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Linsanity and Dr. King

Quarles & Brady Diversity Perspectives Blog By Theodore I. Yi

Ted Yi is a Real Estate Attorney Practicing in Quarles & Brady's Chicago office. He also serves on the Firm's Executive Committee.

What do Jeremy Lin and Dr. King have to do with each other and what can they teach those of us making our career here in a law firm?

For those of you who managed to miss it, Jeremy Lin is the only Asian American playing in the NBA and the first Harvard player since 1954. He received no athletic scholarship offers out of high school and was undrafted coming out of college; cut by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets; assigned to the developmental league three times; and at the end of the Knicks bench, days away from being cut. He only got his chance because the Knicks were desperate. Lin "got lucky because we were playing so bad" according to his coach. Once he got the opportunity, Lin led the then 8-15 Knicks to 7 straight victories and eventually helped the Knicks make the playoffs.

So how was a talented baller overlooked by so many scouts whose job is to identify talent? This is where Dr. King comes in. Dr. King forcefully and courageously reminded all of us of our deepest aspirations as a nation. To paraphrase, to aspire to be a nation where we will not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. A nation where character and talent prevail, and not race.

Basketball is not very meaningful. Certainly it falls behind real concerns such as education, voting and housing. But Lin's story does speak to us about how stereotypes affect opportunity; how they adversely affect the pursuit of happiness. When asked by an ESPN reporter why Lin was missed by so many NBA talent scouts, Rex Walters, a former NBA player, responded, "it's the Asian thing. People who don't think stereotypes exist are crazy. If he's white, he's either a good shooter or heady. If he's Asian, he's good at math. We're not taking him." Just like all of us, NBA scouts are influenced by their perspective and history. They hadn't seen a successful Asian American point guard from Harvard. To say the least, it wouldn't have been a conventional, safe choice. We are all influenced by our perspectives and personal histories. Yes, even law firm leaders.

When I was first up for partner many years ago and at another, unnamed, firm, I was passed over. It was at a time of another predictable and periodic real estate downturn and partnership offers were difficult and rare. Many, actually most, of my peers were also passed over. The decision was disappointing to me, but it was the discussions during the deliberations (clandestinely reported to be me by a couple of friendly young partners who were at the meeting) that disturbed, and I must admit, angered me.

Apparently I was passed over because some senior partners felt I was not aggressive or competitive enough to do well as a partner. I had never worked directly for those seniors and they didn't know much about me or my experiences. Even before I learned how to firmly advise clients and negotiate for them, I'm certain I was one of the most experienced competitors among my peers. I had been a high level competitive gymnast for something like 15 years. I had coached and trained high level competitors. I knew all about how to prepare hard to compete, how to perform under pressure, how to win and how to lose properly. And as for aggression, I was kickboxing for recreation at the time. For those of you who've sparred, you know there's no place for passive. If you're not aggressive, you end up on the canvas with your ribs kicked in gasping for breath (yes, that one required an emergency room visit).

Needless to say, while I accepted the decision, the reasoning didn't resonant with me. I didn't feel I had been judged on my content and character, but rather had been stereotyped as the passive Asian American. For those readers who have had this experience, you know it doesn't feel good.

So what's the take away, what lesson did I learn? Back to Dr. King and his expectations and the ideals he demands we aspire to. He demanded that we judge all others only on the basis of their character and content. We, of course, all fall short of that ideal. But we can all aspire to do our best to not let the stereotypes we all are burdened with limit our decision making. And not be discouraged when we are adversely affected by those cultural or racial stereotypes.