AABANY Profile of Sylvia Chin: Drawing Strength from Challenges

“Good children are seen, but not heard,” according to Sylvia Chin’s mother. While that might have been a fine philosophy back then, AABANY is glad that Sylvia grew out of that shyness and became the community builder that she is today. As the only daughter of a Chinese American family living in New York City, Sylvia carved a path that while not necessarily replicable opened the door and blazed a trail for generations of attorneys and leaders to come. While she admits that nothing in her career or her life has been easy, she carries herself with a self-possessed confidence that comes from her exceptional work ethic and creativity, but mostly from the support of others.

One of the founders of AABANY and a faithful friend to our organization ever since its founding, Sylvia was elected partner at White & Case LLP in 1986, a time when the number of minority partners at big law firms could be counted on two hands. Sylvia married her husband Edward after graduating from New York University, where she was a scholarship student who majored in Journalism and East Asian Studies. Together, they attended Fordham Law School at night, while working during the day. Always pulling his weight raising their two sons Arthur and Benjamin, her husband was supportive of Sylvia’s career at every point, even as he was also a Big Law partner.

Three years after Sylvia made partner in Big Law, she joined AABANY’s inaugural board in 1989, led by the vision of Serene Nakano. Believing that an organization is shaped by the values of its leaders, Sylvia’s leadership of AABANY as Director and President has built this organization from the ground up. She noted that “It’s crucial that AABANY be representative of the diverse Asian American population of New York, to be as inclusive as possible, not only in terms of ethnicity and culture, but also geography, gender, age, practice areas and types of practice.”  Under Sylvia’s leadership, AABANY transformed from an organization serving Asian American attorneys to an organization of Asian American attorneys serving the community. Among Sylvia’s several brainchildren, both the AABANY Foundation and the AABANY Asian Crime Victims Project demonstrated Sylvia’s commitment to the community. Offering help in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, the Asian Crime Victims Project was manned by AABANY members just as distinguished as Sylvia, including at least two future Presidents of AABANY – those with the language abilities to serve clients were able to serve victims of crime. Feeling like they could be heard despite the language barrier instilled in many a new faith in the law and criminal justice system. While today the need for this outreach is obvious, Sylvia’s initiative sparked necessary interest in serving marginalized Asian populations at a time when resources were more limited.  

When asked why she continues to organize and sponsor programs for young Asian American attorneys, Sylvia responds: “As an Asian lawyer, I feel an obligation to other Asian lawyers.” The AABANY Foundation lives on today as the Asian American Law Fund of New York (AALFNY), a nonprofit  which Sylvia leads as president and which works with AABANY to help the Asian American community in New York. After almost forty years of legal practice, Sylvia has seen the industry change – albeit slowly – from a cold and unyielding place for minorities to a slightly more inclusive profession. While today Asian American attorneys still face barriers, AALFNY continues to take gradual steps to aid them in their development by awarding Community Service scholarships. The Community Service Scholarships capture the spirit of service that Sylvia and other members of AABANY have tried to cultivate in the Asian American legal community.  The young attorneys that AALFNY seeks to develop have a long way to go to match the long history of service that Sylvia has under her belt. In her own career, Sylvia has engaged in pro bono legal work from nearly the first day that she started at White & Case, working with a global nonprofit to provide financial inclusion to low-income women as a means of alleviating poverty. That practice continues; her current projects include structuring microfinance loans for institutions in developing nations and coordinating a survey of financial inclusion regulatory policies in close to 100 countries.

Surviving as a young associate, Sylvia depended on her exceptional talent. Unlike most corporate attorneys from the Baby Boomer generation, Sylvia clerked. Dealing with a giant physical chart of about a hundred cases as a clerk at a time before technology simplified judges’ dockets, Sylvia remembers the demands from every direction: managing dockets and pre-trial conferences, analyzing motions, researching cases, drafting opinions and jury instructions and charting the course of multiple cases as more come in. Everything that she loved about clerking, she found to be equivalent in the corporate world. The reason that she can seamlessly navigate from capital markets to project financing to consumer privacy policies to asset securitizations with such ease is that she never shied away from a complex transaction. Just as she had to conjure creative solutions for her judge, she developed an issue-spotting and problem-solving mentality for her corporate transactions. Much of the advice that Sylvia gives to others, she has employed in her own life: “View every setback as a new challenge. Use the opportunity to learn from the challenge.”

Her ability to persevere stems from her willingness to take on difficult assignments. Probably with regard to the most significant barrier to her advancement in the 80s—the fact that she was an Asian American woman who one client referred to as Suzy as in Suzy Wong—Sylvia decided to ignore slights. She acknowledges that while there was discrimination at that time, she chose her battles wisely and never dwelled on the obstacles she endured that her peers did not. For that, she has to thank two white male partners at White & Case who groomed her for leadership before she even knew what the word ‘mentor’ meant. They gave her opportunities to manage and close large complex transactions and supported her partnership candidacy. “I really was clueless about the process, I thought that it all just came with hard work.  Afterwards I realized how lucky I was that I had these incredible colleagues rooting for me.” By focusing on the tasks at hand without a thought that she might be standing in as a representative for her entire race and gender, she demonstrated that an Asian woman could effectively analyze complex issues, organize a team, negotiate persuasively and command a boardroom.

For those who have seen the video project Kicking Glass, Sylvia’s experiences acted as a takeoff point to speak about the hurdles faced by Asian American women in the legal profession. The mastermind behind the 1995 video project, Sylvia and White & Case sponsored the revival of Kicking Glass from the Boardroom to the Courtroom: Two Decades and Counting in 2015. Addressing many of the same issues – juggling stereotypes, dealing with unconscious biases, balancing work-life issues– the 2015 video revisited some of the same women who were interviewed in 1995. Though the same stereotypes for Asian women – submissive, hardworking, unimaginative, followers, not leaders – still exist twenty years later, they take a different (and hopefully less overt) form today. Produced by AABANY’s Women’s Committee, the 2015 Kicking Glass is just one of many ways that Sylvia has sought to open the dialogue with and for Asians in America.

Sylvia embodies the spirit of community-building. Off the top of her head, she can cite statistics and studies about how diversity directly improves the workplace—that companies where women sit on the board of directors tend to be more profitable and successful—all with a perceptive humor that cajoles agreement. As a Baby Boomer, she admires the gumption of Millennials who are willing to take risks, to start over and change careers at the drop of a hat. Unlike many other professional women in her generation, she advocated for those who came behind her. For some, it seemed that once a woman or minority advanced to a high level, they would necessarily eschew all markers of what made them different. Sylvia, however, says: “I can’t pretend that I’m not Asian but I can work to ensure that I am not one of a few Asian American leaders, but one of many.”   Knowing that recruitment and retention must be more than tall white men drinking beer and watching football, Sylvia developed intensive training programs not only for young associates but also for young partners that included not only legal topics but also business and personal development skills.   She oversaw the restructuring of the New York office at her firm and initiated an upward review process. Recognizing the importance of support groups, Sylvia started the Asian affinity group at White & Case (one other affinity groups unabashedly emulate). Every Lunar New Year, one can find the area around her office at White & Case festooned in bright red and gold under a large paper dragon. She encourages women to not be afraid to advocate for other women, as well as to ask for help if they need it. Building a support network could not be more of a second nature to her. Despite the demands of her career, she continues to serve the legal community. Currently, Sylvia:

  • Serves on the governing Council of the ABA Business Law Section  after chairing its Diversity and Inclusion Committee and its Women’s Business Law Network
  • Chairs the First Judicial District of the New York Bar Foundation
  • Serves as the President of the Asian American Law Fund of New York
  • Serves as President-Elect of the American College of Commercial Finance Lawyers
  • Serves as a Director of the NAPABA Law Foundation
  • Serves as a Trustee of the Fordham Law Alumni Association
  • Serves on the Governing Committee of the ABA Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity

Although Sylvia professes not to be a risk-taker, if her past is any indication, she will be blazing trails ahead for as long as she can. We are honored to recognize Sylvia as the 2016 Norman Lau Kee Trailblazer.

She distills her experience of almost forty years of practice with these words: “Be true to yourself. Look for opportunities and be open-minded. Give back.”

This article was first published in the Fall 2016 issues of The AABANY Advocate, which was first distributed during the AABANY Fall Conference at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom on September 24, 2016.