How Obstacles Were an Impetus for One Lawyer’s Success

As the president of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association and secretary of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, Cyndie M. Chang understands the importance of bringing a diverse perspective to complex legal issues. She was named as one of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s 2010 Best Lawyers Under 40, serves as her firm’s pro-bono coordinator and is an inaugural fellow to the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. Now, as a Los Angeles-based partner at Duane Morris LLP, Chang hopes to inspire, develop and support diverse lawyers in the legal profession.

As an attorney, what are the benefits of having a diversity of perspectives?

It is critical. I handle litigation, and basically strive for justice and resolution for a client’s problem. Not every case can be handled and resolved the same way. Success in being a problem-solver is about being flexible and understanding the variety of issues involved. I really have to understand how a dispute came about, the personalities involved, the background or history of a business and its people, the goals of the client and the ramifications from the dispute.

Having a diversity of perspectives allows me to empathize with my client, anticipate the position of the opposing side, and foresee the likely outcomes of a dispute by way of a settlement or by way of a resolution by a judge or jury. If one is too narrow-minded, one will fail to see critical issues that could go a long way in resolving a problem for a client. This is why I value the feedback of my team, as we all bring different perspectives to the table. There are a number of factors that go into the strategy of resolving a client’s issue. Ultimately, diversity of perspectives is a key ingredient in obtaining successful resolution of a case.

As a diverse lawyer, did you face any challenges in your professional life?

As a female minority, I have faced unconscious and inadvertent biases in the profession. I consider those experiences a blessing, as they have shaped my perspective and have motivated me to become a successful attorney.

The legal field is highly dominated by males, and there are statistics out there that show the need for increasing diversity in the upper ranks at law firms, the judiciary, government and corporate legal departments. Although blatant discrimination is not prevalent in today’s corporate culture, it is the unconscious and inadvertent biases that still exist.

In fact, I recall how challenging this profession was even in my first year as an attorney. Out of law school, not only did I have to overcome the learning curve of transitioning to being a lawyer from a law student, but I also had to work in a challenging work environment dealing with internal law firm politics. A senior partner thought I would never become a trial lawyer because of how I looked. I later proved him wrong.

Further, I have been mistaken as a secretary or court reporter, rather than the attorney in the room. As a result, I felt compelled to prove myself more so than my male counterparts because I was not readily embraced by senior partners. This included not readily receiving invitations to “boys club” luncheons along with the other male attorneys.

What would be your advice for women facing similar workplace challenges?

I encourage other women to find a professional networking circle and a set of mentors. I was invited and encouraged to attend bar association events as a young practitioner, with attorney members introducing me to their professional colleagues. At that time, I had no idea how networking, opportunity and mentorship would positively impact me in the future. Ultimately, I am now the president of a bar association and sit on boards of many different organizations.

With the sense of community and family that I gained through networking, I have met many other lawyers and learned a great deal from them about handling the strengths and challenges of being an ethnic minority and female in the legal profession. Within that group, I have mentors that provide knowledge and resources that have proven immensely helpful both in the workplace and in my personal life.

Lastly, one of the most important lessons that I have learned from other female lawyers is that women can have it all, but they cannot have it all at the same time. I have strived to be a good lawyer, a good mother and wife, and a good community leader. However, having all of these things required some timing, patience and strategy. It is very difficult to balance all of those things simultaneously, and inevitably at times one or more of these roles have had to take a back seat to the others. As a consequence, I have had to establish and re-evaluate my priorities and realize that I could not do everything all at the same time.

Does having a diverse background make you a better lawyer? Why or why not?

I embrace and value my experiences as a diverse female attorney. As a result of the unforgettable learning experiences I have had, I am a more insightful person and a stronger attorney. For instance, in addition to learning the technical skills of being a good lawyer, I have developed soft skills that help me better manage cultural stereotypes and manage many types of personalities with clients, with opposing counsel, and with the court.

Further, I have a continuing interest and passion in encouraging the development and retention of female and diverse lawyers in the profession. Having experienced the challenges and obstacles facing minorities in my field, I constantly support and lead professional programs that encourage professional development and provide career and networking opportunities. I am proud to contribute as a leader to the legal profession.

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.