SmithAmundsen Partner Gary Zhao Discusses Importance of Diverse Bar Associations for Career Advancement

Topics: Diversity, Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color Advisory Board, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters


Gary Zhao, Partner at SmithAmundsen, joined the Advisory Board of the Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color (NGL-ALC) initiative to help educate legal employers on how best to recruit, retain, and promote Asian American lawyers.

In this blog post, he shares how he acquired “thousands of hours of litigation experience” and how he used the local bar association for business and professional development.

Using Minority Bar Associations for Professional & Business Development

Gary, a commercial litigator with broad litigation experience, has served as lead counsel on numerous trials and arbitrations. He has spent thousands of hours in the courtroom, arguing motions, and several thousands of hours preparing witnesses, defending witnesses for depositions, and taking depositions.

To do more professional development and marketing, Gary got involved with the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago about 10 years ago. He felt a connection to the members who shared common interests, which included developing lawyers of color and promoting one another.

To specifically build relationships, he showcased his litigation experience by leading CLEs, helping other lawyers by sharing his experience, and mentoring younger attorneys and law students. These bar association connections are “very important because you have other Asian American attorneys who want to help each other, and they want each other to do well. The central goal is professional development, business development, networking and promoting Asian American attorneys in the legal profession,” he says.

“I Really Want to Help Educate Legal Employers”

Gary decided to join the NGL: ALC Advisory Board because he wants to bring an authentic Asian American voice to the initiative and to help educate legal employers on how to elevate Asian Americans to general counsel and law firm leadership positions.

“There are more Asian Americans in the legal profession now than ever,” he says. “There are many Asian American attorneys who became federal judges and state judges, but not very many Asian American attorneys have rose to the highest ranks of law firm leadership or legal department leadership as general counsel, associate general counsel, or deputy general counsels, or managing partners at law firms.”

Indeed, Asian Americans comprise almost 5% of lawyers in America, are roughly 7% of law school enrollment — though it has declined faster than any other racial group since 2009, according to Before the JD. Still, Asian Americans remain the largest minority group in large law firms, according to American Bar Foundation. However, they have the highest attrition rates and the lowest ratio of partners-to-associates. A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law released in August 2017 by Yale Law School and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), offers a “systematic analysis of how Asian Americans are situated in the legal profession” and greatly expands upon the experience of Asian American attorneys.

Part of the advancement challenge, according to Gary, is that “Asian American lawyers are not seen as leaders, especially in the legal profession.” It is a perception that needs to be changed, he added. Asian Americans are just as capable as any other ethnicity, yet “are seen more as ‘workers’ who do great work, crank out a large number of hours, and earn the respect as great lawyers,” Gary notes, adding there is a lingering inaccurate perception that Asian American lawyers do not have what it takes to be leaders, and these “perceptions and cultures need to be changed.”

What most excites him about joining the Advisory Board is the partnership with employers. There are other diversity-focused organizations that either focus on in-house or on law firms — and sometimes, they even pair in-house attorneys with partners from law firms; however, he is looking to his role with the NGL: ALC as an educator. “The NGL: ALC initiative will have a new perspective because — I am forecasting — that we will be very successful in educating employers in how to attract, retain, and promote diverse attorneys in both law firm and legal departments,” he says.

How Legal Employers Can Help Accelerate Careers

Gary suggests that legal employers can help accelerate the careers of diverse lawyers in the following ways:

  •        Mentoring is more important than salary bonuses, Gary says. “Having a great mentor to show a younger lawyer that the practice law is not all about earning a big paycheck, paying off your student loans, or securing your family with a comfortable life is crucial,” he explains. “Instead, it is about producing quality, substantive work that is challenging and keeps you advancing as a lawyer.” Gary says he knows what it is like because his firm SmithAmundsen has ensured that he receives excellent assignments, each in a new area of law where he is required to learn as a novice. “It is really very important for a lawyer of color like me to receive challenging assignments and have a good mentor,” he says, adding that it is fundamental to such attorneys’ retention in the legal industry.
  •        Supporting minority attorneys is crucial, and a critical part of Gary’s advancement was getting active in the local and national Asian American bar association. Fortunately, his firm provided financial support for these activities, including sponsoring networking events and CLEs for both local and national bar associations. Because of his firm’s support, Gary was recently elected as Treasurer of NAPABA. “Diverse associates going to the national conventions is very important for their development and retention,” Gary says. “Particularly when it gives them opportunities to meet other like-minded attorneys who want to promote other lawyers of color.”