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Uptick in Asian American lawyer advocacy, study finds

Asian American attorneys have seen an uptick in social awareness and engagement in conversations in racial justice, according to a recent study by the American Bar Foundation and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law 2.0 is a follow-up to the 2017 novel study of the same name, drawing from a survey of 705 respondents and focus groups of Asian American lawyers to derive insights into the representation and obstacles in the field. 

The study found that in 2019, only eight out of 2,396 elected prosecutors in the United States identified as Asian American, and currently only one Senate-confirmed U.S. Attorney identifies as Asian American. At major law firms, Asian Americans have been the largest minority group at major law firms as 7.8% of all attorneys, but have the largest attrition rate of 10.4% in 2019. 

Asian Americans looking to enter the field have faced educational and social barriers in doing so. Respondents identified “a lack of formal leadership training programs, inadequate access to mentors and contacts, and a lack of recognition for their work” as main obstacles to their career advancement. 

Just over half (52%) of 2022 Survey respondents said they believed or were certain that they have encountered discrimination as a barrier to career advancement. 

“I was passed over for a promotion that I felt I deserved and worked for,” a respondent said. “The reason I was given for not being promoted was that the position entailed a lot of interacting with the public and that I ‘didn’t have the right face’ for the position.”

They concluded that Asian American lawyers have increased their political engagement inside and outside the workplace, citing the rise of anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Black racism and xenophobic rhetoric and policies.

“Altogether, our findings suggest that recent events have invigorated Asian American attorneys’ commitment to racial justice, their sense of racial or ethnic identity, and their determination to protect our communities,” the study stated. 

Among the respondents, 85% reported engaging in more conversations about racial justice since March 2020 as a product of the U.S. political climate. Similarly, 42% stated they have increased their organizing of such discussion in their workplace. 

“Recent events have validated the work that I do as a public defender and reinforced my commitment to underserved communities,” a respondent said. 

At a Dec. 5 press conference, executive director of the NAPABA Priya Purandare attributed much of the anti-Asian hate crimes as related to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the 2022 American Experiences with Discrimination Survey, 1 in 6 Asian American adults experienced a hate crime or hate incident in 2021, an increase from 1 in 8 in 2020. 

Research also showed that over three-quarters of the survey respondents reported feeling less physically safe since 2020 than they did before. 

Compared to 2016 survey respondents, 41% of 2022 respondents perceived overt discrimination because of their race compared to 30%, and 64% of 2022 respondents perceived implicit discrimination because of their race compared to 58%. 

Participation in affinity groups and events also increased. 44% of survey respondents have become more involved in Asian American bar associations or other attorney organizations, and 47% have become more involved with Asian American community organizations.

“I have spoken out a great deal about anti-Asian racism in the past two years. This is not a comfortable topic,” California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu said at the press conference. I think there is a certain ethos in the community of just grin and bear it, keep your head down, don’t complain. Lawyers are no longer willing to grin and bear it and not complain.”

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