Q&A with Alice Young: Diversity Experiences and Achieving Success in the Legal Profession

April 6, 2015

Alice Young

Retired Partner Alice Young is a true trailblazer: She was the first minority and the first woman to head a law firm branch office in New York. At 31, she was also the youngest. Prior to practicing, Alice graduated from Yale in the school’s first graduating class of women and from Harvard Law School in the first class to enroll 10 percent women.

Q: What has changed most about working within a law firm since you started practicing law?

A: When I first began practicing law, there were hardly any women, hardly any Asians, and most certainly not many female Asians. People also weren’t yet interested in Asia as a business center or in building out Asia practices. In fact, when I went to Hong Kong in 1974 to work for an American international law firm, China was still closed to the West. Now, there’s a great deal of interest in Asia, and plenty more women and minority associates—but I’d like to see more female and minority lawyers transitioning into leadership roles.

Other marked changes I can point to include the time it takes to achieve partnership. Where it used to take seven to nine years to become a partner, we’re now trending toward 12-14 years. Additionally, there’s no longer a sense of lifetime employment—lawyers are moving between firms to diversify their experience. This means the law firm has transitioned from more of a family to a business environment. 

What are the challenges you have faced as an Asian woman working within a law firm and toward partnership?

When I first started working as a lawyer, being taken seriously. You have to remember that I started practicing law at another firm, in another era—one where “The Boys’ Club” made the decisions and assumed you were an administrative assistant, or would ask you to take on administrative tasks. I had to use my Ivy League degrees as proof that I was intelligent, and I had to work harder to make smarter and more relevant points so that my ideas weren’t completely disregarded. I’m a friendly person, but it required taking on a more severe persona at first.

I’m also from an Asian immigrant family, so the assertiveness and aggressiveness of lawyers was a bit foreign to me. My tendency to listen before speaking at first led my colleagues to think I didn’t understand the content. In Asian families, we also tend to value what others say about us more than what we say about ourselves. In law, you have to give yourself credit where credit is due, or else you lose opportunities. 

Do you have any advice for other diverse legal professionals who are pursuing a career and leadership path within a law firm?

Prepare really hard to be lucky. Honing your legal skills, in addition to all of the networking you invest in, is paramount to building your brand and your practice. In this day and age, it’s key to develop both the hard and soft skills—yes, understand the content thoroughly, but understand people as well. It’s the lawyers who master this full suite of skills who will be most successful.

Once you choose, don’t second guess. There are multiple paths. As Sheryl Sandberg says, it’s a jungle gym, not a ladder—there is no one career path. Try not to look back, but forward.

Take calculated risks. Do not be afraid to put your hand up and maybe even fail. As a sixth-year associate at a New York firm, I had the opportunity at 31 to become a partner and open up a branch office in New York for a California law firm. What was the worst case if I failed? I could move to the California headquarters or find another job, but in either case with the status of partner. I took the risk and built the practice from one lawyer to 30, and the branch office broke even after two years, a record that still stands.

Join organizations that you’re passionate about, and pay it forward. When you care about an organization’s mission, you want to learn and interact with its members. Many times, those members are important business executives, government officials and thought leaders who could eventually become clients or introduce you to helpful contacts. Similarly, mentoring and building the next generation can feel so much more fulfilling than just doing well. I recommend it for a more satisfying life overall.

Lastly, if you’re a woman thinking about having a family, don’t automatically think you will be a bad mother because you have to be constantly on the phone with clients and carrying around a laptop or briefcase. And, while you can’t choose your parents, you can choose your spouse. The person you ultimately marry should be self-confident and self-sufficient because, quite honestly, you’ll need a noncompetitive, supportive spouse to juggle the demands of both work and family. Maintaining your relationships with a solid base of good friends also helps tremendously for emotional support.

What is it that you think sets Kaye Scholer apart from other law firms? How has Kaye Scholer supported your career and growth path?

I came into Kaye Scholer 20 years ago to chair the Asia Pacific Practice Group. I stayed because of the culture and the clients. I like the people here. There are very few prima donnas at this firm. The partners are willing to help you, which is what a partnership is all about. And, they care about the quality of their work, but also about their families. The culture also allowed for a fair amount of autonomy, which was helpful as I built out the practice.

As for the clients, I always liked that Kaye Scholer is able to handle a mix of Fortune 100, mid-sized and entrepreneurial companies. I have a wide base of clients, so I needed the resources to handle both the mega and the customized deals.

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