A Discussion with Asian American In-House Counsel

August 25, 2020

The Morgan Lewis Asian American/Asian Lawyer Network hosted a virtual fireside chat with C-suite level in-house counsel who are key decision makers in their organizations. Each brought a unique perspective to the conversation but shared one thing in common—they are all Asian American.

Moderated by Morgan Lewis partners, network co-lead Tony Chan, and former co-lead Catherine Wang, the discussion addressed best practices for diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the legal industry, recommendations for diverse lawyers focused on advancement, and the challenges and opportunities of practicing law during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

Below are some highlights from the discussion:

  • Michael Wu (Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary | Madewell) on his greatest career challenge as a diverse person—and how he overcame it:

    My biggest professional challenge came when I started my first general counsel position at Teleglobe. The new general counsel resigned in 2003 after a brief tenure and I was appointed to the acting role. During this time, I knew that I had to break through the “bamboo ceiling.”  It was important for me to show the CEO that not only was I a high performer, but that I was capable of leading a strong team and contributing to the company with my business acumen.

  • Ann Munson Steines (Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary | Nordstrom) on tips for diverse lawyers to advance their careers:

    When I think about my observations from my time in law firms or corporate settings, early on in minority lawyers’ careers, they very much rely on their expertise and their training as their way to advance. That may help during the early years, but as you look to progress in your career, minorities (either because of what they have or have not learned at home), miss the importance of honing your business acumen and the soft skills, which become more and more important as you advance in your career. Be open to feedback. Get your head out of a book. Learn the business. Go to meetings even when nothing specifically ‘legal’ is on the agenda. Develop a sense of humor. GCs are seen as mediators and communicators who help bring the rest of the C-suite together. This is when the soft skills are at their most important.

  • Joseph Chan (Chief Legal Officer | Yum China) on the top challenges he and his team faced since COVID-19 and how the role of the legal department changed:

    I think any of us could talk for an hour about the challenges. Over the course of the last few months, there is only one thing that is certain – that we are living in uncertain times. In the middle of this crisis, or ones in the past, we see opportunities for transformational change. Change may not be easy but times like these offer a chance for us to do things differently. Businesses have to adapt quickly to survive but also to truly thrive. It is about resilience and agility. The ‘old’ way of thinking needs to be shown the door. For our team, it’s been a chance to truly illustrate how we are strategic business partners with strong business acumen.

  • John Chou (Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer | AmerisourceBergen) on social justice issues that have been top-of-mind for both individuals and businesses:

    I believe that though many recent events have been truly unfortunate, they could be a major inflection point when things might change. There are discussions at all levels among many companies and individuals that are encouraging. Equality and justice are certainly top of mind at the board level for public companies. For some time now, efforts have been made to further diversity and inclusion efforts across the workforce. Now it seems like things are changing. There is a greater focus on diversity training and recruiting and retention of a diverse workforce in actionable and measurable ways. It is important for our community to be allies for others as they are for us. I find that I am optimistic for the future.

  • Hannah Kim (Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary | Energizer Holdings) on D&I best practices for companies and outside counsel firms:

    In business, data is key. It is important to look at diversity and inclusion from all angles. Keeping track of retention numbers is important. It is necessary to look at the numbers to see how diverse the organization is in more ways than just “this many women” for instance. This data can also tell you who is getting the work – billing their time – and if that is reflecting a diverse team. Also look for opportunities to partner together. Are you a larger firm that can collaborate with a client on a diversity recruiting event or a panel discussing industry trends? Are you a smaller in-house team that works on pro bono matters that you might not be able to do without help from an outside firm?

  • Alan Tse (Global General Counsel and Corporate Secretary | Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.) on large corporations making more progress with their D&I efforts than Big Law:

    There is work to be done across the board in all industries. I hire law firms and lawyers to help us solve our challenges, and our law firm partners are terrific problem solvers. Therefore if diversity is a problem at your law firm and you’re unable to solve it. Then what you’re saying to me is that your law firm is either not good at solving problems— which I don’t believe— or your firm in fact does not believe the lack of diversity at the leadership ranks is a problem. At my company and in much of corporate America, we attack the issue by tying compensation to diversity goals; my CEO along with the rest of the C-suite including myself have diversity targets tied to our compensation. It’s the power of the purse.