Practicing Law While Asian – And Other Perspectives from our Members

Asian-American lawyer in the spotlight

Is the Contra Costa legal community diverse and inclusive? The answer is likely to be based significantly upon each individual’s experiences. To help foster and continue to promote a discussion about diversity and inclusion in our legal community, I personally reached out to various and diverse members of the CCCBA to contribute to this article. Thankfully, several (though not all) attorneys agreed to provide some insight into their experiences in our legal community and, importantly, what they are doing to make things even better. This article is not meant to be a panacea, but rather an opportunity to learn from each other and to continue discussions in our communities.

I’ll start. Frankly, I’ve been fortunate to be able to develop a practice based in Contra Costa, and to be so involved with the CCCBA. Before I joined a Walnut Creek office of a large national firm, I did not have pleasant experiences practicing law “while Asian.” There were virtually no Asian American role models in large law firms, or in bar associations, except for the affinity bar associations. And, those affinity bar associations were focused primarily upon Silicon Valley or San Francisco. I sought a community of practitioners closer to home.

Once I focused more on the CCCBA, I found a community. Is it diverse? No. Do I think it is inclusive? Yes I do, but it could be more so. Let me explain. Before me, there had never been a male Asian American CCCBA President. In addition to Past President Audrey Gee, I am only the second CCCBA President of Asian descent in 85 years of the CCCBA. In fact, I wonder if there has ever been another Asian American male who served on the CCCBA Board. And, as I survey the pipeline, the future does not look good for Asian American representation on the Board. This is so because our legal community is just not that diverse. During the 2018 MCLE Spectacular, I had the opportunity to interview David Kelly, the chief legal officer of the Golden State Warriors. As I sat on that stage with Mr. Kelly, it was eye-opening to me that there were maybe 10 others in the room (out of nearly 300) who “looked like” either me or Mr. Kelly: Asian American, or African American. Simply, to promote diversity and inclusion, we need to focus on the pipeline of up-and-coming attorneys so that they get involved in the CCCBA and remain involved.

Indeed, there are still those in our county who continue to display their bias through micro-aggressions, for example. Not long ago, I had a conversation that started with someone asking me where I was from. I responded: “Walnut Creek.” The inquiring party, then politely said, “Oh, I mean, where are you from before Walnut Creek.” To which I replied: “I was born and raised in Colorado.” The frustration started to appear on the inquiring party’s face at this point because, apparently, he was trying to ask where my ancestors came from.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also given rise to folks taking potshots at Asian Americans as well.

Longtime CCCBA member Jim Yu, a solo practitioner, provided his input regarding practicing law while Asian. Jim states that “many of the challenges stem from the ‘model minority myth.’ Asian-American attorneys are perceived as hard workers, not questioning superiors, and lacking in soft skills. This has hampered young attorneys’ rise at firms and their role in the cases that they work on.”
Jim’s perspective focuses on stereotypes, as well as implicit bias. To combat some of her implicit bias, Erika Portillo, a Partner at Guichard, Teng, Portillo & Garrett, shared: “Not only in my legal practice, but in my personal life, I always try to monitor my own portrayals of racial groups and label them as stereotypical. I think of the positive interactions I have had with people from different ethnic groups/backgrounds. As an immigration lawyer I have that opportunity, as I have a diverse clientele. I always try to be mindful of what I say and how I say it. I listen to clients and their stories and learn about their culture. I avoid generalizations, and I speak out when unconscious bias surfaces when interacting with others.”
Erika, and her firm, also walk the talk. For the past two years, Erika’s firm has sponsored the East Bay Women’s Conference. “We think it is important to support women in different fields, including the legal community to help them succeed. We do a great deal of pro bono work for people of limited means, most of whom are immigrants and ethnic and racial minorities. In fact, this year I received an award in Mexico for my work here in the United States with immigrants and vulnerable people.” Additionally, her firm is quite diverse with an Hispanic partner, a Chinese partner, a Chinese “Of Counsel” member of the firm, and an Asian legal assistant. Erika further states that “one of our partners sits on the Board of Yours Humanly – an organization that supports education programs in Haiti, the Philippines, Cambodia, Puerto Rico and poor school districts in the Bay Area.” Erika opines that, “All of these efforts have definitely changed my outlook in my work. I am more receptive to new ideas and different cultures, which allows me to have more empathy and compassion for clients with different backgrounds.”
Similarly, Jim Yu also wanted to express his thanks about the value of the diversity networking functions and said that he greatly benefited from a seminar about communication with transgender clients that was presented by Summer Selleck, Dr. Stephen Carlson, and Professor Ora Prochovnick. Jim states: “It made me a lot more comfortable about approaching others and asking what pronoun they prefer.”

Ryan Apperson, a solo practitioner who identifies as a “middle-aged” white male, candidly shared that he focuses on gender diversity due to being a father of a young girl growing up in the “#metoo” era. Ryan proactively seeks to empower females wherever possible. “I want to do any small part I can in building a world where my daughter can avail herself of every opportunity that is available to her male colleagues.”

With respect to the CCCBA, Ryan is very proud that for the first time in three years, a woman is again leading the Barristers’ section and is very proud of colleagues like Mika Domingo and the awards she and her practice have received. Ryan continues: “I am also very close with and proud of the work my female colleagues are doing in the legal community. Indeed, I was mentored by, and owe the foundation of my practice to a female attorney.”

Recruiting, hiring and retaining diverse employees is also a goal for Gregory Iskander, a veteran, and the office managing shareholder in Littler’s Walnut Creek Office. Specifically, Gregory states that he “has a very diverse office, but additional and continued diversity efforts are a must. My goals for 2020 are to not only ensure diversity in recruiting, but also, and importantly, to ensure that our diverse attorneys are able to thrive and develop their practice. Goals for 2020 include setting up business development training for diverse attorneys, as well as substantive training programs. As a veteran, I have already begun assisting in setting up an initiative for veterans (including disabled veterans) within the firm for both internal support in personal growth as an attorney and development efforts.”

or the CCCBA, Gregory recommends the following: “Continued diversity functions and gatherings, including the diversity awards, are a great way to keep diversity in our profession and the local bar as an important topic. I would like to see additional diversity recruiting events for local law schools, so that diverse law students can meet with CCCBA attorneys and help our recruiting and diversity efforts within the local bar.”

Beth Mora, a solo practitioner who has a long history of volunteering her time to various community organizations focused on diversity and inclusion, points to a recent experience at the 2019 MCLE Spectacular that was similar to mine in 2018 as I summarized above, and Beth provides valuable commentary to further our legal community’s efforts on Diversity and Inclusion. I find Beth’s comments and challenge to us all as a great place to end this article, so that further dialogue and action will ignite.

Beth states, in part: “I greatly enjoyed the dynamic MCLE Spectacular lunch presentation by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, An Amazing Time in the US Supreme Court. During the presentation, I took a moment to scan the room and was shocked that, though my immediate peers were diverse, the room itself was predominately white male. In that moment, I broadened my scope of view, wherein I recognized that, though we as a county bar have changed, in many respects we still have a great deal of work ahead of us.

“For example, at my first Case Management Conference (“CMC”) in Contra Costa County in spring 2001, I was the only female attorney in the courtroom and the only race was Caucasian. This held true for countless years thereafter. However, in the last several years, the diversity in the courtroom has increased, making women and people of color no longer a rare sighting. I challenge senior attorneys to take your diverse associates to court, let them speak at a CMC or law and motion matter.

“For each CCCBA educational occasion provided to our community, I challenge the Bar and each section to ensure a diverse member of our community appropriate for the matter has been offered an opportunity to contribute.

“Recognizing there is an ethical obligation to promoting diversity and inclusion, there are countless additional manners in which we can all aid inclusion and diversity in the practice of law in CCCBA, which include: implicit bias education and workplace policies; implementing fair recruiting procedures; increasing diversity outreach; improving mentor and sponsorship programs; and implementing more flexible work environments. Inclusion and diversity are more than just words; it is action as well as conduct which welcomes and sends a message.”

Attorney Jim W. Yu operates his own personal injury law firm with offices in Walnut Creek and Santa Clara.

Erika Portillo is a partner at Guichard, Teng, Portillo & Garrett, with offices in Walnut Creek and San Francisco. She practices immigration law exclusively and is fluent in English and Spanish.

Ryan H. Apperson is an estate planning and probate attorney in downtown Walnut Creek.

Gregory Iskander is an employment attorney with Littler Mendelson, and is the office managing shareholder of Littler’s Walnut Creek Office.

Attorney Beth W. Mora is dedicated to representing victimized employees. She is a zealous and skilled advocate for those facing a wide range of employment law issues.