APALSA takes aim at the “bamboo ceiling” in law

APALSA co-chairs Kirstie Yu '19 (left) and Jocelyn Shih '19

In 2016, more than 200 members of the Asian-Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) gathered in Greenberg Lounge to celebrate Thanksgiving. When students were asked if they had had a family member in the legal profession, APALSA co-chair Jocelyn Shih ’19 recalls, just half a dozen people in the room raised their hands.

That response shows why APALSA—and the mentoring and networking it sponsors—is so important to Asian-Pacific American students at NYU Law, Shih says. “Law school is diverse,” she says, “but it’s hard to meet people with similar backgrounds and with the same career challenges. There’s not only a glass ceiling, there’s the bamboo ceiling.”

APALSA student panel in classroom
Panel on private practice

Shih and fellow co-chair Kirstie Yu ’19 say they are dedicated to building a supportive and inclusive Asian-Pacific American community at the law school—and ensuring that everyone has a lot of fun in the process.

Founded in 1978 and now one of the larger student organizations at the law school, APALSA maintains a robust schedule of about two events each week. This year’s activities include a career panel cohosted by the tax committee of the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY); a policy luncheon on affirmative action with Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law Kenji Yoshino; and the Korematsu lecture, an annual event named after Fred Korematsu, the plaintiff in litigation challenging the US government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.  The lecture honors Asian-Pacific American legal professionals and will feature Associate Justice Goodwin Liu of the Supreme Court of California on February 28. APALSA also organizes round robin mock interviews with attorneys in preparation for Early Interview Week, during which 2Ls and 3Ls interview for summer jobs at law firms.

APALSA students on a ski hill
Ski trip to upstate New York

To help members thrive at the law school, APALSA has created “mentorship families,” each consisting of two 1Ls and two upperclass students. “As a first-generation American and a first-generation professional student, I think these kinds of students are disadvantaged by not knowing how to navigate law school,” says Alice Thai ’18, Yu’s mentor. “There aren’t that many of us, and I wanted to make 1Ls feel comfortable.”

Asian-Pacific Americans are present in significant numbers in professions such as medicine and computer science, but have encountered more obstacles ascending the career ladder in law. Asian Americans represented 11.4 percent of associates but 3.3 percent of partners at law firms as of 2017, according to the National Association for Law Placement.  To create a stronger network of Asian-Pacific American attorneys, APALSA hosts an annual dinner to connect students with APALSA alumni, and plans regular events featuring lawyers from AABANY and the Korean American Lawyers Association of Greater New York (KALAGNY).

“It’s very hard to find Asian [law firm] partners, and if we do find them, they are always very willing to mentor us and that is very much needed,” says Shih.

Nina Xue ’14, an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, says it wasn’t until after law school that she realized how important it was for students to have a group like APALSA. Now Xue returns to NYU Law frequently to speak at APALSA events, and participates in APALSA’s professional mentoring program, which Thai established two years ago.

“You may understand the importance of studying, going to a good college and a great law school,” says Xue. “But navigating the straits of a big law firm and learning how to network—it’s a different kind of challenge.” What kind of law firm to work for; how to shine as a first-year associate; how to manage one’s workload; how to promote oneself within the law firm—these are all questions that APALSA mentors can help answer.

“The opportunity to have a mentor and to meet someone with whom you can bond, who will hopefully serve as a guide throughout your career—that is what I try to offer to mentees,” says Xue.

APALSA basketball team
APALSA basketball team in 2017

To foster a sense of community, APALSA organizes an annual ski trip, hosts Thanksgiving dinners, and sponsors mixers with APALSA chapters from other law schools. Yu, a diehard Yankees fan who follows several sports teams, even started fantasy football and basketball leagues for APALSA members last year.

“I believe sports connect people,” Yu says. “Keeping up with major sports news makes it easy to jump into conversations, and it is a way to show partners and associates at the firm, and even clients, that we have interests outside the firm.”

No kidding: The group’s passion for sports and community culminates each spring at the APALSA Deans’ Cup basketball game, when NYU Law APALSA plays Columbia APALSA for bragging rights. NYU Law APALSA’s team is determined to take back the title from Columbia, which won last year. As the weather warms up, look for team members practicing at the basketball courts on MacDougal Street.

Posted February 2, 2018