17 Adam Tsao L'17“It was structured as a career path conversation, but it evolved into something more,” said Adam Tsao L’17, startup attorney and PLAAN Board Member. “When most people haven’t had the opportunity to engage with a judge – let alone an APA judge, Judge Tsai created a wonderful environment for alums and her to directly interact, which led to an empowering and inspirational evening.”

While much of the conversation revolved around the idea of demystifying the process of becoming a judge or reaching more senior leadership positions in general, the concept of building wider communities and networks that span generations to continue to create waves of positive change was another constant.

Which is something this newly organized version of PLAAN seeks to do, pulling in not only Law School alumni based in the U.S., but global Asian alumni and LLM graduates for professional development events and opportunities to connect in social and educational settings to continue to build a larger, stronger community.

Tanya Xu L'16 Tanya Xu L'16“Asians have much less cultural capital compared to their white peers which takes generations to build,” said PLAAN Board Member Tanya Xu L’16, an Attorney Advisor for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “When I was a 1L, many of my white classmates had parents who were federal judges or partners at law firms, compared to my parents who did not know any lawyers. We discussed that it may take several more generations for Asians to gain a representative presence in high level legal positions on the bench and in law firms.”

Tsao is optimistic for the next wave of young Asian Americans and the opportunities ahead. Especially when reflecting on the impact that individuals like Tsai and Law can have on entire organizations and institutions, and the ripple effects they create for future generations to continue to grow and lead the way.

“What Judge Tsai does is show that you need to be somebody that opens doors for others,” he said. “And that’s so powerful because the more we see, the more we want to do.”

This article is the second of two that explore the broader topic of Asian Americans in the legal profession. Read the first installment.

Learn more about the resources and events offered by APALSA.