How NAPABA Increased Representation of Asian Pacific American GCs by 200%

Topics: Asia Pacific, Corporate Legal, Diversity, General Counsel, Law Firms, Leadership, Leadership & Retention, Talent Development


In 2005, Don Liu, EVP & Chief Legal Officer of Target, and Wilson Chu, M&A Partner at McDermott Will & Emery, co-founded an intentional effort to focus on increasing the representation of Asian Pacific American (APA) attorneys through the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA). The goal was to achieve at least 10 APA general counsel within the Fortune 500 by 2010.

They achieved their goal in 2007, and then set a higher target to achieve 20 APA GCs by 2020, which they achieved in 2017.

We sat down with Liu and Chu to discuss how their advocacy and intentional efforts through NAPABA’s 20-by-20 program — which included collaboration of other GCs who supported the outcomes — produced meaningful progress in the advancement of APA attorneys.

NAPABA has been the leading voice for APA lawyers since 1988, in large part due to the dedication of its members, as seen in Liu and Chu’s efforts after joining NAPABA in 1999. Almost “immediately we started talking about why there are not more APA partners at big firms and general counsel at Fortune 500 companies,” says Liu, who, at the time was depicted “by the media as the first general counsel in the Fortune 500 who’s Asian Pacific-American”. However, when he joined NAPABA, he later found out it was not true (the first APA general counsel was Raymond Ocampo at Oracle).

Asian Pacific

Don Liu, Chief Legal Officer for Target

For Chu, his main involvement in NAPABA started when he established a Partners Committee, which brought together the APA partners around the country to focus on advancing APA attorneys within law firms. However, Chu soon understood that the Partners Committee needed to be convening with clients and began focusing on in-house counsel as well. The assumption was that if the “in-house attorneys do well in their career advancement, the partners will earn business and do well also,” Chu explains. It was then that Chu recruited Liu, and with the encouragement of Chu, Liu and other GC colleagues, the first In-House Counsel Network was created within NAPABA.

With the launch of the In-House Counsel Network, a target for 10 APA GCs at Fortune 500 by 2010 was formalized in 2005. At the time, there were about five APA GCs within the Fortune 500. The In-House Counsel Network’s first step was bringing together APA GC candidates to introduce them to top executive recruiters for the first time. “This [effort] is an art, not science,” Liu says, adding that often GCs are recruited through word of mouth and existing GC networks.

When the 10-by-10 goal was achieved, Liu thought the work was done. However, several years later, Liu noticed that the numbers of APA GCs at Fortune 500 companies had been stagnant for almost a decade. He began collaborating again with Chu and those who had participated in the early In-House Counsel Network, and decided to resurrect the program with the 20-by-20 initiative in 2014.

The main difference between the two initiatives was the spotlight on training. Taking the direction from the executive recruiters, the In-House Counsel Network focused on “training people in the areas that APAs are typically viewed as weak,” says Liu. For example, the group began teaching personal effectiveness skills (often called soft skills) through the invitation-only In-House Counsel Summit. At the Summit, “pipeline candidates are trained, cultivated, and promoted to executive recruiters and high-ranking GCs, such as Liu,” says Chu. The attendees were taught leadership development skills, such as executive presence skills and even the best body posture for speaking in different group settings. The pipeline candidates also received training on honing communication skills and how to work with boards of directors.

Asian Pacific

Wilson Chu, M&A Partner at McDermott Will Emery

In addition, Chu and Liu and the other GCs involved continued to forge close relationships with executive search firms. Based on the feedback from these executive recruiters, the criteria for the pipeline of 20-by-20 candidates who were “ready soon” to be GCs of a Fortune 1000 company were developed. According to Chu, these “ready soon” candidates were generalists who had demonstrated “fantastic judgment, who have the ability to see around corners and are either: i) a deputy GC or direct report of a Fortune 500 GC; ii) a divisional GC of a business unit within a Fortune 500 company; iii) someone who is a GC of public company not in the Fortune 500; or iv) someone with managerial expertise who has at least five direct reports who are lawyers.”

In addition to these great results, In-House Counsel Network members have been involved in sharing their playbooks with the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) and the National Bar Association (NBA), and both the HNBA and the NBA have launched their own initiatives with the Poder25, which seeks to have 20 Hispanic GCs by 2025, and Black GC 2025, respectively, in recent years.

Along the way, it is obvious that both Chu and Liu have cultivated a strong friendship and mutual admiration through their work on these APA initiatives. “None of this success could have happened without Don Liu,” says Chu. “Nothing can replace the influence of a Fortune 25 GC who is willing to use the prestige of his office to drive it. He is the heart and soul and the godfather of this initiative.”