deconstructing the model minority myth
NAPABA: Real life Partner Track
a weekend with 2,800 AAPI lawyers in Vegas
This past weekend I attended the 34th Annual NAPABA Conference, where 2,800 Asian American lawyers convened at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.
I’m not a lawyer, but after binging Partner Track on Netflix, I was curious as to what my life could have been, had I listened to my mother. The highlight of my weekend was running into two Troy High School friends, Alicia and Erin, who are both building thriving legal careers. Coming from the academic environment we did, I was really happy to re-meet them (and their friends) as well-rounded and compassionate people.
That said, even the strangers I met were incredibly warm and welcoming. I felt a sense of belonging and a genuine interest in who I was and why I had come to NAPABA. The answer to that question evolved with each fascinating conversation I had, which is why I’m writing this.
NAPABA is a talent community that cares deeply.
The network effects of a talent community are far stronger than those of a talent pool. These professional community networks are deep and more focused than college alumni networks. The strength of each personal relationship is a product of time spent and the quality of that time. The sheer number of years spent in the industry, working together and attending conferences like these, inevitably forges meaningful relationships. The result is a real community, of people who genuinely care about each other, collectively invested in lifting up the next generation.
With the digitization of careers, we can now remove the one-to-one bottleneck on mentorship, which has historically depended on proximity to leaders and their stories. Mentorship can be one-to-many, allowing for a new community-driven approach to building careers. Helping others is how you demonstrate leadership in the community. NAPABA has already begun this process through its Coffee House Series, which consists of 45 min podcast interviews with leading APA General Counsels. You can see them here.
AAPI lawyers are emerging to protect the community and improve society.
In the 2022 Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law, studies found that the top two reasons Asian Americans attend law school are: to develop a satisfying career and to improve or change society. The latter was ranked 4th in the 2016 study. It seems 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.”
I saw NAPABA at its best during the Alliance for Asian American Justice session. At the onset of the pandemic, members set up the Alliance to stand up for victims and prevent future acts of Asian-hate. It is comprised of leading Asian American litigation partners and allies at over 90 law firms located in every metropolis in the country. Listening to the annual recap, I felt their deep desire to support the community, by offering a kind but firm reminder that Asians also have civil rights. It was quite reassuring to know that every Asian grandmother could have a $1,000/hr corporate lawyer at her side. I’m excited to watch how this Alliance continues to uplift the community through education, communication, and advocacy.
NAPABA is an essential piece of the representation puzzle.
In 2021, “FUCK OFF GOOKS” was spray painted in bright orange outside my San Francisco apartment. Angry Asian Man posted about it, and AAPI celebrities condemned it, but the graffiti remained even after the Insta stories disappeared. As the algorithm fed me an endless stream of old Asian people my parents’ age getting violently attacked in the streets, I felt increasingly frustrated, afraid, and alone. I didn’t report the crime or talk to many people about it, mostly because I didn’t think anyone would care.
We all understand the pain of feeling invisible, of being othered, of not being real People of Color, and of always being a minority no matter our proximity to whiteness. This weekend, I learned that disassociating and accepting that silent minority stereotype actually opens the door for more hate crimes to happen. Asian Americans are entitled to the same rights and representation as any other Americans. If anyone tells you otherwise, I know some lawyers you can call.
Special thanks to Don and Ivan (above) and Kristin for inviting me to visit your community. Also thanks to Priya and the NAPABA team for organizing a fantastic event and letting me be a fly on the wall. And to all the great people I met, hope to see you again, maybe in Indianapolis if you’ll have me.