Legal uncertainty — Are Asian Americans rethinking the law?

By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly

High pay and elite status. That’s why some choose to practice law. While some flourish in the practice, others do not. The economy and the realities of the practice have given Asian Americans reasons to rethink law as a career.

The numbers

According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 1,043,000 lawyers in the United States, 4.1 percent (or 42,763) of whom are Asian. The most recent information from the Law Student Admissions Council shows an increase in Asian Pacific Islander entrants from 2000 to 2009. In 2010, among the 200 American Bar Association-accredited schools, 3,987 first-year law students were Asian or Pacific Islander.

Even with the slight increase in Asian Americans in law, Tina Matsuoka thinks students should pause before jumping into law school. “Students thinking about entering law really need to think about it. It shouldn’t be a fall back.It shouldn’t be your safety net,” said Matsuoka, executive director of the National Asian Pacific Bar Association (NAPABA). NAPABA advocates for the legal needs and interests of the APA community and represents the interests of more than 40,000 attorneys.

“The jobs are more scarce and there is more competition,” said Matsuoka.

In order for Asian Americans to do well in law, Matsuoka said there’s something students really need to know. “The law has always been a business. In the past, it was easier to get by burying your nose in the books. … You can be a great lawyer, write briefs, research, and stand up in court, but if you want to work in a law firm, you really have to be a business person, too.”

David Lat, founder of the widely popular legal blog Above the Law, adds that being a people-person helps immensely. “I suppose one thing I’d urge young lawyers to do is understand the importance of networking, and learn how to do it well,” wrote Lat in an e-mail, “This is perhaps something that the Asian American community could be better at. Many of us are taught growing up that professional success is all about the quality of your work.”

Lat, a Filipino American, is a graduate of Yale Law School who went on to work in a large New York law firm and as a federal prosecutor before creating Above the Law.

Lat’s blog focuses on law firms and the legal profession, oftentimes with a cynical, but humorous, slant on the practice. “As it turns out, quality work is necessary but not sufficient for professional success. Relationships are a huge part of success, and learning how to develop and maintain valuable relationships will serve lawyers well throughout their careers.”

Even with knowledge of the business side of the law, there is concern that Asian Americans are limited in the law firm hierarchy, hitting a barrier sometimes known as the “glass ceiling.”

“Are we perceived as a stereotype of hard worker bees that can keep the wheels running, but not be behind the wheel?” asks Matsuoka. “It is changing, but barriers exist. Stereotypes exist. The reality is that there is still a glass ceiling,” Matsuoka explained. “But it’s uncertain whether someone is holding it down or we are not standing up. As Asian Americans, we (NAPABA) try to help young lawyers that bump up against the glass ceiling.”

Then there is the issue of those who are disenchanted with the practice of law.

Whether or not Asians leave the practice of law due to dissatisfaction is a debatable issue. “Well, I’m not really sure that Asians become disenchanted with legal practice or pursue alternative careers in higher numbers than non-Asians,” Lat stated. “To the extent that lots of lawyers later end up doing things other than practicing law, I think a large part of this is due to the fact that many people go to law school not because they actually want to be practicing lawyers, but because they’re not sure about what else to do with themselves.”

The partner

Tisha Pagalilauan knew that she wanted to go into law. “I was one of those kids in college that wanted to argue.”

The partner at the Cascadia Law Group in Seattle started on the debate team and loved arguing policy issues. “It was a natural transition,” explained Pagalilauan, who earned her University of Washington degree in political science and then went to law school.

Pagalilauan graduated from the University of Washington Law School in 1998. She currently represents clients — private companies and public entities — in environmental regulatory negotiations and environmental litigation. Washington CEO Magazine ranked Pagalilauan as one of the Top Lawyers of Washington.

Pagalilauan believes that there is dissatisfaction with the practice of law because the first years of practice are extremely tough. “I think that for the longest time, people have gone to law school for the wrong reasons,” Pagalilauan added. “For a lot of people, they get hit with frustrations. Not knowing how to practice, not having good mentors — and then there is dissatisfaction with the job.”

“I think I worked extremely hard and put in many hours,” Pagalilauan said, recalling her first years of practice. “I was aggressive in finding mentors and did a lot of community work.” She recalls working weekends and late into the evenings. “I don’t think for my first four years [of practicing law] that I told anyone I was too busy. I always said, ‘Yes and thank you for thinking of me.’ My plate was extremely full.”

The hard work and dedication has made Pagalilauan a respected attorney within the local legal community.

And Pagalilauan never turned down community service. “I found it important to build a network and get as much experience as you can.”

The young attorney

The greatest challenge in the practice of law for Keith Seo is “the appearance of inexperience.” At 29, Seo has issues with clients believing that he is too young to handle the legal work.

Also, “English is not my first language,” stated Seo, an associate at the law firm of Riddell Williams in Seattle. “I never imagined being an attorney because I believed you have to be a native speaker.”

While in college, Seo’s parents were involved in a car accident and were pulled into a subsequent lawsuit. “I saw how difficult it was to navigate the [legal] system.” At that time, Seo realized his calling. “If I can speak the client’s language, I can be that attorney to help the client.”

Seo graduated from Seattle University Law School in 2009. “Personally, I enjoyed law school. But I don’t think that’s true with a lot of people.” Seo recalls liking the intellectual challenge law school presented. Seo, a translator prior to going to law school, believed that learning law was like learning a new language.

But he warns those thinking about law school, “[F]irst of all, it’s a big commitment with financial resources and time,” Seo explained. “You are putting over $100,000 in loans and three years of your life into law school.”

Seo believes that there is still a place for Asian American attorneys. “From my perspective, there are Asian American businesses in America and American businesses looking to work with Asian Americans.” Seo, a Korean American, has been able to develop a book of business by securing several Korean clients. “I like the client development process and it will keep me in private practice,” Seo said. “It’s not just about briefs and writing demand letters,” he added. “It’s about making friends and developing relationships. It’s a sales process, and I love it.”

The law student

Whereas Seo enjoyed law school, Lenny Sanchez does not. “I would say in total, I don’t like it (law school), but there are a lot of nuanced reasons.” Sanchez is a second-year student at the University of Washington Law School. “It seems like there’s more interest in teaching you how to use the law as it’s been,” Sanchez said. Sanchez contends that there is no instruction on how the legal field should be changed.

Yet Sanchez sees some hope for change. “Overall, I see lots of promises that things will change.” Sanchez, who is half Korean, felt cultural pressures to get an advanced degree. It was expected that he would enter a professional field such as medicine, law, or engineering.

Despite his feelings about law school, Sanchez believes that it has some redeeming value. “I’ve met lots of great people. The way I think is different. I look at problems in a different way,” Sanchez added. “They (law professors) are teaching you things that you can take anywhere you go.” So, is a legal education a good idea? “I would say with caution, yes,” said Sanchez. “It really depends on what you want to do.”

Out of practice

Jay Trinidad graduated from the University of Washington Law School in 1997 and started his own law practice. But after four years, Trinidad suffered from severe depression, which led to the end of his legal career.

“I became a lawyer because I wanted to do trial work,” explained Trinidad. “My grandfather is a lawyer. My father is a lawyer. It seemed perfectly natural that I wanted to be a lawyer.” Trinidad’s grandfather and father practiced law in the Philippines. When his father came to America, he went to law school so that he could practice in the United States. “In my family, the expectation was to do well, work hard, and get an advanced degree if you can. All of my family had advanced degrees,” recalled Trinidad. “You have the opportunities; take advantage of them. My parents were extremely proud, particularly my father.”

Trinidad added, “I know I wanted to be a litigator. I wanted to fight the good fight and do good things. When I went to law school, that was my goal.” But practicing law did not turn out the way he expected. “For me, I discovered I did not enjoy being a lawyer,” Trinidad explained. “[F]or me, it turned out [that litigation was] not the right place for me, which was kind of a surprise.”

“It really played on the worst parts of my personality.” Trinidad stated. “Being a lawyer is about fighting and about conflict, there are no two ways around it.”

Despite the end of his legal career, Trinidad does not regret going to law school. “I missed the intellectual combat and the passion,” Trinidad recalled. “But it’s not something I should do 40 hours a week.”

Trinidad suffered from depression for a year and a half before it came to a head when his clients complained to the bar the he missed court dates and deadlines. “I never denied dropping the ball,” explained Trinidad. He spoke with the Washington State Bar’s disciplinary counsel and agreed to suspend his practice.

“The law is hard on a lot of people. It’s nothing I would suggest anyone do to get rich,” advises Trinidad to anyone thinking about being an attorney. “Going into law, saying I’m going to do what’s right, you are going to realize it’s much harder in reality than in theory.”

Trinidad has found peace in life and what makes him happy. After a few years outside the practice of law, he is now a working photographer. ♦

Jason Cruz can be reached at

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10 Responses to “Legal uncertainty — Are Asian Americans rethinking the law?”

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  3. Gregory Ho Whittaker says:

    I just wanted to respond about why Asian business owners might feel more comfortable working with an Asian attorney. First, many of the Asians in the United States are relatively recent immigrants or have only lived in the United States for a few generations. The cultural norms have been carried from one generation to the next and can be traced back thousands of years. Even when speaking in English, the way of communicating ideas in terms of word choice and structure differs sometimes between Asians and white Americans. All one has to do is look at my middle name which comes from my Chinese half to realize this difference. Ho means something very different in Cantonese than it does in English.

    Also, I want to ask why it is that people ask for Asians to assimilate into “American culture”? I think that the “American culture” to which they are referring is actually a blending of several different European cultures that were influenced by environmental factors. There has been some blending of Asian culture into what is perceived as American culture (think fortune cookies, an entirely American idea associated with Chinese food). I hope people realize that American culture continues to evolve, learning and adopting elements from other cultures around the world.

  4. Andrew says:

    “Why is it a advantage for people like Keith Seo too see “Asian American businesses looking to work with Asian Americans.”

    Because white businesses like to work with white attorneys. So if Asian American business are working with white attorneys, too, then no one is working with Asian American attorneys and they can’t feed their families or earn a living.

    We can’t all be “Americans” because right now the standard for being “American” is being white, anything else and you’re either senselessly asked to produce your birth certificate by people who think you were born in Kenya because you’re brown, or you’re refusing to assimilate because you want to live your life in America legally, but the way you want, and the “Americans” don’t like that.

    This is America, land of immigrants who brought with them many cultures, languages and experiences. Why must others “assimilate”? Why can’t “Americans” (aka white people) learn to appreciate that their culture isn’t the only one, the best one or, really, THE “American” one? Until that happens, no, we can’t all be “American.”

  5. Douglas Brehm says:

    Correct me please, but why do people of Asian heritage who are American citizens constantly continue to identify themselves as APIs? You can’t be both, the immigration process should have taught you that. Why is it a advantage for people like Keith Seo too see “Asian American businesses looking to work with Asian Americans.” That is exceptionally racist and I don’t understand why we can’t all be Americans regardless of heritage or race. When people start to exclude themselves from total integration — racial enclaves emerge who then start to identify themselves as “persecuted people” or “discriminated minorities” which is what we see exactly with the comments from Tina Matsuoka and David Lat.

    In my opinion APIs have no intention of integrating and I wonder why they came to the USA in the first place besides the opportunity to learn the English language hence make lots of money. Certainly, it cannot be all about money?

    My intention with this comment isn’t to attack, but guide you through a series of perceptions that will hopefully make you think. I love Asian people and live in ID but I also see some things that may be holding the community back a little such as xenophobia and a unwillingness to compromise attitude.

    • api says:

      Because API is a box that we have to check when applying for certain jobs? Why is it ok to be Italian- or African- or Hispanic-Americans, but not API-Americans? Huh?


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