The Honorable Raymond T. Chen is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Judge Chen was appointed by President Obama in 2013, unanimously confirmed by the Senate on August 1, 2013, and assumed the duties of his office on August 5, 2013.
Judge Chen previously served as Deputy General Counsel for Intellectual Property Law and Solicitor at the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 2008 to 2013. He was an Associate Solicitor in that office from 1998 to 2008. From 1996 to 1998, Judge Chen was a Technical Assistant at the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Before joining the court staff, Judge Chen was an associate with Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear from 1994 to 1996. Before entering law school, Judge Chen worked as a scientist at Hecker and Harriman from 1989 to 1991.
Judge Chen received a J.D. from the New York University School of Law in 1994 and a B.S. in electrical engineering from University of California, Los Angeles in 1990. Judge Chen was born in New York City and grew up in Huntington Beach, California, where he attended public schools. Judge Chen is the first Asian Pacific American to serve on the Federal Circuit in over 25 years. Out of over 180 federal appellate court judges in the entire nation, he is one of four with Asian Pacific American heritage.
DKM: I want to start off with a very basic question, which is, what first drew you to you to get involved in law?
RTC: My path was a very indirect one because I was born and bred to be an engineer or a doctor. That was my family’s expectation, and, in fact, that’s why I majored in electrical engineering, because I didn’t want to be a doctor—so I was left with the other alternative.
As I went through college at UCLA and began to tackle the upper level engineering courses, the classes became more difficult and more challenging. I quickly realized I didn’t have the natural talent for it. I decided after my junior year that I really needed to look elsewhere to figure out where my path would be in terms of a career because I did not feel like I was well suited to be an electrical engineer. There were my classmates that were much more naturally inclined, so I had to find something else to do.
My turn to the law was really an example of how necessity is the mother of invention. I didn’t read a biography about Abraham Lincoln and decide that I wanted to be a lawyer like him. It just didn’t turn out that way for me. Instead, I needed to find an alternate path, and that’s when I started considering law school, even though nobody in my family was a lawyer. It’s a career that I carefully investigated, and I was very lucky to get a part-time job in a small patent law firm in Los Angeles while I was still a student at UCLA. It was that experience that both grew my interest and gave me some confidence that this was something that I could potentially do.
DKM: I’m curious about how your parents and your family reacted because you mentioned that nobody in your family had previously attended law school. I think a lot of our younger readers can certainly relate to that standard math/science/engineering path, and realize in college that it might not be the right path for them. How did your family react?
RTC: When I told them of my intention to attend law school, they were both stunned and very skeptical. They were very skeptical because they didn’t know any lawyers, I didn’t know any lawyers, and there were really no role models. We’re talking about the late 1980’s right now, and they had a pretty strong belief that for Chinese Americans and Asian Pacific Americans, the safe and rational choice is to go into careers that are, in their mind, purely merit-based—and that’s medicine and engineering.
These others career paths—which might rely more on soft skills or where performance is judged in a perhaps more impressionistic way—were, to them, a dangerous place for Asian Americans. They believed that Asian Americans would have a much harder time excelling in those arenas. They knew very few people who went off the beaten path and still managed to excel.
I am now a parent, and, while I haven’t evolved into my parents’ way of thinking, I am more sensitive now to the concerns that you have as a parent, that you don’t want your kids to take what you believe to be an unnecessary risk. I am an only child, and my parents didn’t want to see me struggle.
DKM: On the flip side of that, do you feel that, as a young Asian American lawyer at the time, you ever faced any type of discrimination that your parents feared? And, as a follow up to that question, do you think the landscape for young Asian American lawyers today is any different from the one that you faced?
RTC: Those are great questions. I would think that the climate for young Asian Pacific American lawyers has been getting better and better, and I think that is because of the raw number and percentages of Asian Americans in legal careers increasing over the past 20 years. An Asian American lawyer is not nearly the anomaly it was in the 1980’s.
What helps is the greater overall public sense of confidence or acceptance that this is not just a profession for Caucasians and that there has been an increasing amount of diversity in this profession. Now, this is being reflected more and more on the federal bench as well.
In terms of whether I myself experienced a sense of discrimination, I don’t think I ever overtly experienced any discrimination. But what I will say is that I felt that there was an invisible pressure in the sense that I never wanted to fail at any project or any new job that I had because I suspected—maybe I was just being paranoid—that, if I faltered, that it would give some people doubt. I didn’t want to give others the thought that managing 30 lawyers at the Patent Office was something that Asian Americans weren’t cut out for. I wanted to make sure nobody even had the chance to let that thought creep into his or her mind.
DKM: One final question: we have a lot of younger readers at Asian Fortune who are vying to try a different career path—some going into the arts and even some going into the legal field like yourself. What one piece of advice would you have for those following in your footsteps off the beaten track?
RTC: Wow! There are so many things to suggest. But, I would say that maybe there’s this broader theme of networking and being resourceful. If you’re interested in a particular endeavor, there are organizations that you can join that can put you in the heart of it. For example, if you care about immigration reform, there are a lot of APA organizations that you can join so you can participate in that effort. And, through that, you can build a network and, that’s essentially what I mean by being resourceful: you can learn more and more about the issues that matter to you by meeting those types of people. I could keep going on-and-on, but, I think, if you’re young or even not-so-young, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities and don’t be afraid to take on new challenges.