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Making Partner in a Pandemic: Dechert’s Jonathan Tam

March 29, 2021, 9:30 AM

As 2019 was winding down, I had big plans and lofty goals for 2020, including throwing my hat into the ring for partnership. But then the pandemic struck, and the world changed in so many unimaginable ways. Like many others, I asked myself: Now what?

Making partner has never been easy, but it’s safe to say that lawyers with partnership aspirations in 2020 faced unprecedented challenges. The pandemic disrupted my practice and the demand for litigation services dwindled initially. Courts extended case schedules and slowed down proceedings, as we all tried to navigate shelter-in-place and quarantine orders, and figure out how to litigate in a virtual world. Clients also understandably tightened their litigation budgets.

When I saw that some law firms implemented pay cuts and layoffs, the prospect of a promotion during such an economically volatile time seemed unrealistic. I also began to question whether it was selfish, and frankly tone deaf, for me to pursue and advocate for a promotion with everything going on in the world. But I had worked very hard my entire career to get to this point and I was not going to let the uncertainty of the pandemic undermine or overshadow my years of hard work and dedication.

More Time for Pro Bono Work, Mentoring

Although I knew that my billable hours for 2020 would likely be lower compared to prior years, I also knew there was more to the practice of law and being a good citizen in the legal community, than simply billing hours. I saw the gap in billable hours created by the pandemic as an opportunity to devote my time to other important work.

I expanded my focus on pro bono work, including matters that arose out of the pandemic. Partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union and other Dechert attorneys, we filed a class action on behalf of incarcerated persons seeking emergency action and measures to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in correctional facilities. And our team successfully negotiated a favorable resolution that served as a model for other similar cases across the country.

Additionally, I became more active in my community, working with local organizations dedicated to eliminating the social, economic, and equality gaps that affect Asian Americans. I also devoted more time to mentoring younger Asian American lawyers.

These experiences offered valuable perspective that I would not have earned through my normal, billable practice. While undoubtedly tragic, one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it allowed me to dedicate more time to such meaningful and fulfilling work. Though I do not presume that my contributions made the world a better place, I have no doubt that I became a better and more well-rounded lawyer because of it.

I am eager to continue the momentum as a partner in 2021, further developing my billable practice, while remaining committed to pro bono and community service. It’s an exciting time for Dechert’s products liability and mass torts group, especially in California, where we are experiencing tremendous growth. Although our practice has always been national in scope, we have a deeper bench in California now, which allows us to better serve clients facing litigation in the state.

My Goal: To Inspire Asian Attorneys

After I found out that I had made partner, I naturally began to reflect on my career (the highs and lows), the many great lawyers and clients with whom I have worked, and the significance of the moment as a first-generation Chinese American.

While perhaps a cliche, I am the product of the “American Dream.” My parents immigrated to the U.S. in search of the promise of this “American Dream,” and they found that in the San Francisco Bay Area.

They worked tirelessly so that I could have access to opportunities that they never had. They never expected that I would pursue a career in law, especially since English was not our first language, but I’m proud to be the first lawyer in my family.

Against this backdrop, it was heartbreaking to see people in positions of power engage in dangerous and misguided rhetoric about the coronavirus that fueled anti-Chinese sentiments, fear mongering, and xenophobia. Even San Francisco, home to one of the largest Chinatowns and Chinese populations, and arguably one the most progressive and culturally diverse cities in the country, has not been immune to incidents of racial animus, harassment, and violence directed toward Chinese Americans.

Fortunately, my friends and family have been spared to date, but the chilling fact remains that any of them could become a target. This is a stark reminder that, no matter what we do, or how successful we are, there are still some people who consider us foreigners who do not belong here.

I am heartened and humbled to hear that some consider my promotion as a source of inspiration for Asians who aspire to be lawyers. While the number of Asian lawyers has increased recently, the unfortunate reality is that Asians are underrepresented, especially in high-ranking or leadership positions.

Though I am just one voice, I look forward to continuing to join the chorus of other voices in my community, to inspire and mentor others, who might feel like outsiders looking in, as I sometimes did, and bring them a sense of comfort that they do belong in the legal profession. Because they do.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Jonathan Tam is a partner in the Products Liability and Mass Torts group in Dechert’s San Francisco office. He represents product manufacturers, including major pharmaceutical, medical device, and consumer electronic companies, in complex and high-stakes mass tort product liability litigation, consumer fraud actions, and class actions.