Few Asian Americans Reach Top Law Positions, Study Finds

Only four of 2,500 elected state prosecutors in the U.S. are Asian American.

Asian Americans are the largest minority group at major law firms, yet few reach top positions, according to a recent study conducted by a California Supreme Court justice and Yale University law students.

Asian Americans make up 5.6 percent of the population and an even bigger percentage of law school student bodies. But members of the fastest-growing U.S. racial group seldom reach the top of the legal profession as judges, U.S. attorneys, elected state prosecutors, or private practice partners or associates, the study found. 

Asian Americans “have a foot in the door in virtually every sector of the legal profession,” California Justice Goodwin Liu said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “The question now is how wide that door’s going to swing open for them.”

Liu is one of three Asian Americans on California’s seven-member Supreme Court. But he said this ratio is extremely unusual, compared with courts elsewhere in the U.S. 

According to the AP, the study compiled research from recent years and found:

  • Three of the 94 U.S. attorneys and four of the country’s nearly 2,500 elected state prosecutors were Asian American.

  • There were 26 active Asian American judges among more than 850 federal judicial positions. Two percent of almost 10,300 state trial and appellate court judges who were surveyed were Asian American.

  • Asian Americans were the largest minority group at major law firms but had the highest attrition rates and lowest ratio of partners to associates among all racial groups.

The numbers indicate that the law profession is affected by the “bamboo ceiling,” a term that refers to the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in leadership positions. Asian Americans are also underrepresented when it comes to Silicon Valley’s top jobs, making up 27 percent of the tech industry’s professionals, but less than 14 percent of executives, according to a 2015 Ascend report.

The Harvard Business Review suggested two stereotypes about Asian Americans were to blame for the low number of executives ― that they are seen as threatening and lacking social skills necessary for leadership.

Liu’s study surveyed more than 600 Asian American lawyers. More than 80 percent reported experiencing implicit bias on the workplace.

“For Asian Americans in the legal profession, the milestones have been significant, as have been the challenges,” Eric Chung, a Yale law student involved in the study, said in November. “To consider where we go from here requires understanding where we are now.”