But More Need to Break Through ‘Bamboo Ceiling’

By Sue Reisinger

multi-ethnic team Ambrophoto


Corporate Counsel, December 2, 2015 — There is a higher percentage of Asian Americans in mid-level and lower jobs in the legal profession than any other minority, yet they seldom break through the so-called “bamboo ceiling” to reach the top level, according to general counsel A.B. Cruz III.

“We [Asian Americans] are known as hard workers, but in leadership circles we are seldom discussed,” says Cruz, GC and chief compliance officer for pharma company Emergent BioSolutions Inc. “We need to be brought into the mainstream diversity discussions.”

Cruz is one of several Asian American GCs taking part in a GC roundtable discussion in Washington D.C., today on how to crack the bamboo ceiling. It was sponsored by recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa (MLA), which is trying to build stronger relationships between Asian American legal talent and executive recruiters.

MLA’s Debbie Tang, who is moderating the GC roundtable, says the Asian American population is the fastest growing minority group in the U.S. “As a group, we are often seen as hard workers who excel academically, particularly in math and science,” Tang says. “But we are continually stereotyped as humble and gracious, but not go-getters or inspirational leaders.”

Tang notes that the National Asian Pacific Bar Association’s in-house counsel network recently announced a new initiative. Called 20X20, its goal is to have at least 20 Asian Pacific Americans serving as general counsel of Fortune 500 companies by the year 2020.

She says for her, seeking progress for Asian Americans is a personal as well as a business issue. “I have personally seen some of the struggles and some of the stereotypes foisted on us,” Tang says. “We need to raise the awareness and get the dialogue going.”

Tang says the roundtable is helping to expose lesser experienced, Asian American lawyers to highly successful ones, and show them they can break the stereotypes. “One panelist is a general counsel of a Fortune 16 company,” she says. “He didn’t get there by being quiet and blending into the background.”

Another roundtable speaker is Curtis Lu, general counsel of FTI Consulting, a global business consulting firm, who says Asian Americans have made great strides in the legal profession in the past 25 years. “But we still have a ways to go,” he adds.

Lu says it really isn’t a matter of overt discrimination, but that Asian American lawyers don’t have as many mentors, role models, significant business networks or other support mechanisms as other ethnic groups have.

John Chou, GC at the drug wholesale company AmerisourceBergen Corp. and also a speaker, agrees.

But Chou says it’s also important for Asian Americans to seek allies among all minorities, including women, as well as white male executives who promote diversity. “It’s important to promote increased representation and advancement for all underrepresented groups,” Chou adds.

Chou notes that high-ranking Asian American lawyers in a corporate setting have one key way to help in that they can “control the spend.” Chou explains, “We can use the money to help lawyers who historically have not been able to gain power or influence in law firms.”

Chou says he feels fortunate in his career in having found the right allies. “And I feel like I’ve got a responsibility to help others,” he says, “especially those who are encountering more stumbling blocks. I can use my experiences to inform others and help them through those situations.”