The same year that Alan Tse, Global Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary at Jones Lang Lasalle, became co-chair of the In-house Counsel Network of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), the group conceived its 20-by-20 goal to increase representation of Asian Pacific American (APA) general counsel within Fortune 500 companies by the year 2020.
That was 2014; and the 20-by-20 goal was achieved in 2017, three years early.
In this article, we discuss the key tactics that NAPABA is using to increase the number of APA attorneys and illustrate the impact on one of its future APA GCs — Michele Lau, SVP, Corporate Secretary & Associate General Counsel at McKesson.
Part of NAPABA’s motivation was that APA lawyers account for 10% to 12% of lawyers graduating from top law schools in the US; yet, they currently only account for 4% of the general counsel roles at Fortune 500 companies, even with the achievement of the 20-by-20 target. “Our numbers in leadership are not reflective of the number in the legal profession, and it is a problem that we need to solve,” says Tse. “The initiatives with targets to improve representation are just a way for us to focus on a goal.”
Increasing Access to Networks of Power
The second tactic NAPABA is using to increase the number of APA GCs is exposing the pipeline candidates to existing GCs within the Fortune 500 to help those candidates obtain guidance on navigating corporate America and keeping their job once it is earned.
McKesson’s Lau initially joined NAPABA when she first moved from Big Law to an in-house role. Since then, her involvement in the community has helped her to thrive and advance in her career as an aspiring future GC.
When Lau started 12 years ago in her first role as an in-house lawyer, she discovered NAPABA’s mentoring program because it was listed in the top online search results with keywords “mentor” and “in-house lawyer.” She was paired with Wendy Shiba, who was president-elect of NAPABA at the time and general counsel at a real estate firm. Shiba encouraged Lau to be proactive in her career development and to prioritize building relationships outside of McKesson to better understand the day-in-the-life of in-house lawyers from big companies and small private firms. Shiba also was integral in making these introductions by connecting Lau to the influencers within NAPABA.
Access to existing GCs and the willingness of the GC community to make themselves available help her gain guidance in how to navigate various issues, Lau says, relating a story about how Don Liu, GC at Target, gave her 30 minutes of his time following a simple email request to help her think through the implications of a board-level issue.
NAPABA also has served as a wonderful resource of mentors to whom Tse tapped into as a sounding board for high-stakes situations. Indeed, NAPABA’s in-house counsel network contains general counsels from the retail, pharmaceutical, and media industries, among others. “I’ve been GC of six different companies in six different industries,” Tse explains. “I’m constantly having different businesses and different teams, comprised of diverse individuals, and having a group of colleagues to bounce ideas off of and learn from has helped me be successful.”
Tactical Leadership Skill-Building to Overcome Biases of APA Attorneys
Perhaps the most critical factor in NAPABA’s efforts to increase representation of APA lawyers is providing opportunities to develop the skills that are necessary to be a GC, including leadership development, communications, and executive presence, in part to neutralize negative stereotypes of APA attorneys.
Because of the Asian cultural element of being respectful and showing deference to those in authority and being seen as the “model minority,” APA attorneys are often not viewed as leaders. Indeed, non-APA colleagues may assume they don’t need mentorship and sponsorship because APA professionals are generally well-educated. “When I walk into a room, the one question I need to answer whether it is consciously asked or not is, ‘Can I as an APA lawyer be a leader?’” Tse says.
For Lau, her participation in an NAPABA workshop with a communications coach improved her executive presence and speaking skills in front of groups and allowed her to position herself as a top, high-potential leadership candidate. In this forum, the coach videotaped participants and provided feedback on conveying confidence and competence.
NAPABA has proved that representation increases quickly with the combination of setting targets, providing access to spheres of influence, and hosting leadership skill-building opportunities. And this, according to Tse, is one of the primary responsibilities of the NAPABA.
“Not enough APA attorneys are rising to the leadership tiers of the profession, and we need to make sure there are no hindrances to that rise,” he adds.