Advocating for Asian Americans in the Legal Industry

The chief legal officer of The Rockefeller Group shares how mentorship, initiative, and a focus on diversity have shaped his career

Modern Counsel: You joined the Rockefeller Group after two decades with New York Life. Why?

Parkin Lee: It was such a good fit for me because The Rockefeller Group is a real estate developer that was developing an investment management platform from scratch, and it wanted someone who understood both of those worlds. I had led both of those groups at New York Life, and I also had expertise in mergers and acquisitions. I knew [Securities and Exchange Commission] filings and regulations and other areas that would help the Rockefeller Group grow and acquire other platforms.

MC: What is your role now?

PL: I contribute using all of the skills I just mentioned. We launched our first fund in 2012 and acquired others. In 2010, we acquired a European real estate investment management platform, Europa Capital, based in London. Last year, we closed on the acquisition of an investment management shop out of Boston [Massachusetts], TA Realty. I manage a staff of three real estate attorneys, but my primary role is on the investment management side. We’re busy, and we’re constantly looking for new opportunities.

MC: How is that playing out now?

PL: We’re getting more into residential, and we are trying to grow the investment management business. That involves putting money to work and looking for third-party money to manage.

MC: Have there been many chances for you to apply what you developed at New York Life?

PL: At every turn, sure. I feel like I’m lucky to be in this role because it fits so well with what I’ve done throughout my career.

“Don’t be afraid to stretch and try something new. If someone is asking you to do something, it’s because they believe in you.”

MC: Because it’s such a unique combination of skill sets?

PL: Right. I also know that part of it is self-generated. I seldom, if ever, turned down the opportunity to learn something new in my career. I developed a reputation as the guy you could go to for a task if no one else was willing or capable. And that has served me well.

MC: Was it an easy decision to transition to The Rockefeller Group?

PL: In some ways, it was easy because the varied experience and skill sets that I had acquired made me a good fit for the position. Yet it was difficult in the sense that moving up to be a chief legal officer meant being the final authority on legal matters. That responsibility can be daunting. Several mentors reminded me how rare these opportunities are and that I could learn anything I didn’t already know. And they were right. It’s the same advice I give others I mentor. Don’t be afraid to stretch and try something new. If someone is asking you to do something, it’s because they believe in you.

MC: In addition to mentoring, you’re also on several boards?

PL: I’m a board member and newly elected chair of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and I’m a board member and former president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association Law Foundation.

MC: Why is that work important to you?

PL: It’s still important and necessary to encourage and advocate for the interests of students and lawyers of Asian descent, and of the broader Asian American community, and I’m thankful that The Rockefeller Group has been supportive of my efforts. The legal profession still isn’t the most welcoming to attorneys of color. Through the foundation, we advance the careers of Asian American lawyers through mentoring programs, advocacy, scholarships, and fellowships.

MC: What are your goals as the chair of Asian Americans Advancing Justice?

PL: The organization has made great strides that I hope to push forward even more, building on the great work of my predecessors. The main goal is to develop a national civil rights group that represents the Asian American community in the Washington, DC, area, and in the national conversations that take place in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

MC: What changes would you like to see in the industry regarding diversity?

PL: Our biggest challenge is to increase the number of diverse partners in law firms. Many Asian Americans are now in positions of influence in corporate America, and the biggest hammer to drive law firms to diversity comes through their client base.

We are becoming their client base, and we are asking that they provide opportunities to associates of color and we are supporting partners of color with business. That’s how we can expect to see real change in the not-too-distant future.

LEGAL DIVERSITY: BY THE NUMBERS (2015)

7.2%
of partners identify as a minority

22%
of associates identify as a minority

13.87%
of all lawyers identify as a minority

2.89%
of partners identify as Asian

1.77%
of partners identify as Black/African American

2.18%
of partners identify as Hispanic