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    The Disappearing Asian J.D. Student

    Law is becoming a more diverse profession but the experience of Asian American lawyers shows that barriers remain in law firms.

    Amesia Ngialah Xiong

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    Happy lunar new year! Around this time of year, billions of people worldwide celebrate the new phase of the moon, including in Wisconsin, home to more than 148,000 Asian Americans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2016 Asians comprised 2.57 percent of Wisconsin’s population of 5.75 million, an increase from 2.26 percent in 2011. But, for the same timeframe the number of Asian J.D. students enrolled at the state’s two law schools decreased by almost half – from 4.66 percent in 2011 to 2.59 percent in 2016 and a seven-year low of 2.45 percent for this school year according to the American Bar Association (ABA)-required law school disclosures. This is despite total minority enrollment holding steady at 20.43 percent in 2011 and 20.17 percent in 2017.

    Amesia Ngialah Xionggov Amesia.Xiong wi Amesia Ngialah Xiong, U.W. 2010, is an attorney with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions and is the current Wisconsin Asian American Bar Association Building Bridges Liaison to the State Bar of Wisconsin. He resides in Madison with his lovely dog, L’espoir.

    So what explains the disappearance of Asian J.D. students from our law schools? Two recent conferences I attended may have provided some insight.

    At the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) Convention in Washington, D.C., in November 2017, Yale Law School and NAPABA released the findings of their recent study, A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law. Nationwide, since 2009, Asian American first-year enrollment has fallen by 43 percent – the largest decline of any racial or ethnic group – and the number of Asian Americans who entered law school in 2016 was the lowest in more than 20 years. For the past two decades, Asian Americans have been the largest minority group in major law firms but have the highest attrition rates and the lowest ratio of partners to associates among all groups.

    The study found that barriers to Asian American lawyers’ career advancement are often subtle and not explicit but are nonetheless real. Asian Americans often are regarded as having the “hard skills” (such as hardworking, responsible, logical, and careful) required for lawyerly competence but as lacking many important “soft skills” (such as empathy, creativity, extroversion, and assertiveness), and many reported experiencing inadequate access to mentors and contacts as a primary barrier.

    …If you meet Asian students interested in joining the bar’s ranks, please let them know they are welcome here, and that the Wisconsin Asian American Bar Association provides mentorship and networking support.

    At the Diversity Counsel Program in Milwaukee in December 2017, State Bar of Wisconsin executive committee member Kathleen Chung reported on diversity within the State Bar. Notably, approximately 75-80 percent of diploma-privilege graduates stay in state to practice, and of the more than 25,000 Wisconsin-licensed lawyers, approximately 2.5 percent are Asian – on par with the general population ratio. But Chung emphasized that although minority students represent approximately 20 percent of both Wisconsin law schools’ total student population, the attrition rate for minority students is roughly twice that of their peers. Thus, she said, if we support school retention efforts, we can increase diversity in the ranks of our state lawyers.

    Now it could be that Wisconsin’s declining enrollment of Asian J.D. students is merely part of a nationwide trend. But with the perceived barriers to career advancement, it may be that Asian Americans hesitate to enter the legal practice. Coupled with Asian J.D. enrollment at a seven-year low in our law schools, the number of Wisconsin Asian lawyers seems likely to slip in the coming years, of course leading to even less State Bar diversity. So if you meet Asian students interested in joining the bar’s ranks, please let them know they are welcome here, and that the Wisconsin Asian American Bar Association provides mentorship and networking support.

    Meet Our Contributors

    What drew you to practice in administrative enforcement and regulation of state securities laws, charitable organizations, and financial institutions?

    Amesia Ngialah XiongPreviously, I had practiced as a criminal prosecutor, an administrative law judge, and an employment lawyer. I was drawn into this practice area because, growing up as a first-generation Hmong American (and as I’ve seen with other recently immigrated ethnic groups), I saw my parents and relatives bamboozled by swindlers who preyed on their lack of knowledge of the laws that should have protected them (but often didn’t).

    My parents had worked menial jobs just to raise our family, and they tried to grow what little money they were able to scrimp and save for the middle-class dream of owning a nicer home and paying college tuition for us kids. But, false promises of “big business opportunities” and “huge investment returns” often were too good to be true, and as a result, we were constantly in debt.

    I’ll tell you first hand that it’s not easy being a kid when your family’s in debt – there’s no money in the budget for things kids should be doing, like going to movies with friends or grabbing a bite to eat, and you can forget about being able to tell your classmates about an awesome summer vacation or the nice Christmas presents you received.

    I became a lawyer so that perhaps I could help save some kid, like I was, from experiencing the angst and dread that comes with your family savings being decimated by fraud.

    gov Amesia.Xiong wi Amesia Ngialah Xiong, Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, Madison.

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