In August 2009, Yang Chen ’87 left his job of 15 years as a partner at Constantine Cannon, a New York City-based law firm that specializes in antitrust and commercial litigation, to become the first executive director of the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY).
The leap from private practice to non-profit work meant leaving the familiar world of courtroom litigation to take on a newly created position as a full-time organizer, advocate and mentor.
But Chen was undeterred: He says his Harpur College education helped prepare him for anything. “My liberal arts background gives me the confidence to take on leadership roles and enter territory that I have never encountered before because it gave me tools I need to figure things out,” Chen says.
His strong educational foundation also gives him the courage to take risks and pursue what he really loves to do.
“When I ask law students why they want to be a lawyer, many will say because they want to help people. Now, I feel like I’m really doing that,” Chen says.
Before getting a Juris Doctor from New York University, Chen studied history and political science at Harpur College, where he experienced a feeling similar to when he left private practice.
“At Binghamton, I felt like my mind was being opened. I studied what I wanted,” says Chen.
As a corporate lawyer, Chen was expected to learn his clients’ businesses inside and out, which he says required keeping an open mind and using his ability to learn about new fields.
“I owe that ability not so much to my law education, but to my undergraduate studies that helped me keep a broad perspective,” Chen says.
But at NYU, Chen acquired more than a law degree. As a first-year student, he was looking for an outlet from his stressful studies when he stumbled upon what would become one of his life-long loves — ballroom dancing. After seeing a performance by the dancing instructor at an expo on campus, Chen was hooked and signed up for a ballroom dancing gym class with some friends.
“I took to it like a duck to water. It felt really natural,” Chen says.
By his second year, Chen had helped start NYU’s first ballroom dancing club, and by his third year he had formed a competitive team. He found a partner, started to compete and became involved with USA Dance, a non-profit organization that promotes the interests of dancers across the country. Chen is currently president of the Greater New York City Chapter of USA Dance.
As he became more involved in organizing events, such as the annual Manhattan Amateur Classic competition, Chen spent less time dancing and more time working as a master of ceremonies. Now a renowned emcee on the ballroom dancing circuit, he was invited in 2003 by the Binghamton University Ballroom Dancing Association to emcee its annual Ballroom Dance Revolution competition.
Binghamton University senior Stephanie Riordan is president of the Ballroom Dance Association and says it’s now a tradition for Chen to emcee the competition.
“We’re always excited because the running joke is we always do better when he’s the emcee,” she says. “It makes us feel more confident that he’s there.”
Chen is respected for more than his communication skills. Riordan says students also seek him out as a mentor on topics from pursuing a law degree to improving their dancing technique.
“With so many students graduating, there’s a lot of turnover, but Yang always remembers little details about everyone,” Riordan says.
Mentoring students is another one of Chen’s passions, which is why he helped found the Asian and Asian American Alumni Council at Binghamton University.
He also meets to discuss career aspirations and options with prospective law students and students in the Asian American studies program at Binghamton. Chen’s corporate law experience also makes him knowledgeable about financial markets and businesses, allowing him to give advice to an even greater number of students. For example, during an economics class, Chen spoke about a case his former firm, Constantine Cannon, brought against Time Warner Cable for a client who was starting a competing television service in NYC.
“Mentoring is important across the board,” Chen says. “It’s helpful to talk to people who have been through what you are going through. They can tell you where they went wrong and how to avoid the mistakes they made.”
Another important aspect of Chen’s role with the AABANY is advocacy. He works to raise awareness of the stereotype that Asian Americans are a model minority because they are often perceived as hardworking and intelligent, but not considered for leadership positions.
“The problem with Asian lawyers is not at the entry level,” says Chen. “It becomes a vicious cycle when people making the hiring decisions only see Asian lawyers as behind the scenes.”
Chen’s challenge is to change the mindset of mainstream lawyers and help Asians overcome cultural differences that impede upward mobility — even more important now as an increasing number of Asians and Asian Americans are entering law school and practicing law.
“We tell them that they don’t have to do it on their own,” Chen says. “The point is there are people out there they can connect with who want to help.”
Chen says his diverse professional and personal interests are complementary. His emcee experience helped make him a better communicator, making him a more effective lawyer.
“Hearing myself in the mike, I know when I’m going too fast,” Chen says. “I have to be precise and direct, and get people to do things in a few seconds.”
Similarly, working with USA Dance introduced him to non-profit work and professional advocacy that prepared him to become the executive director of the AABANY.
This is why Chen believes it’s vital to try different things and pursue hobbies.
“I tell people to stay connected with a hobby because it defines you,” Chen says. “Your career has to be informed by who you are as a human being, which is more than your professional label.”
Chen says his time at Harpur College helped instill this desire to become a well-rounded individual while nurturing his love of learning.
“I tell people not to forget who they were before they became a lawyer,” Chen says. “I tell them to read stuff outside of what they have to for work and to enjoy activities that make them feel whole.”
Last Updated: 6/3/15