Chris Sukhaphadhana, Senior Counsel for Intellectual Property at CR Bard, based in Los Angeles, recently joined the Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color (NGL: ALC) Advisory Board.
As a lawyer from a Thai background, he shares how he hopes to leverage the NGL: ALC to expand engagement with Thai students who may be considering a career in the law, and more broadly, grow opportunities for Asian-Pacific Americans to advance to the senior-most ranks of the legal industry.
The Timing of an Unexpected Career Path
Chris is “an accidental lawyer” in his words. His undergraduate degree is in engineering, and in his last year as an undergrad, he was exposed to patent law. After he graduated not long after September 11, 2001, he saw his career options limited to working for a big government defense contractor. Not really wanting to do that, he earned a position at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and the possibility of a legal career started to open up as a viable path. After two years at the USPTO, he went to law school at the University of Virginia School of Law. During his legal career, Chris has worked across different areas of the patent law practice within a law firm and in-house, and he has continuously learned about new areas within the practice, which he has been doing now for the last 12 years.
Inspiring the Next Generation of Thai Lawyers
Chris said he joined the NGL: ALC Advisory Board because he is interested in engaging the Thai community to increase the number of Thai Americans within the legal profession and to expand his participation in being part of the solution to increase diversity within the legal profession. He already has a leadership role within the National Asian-Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA). More specifically, Chris said he wants to represent his community and raise awareness about finding and gathering resources to increase the voice of Thai Americans within the Asian American legal community.
A unique aspect of the Thai experience in the US, he explains, is a reluctance by the community to fully engage with American processes and culture because of the first generation’s intention to eventually return to Thailand. Chris explained that a common experience across Asian and immigrant communities in the US was that they came here to escape hardships in their home country, but often this was not the case for Thai immigrants. “They are not coming to the States to escape anything,” he said. Members of the Thai community started to immigrate to the US in greater numbers in the 1960s, with the motivation to eventually return to Thailand; thus, there has been a lack of civic engagement and political engagement since then. In fact, many in the community still try to maintain strong connections to the Thai government.
Views on the Asian American Pipeline
Engagement is Key to Grow the Thai Lawyer Pipeline — The Thai community does not favor lawyers in the same way as they do doctors and engineers, Chris said. “I believe there is a lot of engagement that could be done to reach out to the Thai community to develop more Thai-American lawyers.”
Asian American Law Challenged to Advance to Senior Ranks — Representation of Asian-Pacific Americans within law schools has been proportional to those graduating and earning positions as law firm associates, he explained, referencing the “Portrait Project” report produced by NAPABA in conjunction with Yale Law School and California State Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. However, the numbers are challenging at the higher ranks across different segments within the legal industry. On the law firm side, there is difficulty breaking into partnership levels, and within the public and in-house segments, the problem lies at the senior executive service and at the general counsel levels, respectively.
How Legal Employers Can Address Challenges
The main way that employers within the legal industry can help increase the advancement of Asian Americans is providing mentorship and guidance about how they can navigate to the senior ranks beyond just doing great legal work, according to Chris. Specifically, he advises to “give them the opportunity to mess up and to make mistakes so that they can learn from them.”
One recent success Chris highlighted was NAPABA’s lobbying effort for an Asian-Pacific American candidate to be named to the US Supreme Court. In fact, one of its top candidates was on the final “short list” of candidates to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in June. NAPABA supported Amul Thapar from the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and Thapar’s previous appointment as judge on the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.