By Emily Sy
The Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts (AALAM) was founded in 1984, the year before I was born. And over the last 37 years, AALAM has steadily grown from a handful of attorneys to over 500 members. Most recently, we hosted our Annual AALAM Banquet at Empire Garden in Boston’s Chinatown. After cancelling our 2020 and 2021 banquets due to the COVID19 pandemic, this year we welcomed over 250 guests to celebrate our achievements and highlight special awardees. I am incredibly proud to report that the AALAM membership includes federal and state judges, partners at AmLaw 100 law firms, successful solo and small firm founders, general counsels at major corporations, leaders of government agencies, chairs of commissions, public servants, prosecutors, law students, and most recently and with immense pride, the Mayor of our great city of Boston.
AALAM’s founding mission is to promote the representation of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) attorneys in the legal community. And while we have made great strides since our early days, many of us too often find ourselves as the only AAPI voice in the room. We therefore carry the heavy burden of representing all AAPI attorneys, when the reality is that we are not a monolith. In fact, we are made up of lawyers with diverse backgrounds, familial roots in multiple countries, and as a result, face different challenges when it comes to charting our paths in the law. My experience as a first generation Chinese American from Ohio is very different from my fellow AALAM members including Angel, a Taiwanese American who grew up in Argentina and moved to the U.S. for college at the age of 19; Steve, whose family tree traces back to his great-grandfathers who came to the U. S. in the late 19th century and who grew up in a New York City housing project by the Brooklyn Bridge; Jan, a Korean American who got her law degree in Australia before getting an LLM in banking at Boston University Law; and Tony, who was born and raised in Boston and whose mom, a refugee from Vietnam, founded a small Chinese restaurant in Downtown Crossing.
It is important to recognize that, while each of us has charted a unique path and confronted a unique set of challenges over the course of our legal careers, we are united by the shared experience of feeling left out and othered. We have all experienced this sense of isolation, whether it is because a senior partner refused to learn how to pronounce our name; a career advisor told us to focus on immigration law simply because of how we look; a clerk mistook us for the court translator; or a co-worker teased us for the food we brought to lunch. These types of microaggressions, plus the ever-present specter of the model minority myth and imposter syndrome, are not only the result of racism and ignorance but also stem from the fact that we are often the only AAPI attorney present.
Over the last few years, the legal community has taken considerable steps to increase diversity, a development that is welcomed, but long overdue. As an affinity bar association, AALAM is often tasked to help in these efforts, which we gladly do. But the key here is that it is not enough to include just one AAPI voice. Rather, if the Boston legal community is truly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion then it must rise to the challenge and amplify multiple AAPI voices so that no one attorney must carry the burden of being the sole representative of a vastly deep bench. The more that we, as AAPIs, celebrate and highlight what makes us unique, the more the broader legal community will come to recognize that we are not interchangeable. If there are multiple AAPI attorneys present, then the weight of representing our entire community is lifted for each of us and we can instead focus on ourselves as individuals, each with a different story and perspective. This type of representation, in which we are valued for our contributions both as individuals and as members of the AAPI collective, will only serve to enrich the Boston legal community.
Emily Sy is Counsel, US Litigation and Investigations at Takeda Pharmaceuticals U.S.A., Inc. She is the President of the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Greater Boston Legal Services and Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.
Reflections on Efforts at Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Profession
By Payal Salsburg, Darshana Indira
The South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston (SABA GB), with a membership of approximately 150 lawyers and law students, has endeavored over the years to promote the advancement of attorneys and law students of South Asian heritage. With a renewed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the last few years, we host a variety of programs and events aimed at professional networking and development, legal scholarship and education, and advocacy and community involvement.
Understanding the importance of reducing barriers for the new generation of South Asian lawyers, SABA GB’s Mentorship Committee aspires to prepare law students through every step of their legal experience. We host an annual Mock Interview event, sponsored by Kirkland & Ellis LLP, to help students brush up on their skills in preparation for summer internships and post-graduation jobs. This program is open to law students of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Our Mentorship Committee also holds a quarterly Office Hours series for law students, allowing them to chat informally with our members on a range of topics including law school exam support, bar exam preparation, resume writing, career advice, and interview tips. Our members frequently speak on panels at local law schools about their personal career paths and serve as mentors for South Asian law students looking to establish professional relationships with local lawyers. Each summer, SABA GB is extremely proud to collaborate with sponsoring law firms to fund two public interest fellowships that enable law students of South Asian or Asian descent to work in otherwise unpaid internships with non-profit or government organizations focusing on the needs of BIPOC/LGBTQ communities. These fellowships assist students who are passionate about nonprofit work who may otherwise be forced to decline an internship for lack of compensation.
Further, recognizing that our members routinely face chronic stress, high rates of depression, and cultural pressure surrounding career advancement while balancing life at home and in the community, SABA GB remains active in the lawyer well-being space. In the fall of 2021, we joined SABA’s national organization for a dynamic presentation and conversation on unpacking and supporting multiracial identities for South Asian children. As part of our Women’s Initiative, we encourage our female members to meet in “lunch circles” to have candid conversations, seek advice, and share experiences that foster relationships and strengthen our bonds. Later this summer, we will host a stress management workshop for our members led by Ali Greene, an integrative health practitioner. The program will focus on lawyers of color, female lawyers, feelings of not belonging, anxiety, burn out, and coping skills.
As a bar organization that aspires to address diversity, equity and inclusion issues, it is integral that we ally with fellow affinity bars. We routinely collaborate with other affinity bar organizations to combine our strengths, talents, and resources to promote the advancement of all our members. In addition to supporting each other’s events and annual galas, the affinity bar leadership meets regularly to coordinate our work with law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal services organizations.
In April, we joined the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association, the Black Law Students Association, and the Affinity Coalition to co-sponsor a discussion with Dr. Cornel West about overcoming Imposter Syndrome. In April and May, we co-sponsored a series of programs with Northeastern University School of Law on Confronting Racial and Economic Injustice particular to the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. We also celebrated AAPI Heritage month with our friends in the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts (AALAM) and attended AAPI Heritage Night with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. We also previously worked with Glenn Magpantay, a long-time civil rights attorney, on upstander intervention training aimed at identifying, documenting, and reporting hate incidents. Earlier this year, we partnered with staff of the Trial Court Office of Workplace Rights and Compliance on a program aimed at demystifying reporting incidents of bias and discrimination in the Massachusetts trial courts. To encourage our lawyers to consider judicial appointments and expand diversity in courts in the Commonwealth, we are also working with judges of the Superior Court on programming to demystify the judicial application and nomination process for our members. In March 2022, we also collaborated with AALAM and Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts to host an AAPI Safe Space meeting, where attendees discussed the impact of recent events that have impacted the well-being of AAPI attorneys and law students.
As a small affinity bar organization with a limited budget, SABA GB leadership continually leverages its relationships with law firms, corporate organizations, fellow affinity bars, and larger bar organizations to ensure that our members can access the opportunities they need and deserve to develop their careers. While the recent interest in DEI in the legal profession is welcomed, there must be a concerted effort to ensure inclusive workplaces. Many organizations have approached SABA GB for help with their efforts, and we encourage these organizations to not only implement diverse and inclusive hiring practices, but also to create programs and policies that encourage the retention and advancement of diverse talent. While the language and transparency around DEI issues has evolved significantly over the last few years, it is important to continue this momentum by not only engaging in productive conversations but also providing the necessary funding to implement concrete changes to address the specific needs of marginalized groups. DEI issues will not be solved overnight, and they will not be solved by marginalized groups alone. DEI must be a long-term commitment involving a change in foundational elements and continuing accountability on an organization-wide basis. SABA GB is thankful to be a partner in these efforts.
Payal Salsburg is a Partner at Laredo & Smith, LLP. She is the co-President of the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston (SABA GB). She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts. At the BBA, Payal is the co-chair of the BBA’s Business and Commercial Litigation Section Steering Committee, a member of the BBA/BBF Joint Planning Committee, and on the Advisory Committee of the Women’s Leadership & Advancement Forum.
Darshana Indira is an employment and litigation attorney at the Maura Greene Law Group. She is the Treasurer and Public Relation chair of the SABA GB. She is also a member of the Joint Bar Committee on Judicial Nominations.