On March 26, 2015, Asian Women in Business hosted their Fifth Raising the Bar Forum: Asian Women Partners in Major Firms, featuring two of our 2014-2015 Board Directors, Teena-Ann Sankoorikal of Cravath and Susan Shin of Arnold & Porter. Hosted at Nixon Peabody to a full-capacity room, the event delved into the real experiences of Asian women who have successfully navigated the waters of big law.


Alice Young, Retired Partner and Chair of the Asia Pacific Practice, Kaye Scholar LLP

Jasmine Ball, Partner, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
Linda Ji, Partner, Nixon Peabody LLP
Teena-Ann V. Sankoorikal, Partner, Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP
Susan L. Shin, Partner, Arnold & Porter LLP

Four starkly contrasting women (five if you count the moderator Alice Young, the first minority woman attorney to be the resident managing partner of a law firm’s New York branch office) somehow all made it to partner – a seemingly impossible feat already, not even considering the challenges that they had to face as women of color, and yet somehow they all made it. To an audience of both lawyers and non-lawyers, they shared their personal stories with one major takeaway – good judgement is key. 

Good judgement includes not only the ability to do excellent work, but the emotional intelligence to interact with people in a way that gets people to trust you. While that may seem like an obvious statement at first glance, contained within that thought are all the sacrifices and judgement calls that a person has to make in make-or-break moments: How much do I downplay my minority identity to fit in? How do I ignore or shrug off unwanted advances without hurting the ego of those who rank above me? How do I overcome both the overt and unconscious biases of the people who I depend on to vote me into the partnership?

It is undoubtedly a struggle, especially since it seems like an up-and-coming lawyer is supposed to project a more-or-less perfect version of themselves to their coworkers at all times. A person could also argue that women must emphasize their commitment even more so that their talent is not ignored on the assumption that they’re going to leave anyway when motherhood rolls around. On top of that, Asians in particular have to fight the stereotype that they are more submissive and can be treated as workhorses that will stick around even if they are not recognized. Much to the relief of the audience, the panel was more than happy to shed light on a few of their mistakes – being too cold or scientific without regard to explaining themselves well to clients, letting themselves be typecast in one type of work for too long, not thinking like a business person, and more. With respect to not violating the privacy of the women on the panel as one could only hope to accomplish in person during a brutally honest discussion, it is fair to say that no – they were not perfect in their rise to partner, and if you measured the years that it took them to reach where they are now, it would not even begin to encapsulate the highs and lows.

Whatever the individual mistake, the collective idea of the panel was to not make the same mistake twice, or at the very least, be able to reflect on that mistake and self-improve, most likely with the help of mentors and sponsors. A great deal of attention was paid to the nuances of those relationships:

  1. Collect many, many mentors – of all shapes, sizes, denominations, flavors, whatever – in any way that you can connect with them. Most likely, if you’re an Asian woman, these mentors and partners are not going to look like you.
  2. At the end of the day, you want people to care about you not only professionally but personally. The people that care about you will want to see you succeed, and they will give you the necessary guidance. 
  3. You have to be a good mentee – ask specific questions, take the advice people give you, express your gratitude. Try your best not to be annoying and vague. Use your judgement.
  4. Connect with people even when you don’t think you’re going to get anything out of it. You never know what’s going to happen.
  5. A sponsor is different than a mentor. You may not want approach the person who is going to sponsor you with a question on how you have to dress. You may not want to assume that you’re the favorite of every person who mentors you.

While it is impossible to replicate the personality of each and every women who shared her advice that night, we invite you to view the live-feed and pick up a few more gems of wisdom. These extremely different women had extremely different things to say. We can’t wait to hear them again. Check out the AABANY Calendar for future events and panels in which we try to showcase the talent and diversity of AWIB’s Raising the Bar. Congratulations to AWIB again on a successful panel and a lovely evening.

We wish anyone gunning for the partner track all the best luck in the world! 

Photos by Asian Women In Business (www.awib.org), used with permission.

AABANY’s live-feed of the event below:

The Fifth Raising the Bar: Asian Women Partners in Major Firms, hosted by awib, features two of our… https://t.co/to0su6ebY0

The advantage of age is that you break a lot of firsts. -Alice Young, Retired Partner at Kaye Scholer

When I was coming up the ranks, partnership was not even discussed, almost as if it considered rude. That’s cultural. -Susan Shin

Teena-Ann Sankoorikal: “More than generating business, you generate relationships. You need to help people understand.”

“Not only do you have to do excellent work, you have to help people understand. Then they come to trust your judgement.” -Teena-Ann

What a bunch of superstars. @AWIB pic.twitter.com/G8HrdPuylJ

“If you want to become partner one day, you have to be an entrepreneur. Is your practice a sustainable business?” -Linda Ji

“Law firms have typically been more of a ladder than a jungle gym. How do you get help exploring that territory?” -Alice Young

“When you’re looking for a mentor, you’re looking for someone to give you honest advice.” -Jasmine Ball @awib

“If I was looking for a mentor who was a woman or who was an Asian, I would have been out of luck.” -Jasmine Ball @AWIB

Your sponsor needs to know the politics of your office and the types of work you need to get. It’s a different relationship. -Jasmine Ball

“You do rely on 50-year old white men to vote you into the partnership. Having many mentors is critical when you’re coming up.” -Susan Shin

“In addition to hard skills, you need to have emotional intelligence. That’s how you build trust.” -Susan Shin

“To build soft skills, you have to be coachable. People want to give you advice. They want to see you take it.” -Jasmine Ball

What drives me crazy is when a potential mentee asks a vague question like, ‘How did you succeed?’ -Alice Young

“A willingness to engage, professionally and personally, is crucial. At the end of the day, they need to care about you.” -Teena Sankoorikal

“A partner may mentor four or five people, but usually, they only have the juice to sponsor one person. There’s a ranking.” -Susan Shin

“If you do good work, people will continue want to work with you. Trust that people remember you.” -Linda Ji

“Partners, as opposed to associates, need to be able to put themselves in their client’s shoes. You need good judgement.” -Alice Young

“There’s no work life balance. It’s more of a flow. You have to be flexible. You always have to cancel something.” -Jasmine Ball @awib

“You have to have priorities outside of work, or else it all becomes work.” -Teena-Ann Sankoorikal @awib

“If you keep putting your friends and family in last place, that’s where you fall too.” -Alice Young @awib

“Talk to somebody before you jump off the partnership track. Not a lot of people do that.” -Jasmine Ball

“Becoming a partner is like being in a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.” -Jasmine Ball @AWIB