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Theodore I. Yi featured in article “Minority Powerbrokers Q&A: Quarles & Brady’s Ted Yi”

Law360

Law360, New York (January 12, 2015, 2:42 PM ET) -- Theodore I. Yi is the co-managing partner of the Chicago offices of Quarles & Brady LLP, as well as a member of the firm’s governing executive committee. His practice lies in the area of real estate law, with a particular focus on commercial lease transactions for both owners and users of office, retail and industrial properties; for example, he has represented a number of Fortune 250 corporations in connection with the relocations of their headquarters. As one of the firm’s champions of diversity, Yi has been actively involved in the Asian-American Bar Association of Greater Chicago and the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms. He also is recognized as a Business Leader of Color by Chicago United.

As a participant in Law360’s Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series, Yi shared his perspective on five questions:

Q: How did you break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?

A: Frankly, I moved to Quarles & Brady and worked for John Daniels, who is still one of a handful of African-Americans to chair an AmLaw 200 firm. In my experience, the thickness of the glass varies from firm to firm across the industry, which has a real impact on a diverse attorney’s relative prospects for success and upward mobility. I was doing fine at my previous firm, to some extent benefiting from the general dawning of diversity across the industry, so I wasn’t actively seeking to move anywhere. But John’s clearly self-assured leadership convinced me that Quarles was a place where I could reach for my potential without really needing to break through the barriers that continue to exist across much of the industry (and beyond). So I can’t really take personal credit for breaking through the glass ceiling, but I’m lucky enough to be able to follow in the wake of someone who has — at least at Quarles & Brady — and my goal is to make sure the glass ceiling never reconstitutes.

Last year, I wrote an entry in my firm’s diversity blog called “Linsanity and Dr. King,” which illustrates my point. Briefly, I discussed how Jeremy Lin had been passed over by the NBAand those who manage the paths to it ostensibly because of an institutional assumption that Asians aren’t great basketball players. He finally got his chance because the New York Knicks were having such a rough season that they started Lin out of desperation. He went on to lead the Knicks to seven straight victories and eventually helped the team make the playoffs, raising the question, “Why didn’t we do this sooner?”

Q: What are the challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level?

A: There’s still some way to go in the legal industry, although it certainly varies from firm to firm. I have great faith in lawyers recognizing that the status quo is not yet where we want to be — one of the things I appreciate about this profession is its penchant for self-examination. One of the aspects of diversity that my firm celebrates is the breadth of knowledge and perspectives that come to the table, offering more and better options to clients, but there are also management styles, influenced by background and culture, that may come as unexpected or unfamiliar to others. Most people with whom I work seem to appreciate how I interact with them and get things done — I pride myself on being someone you can count on — but I bring aspects of my heritage to my representations and administrative techniques that are new to many people with whom I work. As effective as my management style may be, it’s important to be aware of others’ reactions to it, especially if unfamiliarity or discomfort is one of them. And as a lawyer of color at a senior level, my actions and decisions have broader and deeper implications for the firm and our clients, so the level of responsibility incumbent upon me is that much greater.

Q: Describe a time you encountered discrimination in your career and tell us how you handled it.

A: As is almost certainly the case with all lawyers of color, there is not “a” time at which I’ve experienced discrimination; rather, it’s an ongoing aspect of being nonmajority. Some of the discrimination is minor and more of an irritant while others are more significant — for example, if it impacts on your career advancement. My perception, however, is that the frequency of both minor and not-so-minor discrimination is on the decrease, especially the minor encounters with discrimination. With respect to those minor encounters, I often find that using them as a teaching moment is a better option than angrily confronting the discrimination. For example, when I was a younger attorney, people would sometimes attempt to compliment me, saying, “Your English is very good.” My response was typically, “I hope so. It’s the only language I speak!” Once, a client began speaking to me in Mandarin, putting me in the awkward position of potentially embarrassing him when saying, “Sorry, I don’t speak that language.” Other people sometimes ask me where I’m from, not expecting me to tell them, “Chicago.” I’ve usually just chosen to gently, respectfully correct the person, rather than aggressively berating the person for his or her ignorance.

Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer of color?

A: I don’t know that my advice would be any different to any up-and-coming lawyer, regardless of racial background. The same things are important: be very good at your craft, understand your clients’ objectives, and so on. I think that my experiences of racism and discrimination as an Asian-American are somewhat different from those of, say, an African-American or a Hispanic-American, so it may be a bit racist, itself, to assume there’s a monolithic block of advice to be handed down to any lawyer of color. Perhaps the notion that “good advice is good advice” is somewhat indicative of the progress we’re making as a nation and an industry. I might have some specific piece of counsel for a given individual, in response to a particular issue, which might include shades of racial or cultural meaning, but I’m not prepared to say, “Here’s what all lawyers of color need to know to get ahead. ...” I suppose the best bit of wisdom I can offer in this vein is to remain aware that people view you in the context of your appearance, for good or ill.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase diversity in its partner ranks?

A: If you want to increase diversity at the entry level or perhaps lateral associate or partner level, you need to increase diversity at the senior management levels. It sends a huge message to the market and in particular to diverse attorneys looking for a career home. It’s a BIG deal, to diverse attorneys, to see women and people of color at the top of an organization when considering whether they might like to join it. If I see a lot of diversity crowded around associate ranks, that doesn’t have nearly the same effect on my perception of the firm — I want to see it in the leadership, and I want to see it in the firm’s culture. As I mentioned earlier, meeting John Daniels and recognizing that I was talking to the chairman of an AmLaw 200 firm had an immediate impact on me, but seeing him own that position, and learning that women and individuals of color command authority across the firm, spoke volumes to me in terms of my perceptions of what Quarles & Brady’s culture is.

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