New York University’s Diane Yu – A Lifetime of Learning
While many attorneys spend their careers climbing the ladder at one firm or company, Diane Yu has spent the past two decades as a born leader. Currently chief of staff and deputy to the president of New York University (NYU), Yu has been a White House Fellow, the COO (Managing Counsel) of Monsanto Company’s worldwide law department, and general counsel of the State Bar of California—where she was not only the first woman and first person of color to hold the position, but also the youngest.
Along with her professional duties, Yu has felt an obligation to involve herself in committees and organizations striving to promote diversity in the bench and bar. She is the first woman of color to chair the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession, a position to which she was just appointed by ABA President A.P. Carlton.
Yu, who will be teaching a freshman honors seminar on leadership this fall at NYU, hasn’t looked for a job in over 15 years.
“I’ve been so fortunate,” she said. “I’ve been recruited for all those positions.”
Yu credits her parents, both immigrant doctors from China, for instilling core values and a good work ethic. “I owe my success to good genes and long hours.”
Yu’s path to success began during a sojourn in Taiwan teaching English as a second language. Unsure of her next step, she wrote five of her professors at Oberlin College for their suggestions. Four recommended the practice of law, which led her to law school at U.C. Berkeley and later, private practice in California.
As a White House Fellow (a position that provides American citizens from various professions the chance to see government operate firsthand) from 1986-87, Yu was installed as the special assistant to the U.S. Trade Representative, and participated in trade negotiations with many nations and in many places around the world.
“The White House Fellows program is fabulous,” she said. “It opens doors, gives you confidence and access, exposes you to important issues and terrific people, and enhances your ability to move in a lot of different circles.”
When she was appointed to the position of general counsel of the State Bar of California, Yu was honored, but also felt some added responsibility about being the first woman as well as first person of color to hold the post. “I had a sense that other women and minorities would be measured by my performance, so I did the very best I could.”
Her most memorable experience in this position, which required her to represent the state’s 160,000 lawyers, was arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. It involved a lawyer who protested being disciplined for false or misleading advertising. She convinced the court to dismiss his petition for certiorari.
“It was an unforgettable event in my life,” she said.
With experience in many areas of law, Yu believes that for the past several years, government has been the most receptive and attentive sector to issues of diversity. Academia and the corporate world are working to get to that level, she said, while private practice is still lagging.
“For example, there still are very few women or minorities who are managing partners at large, private law firms,” Yu notes. “Unfortunately, it remains difficult in many fields for people of color to fulfill their potential and attain positions of influence,” she said. “But it’s worth the effort. Three things have proven very helpful in that respect: Seeking out great mentors, being open to opportunities, and engaging in continuous learning.”
Yu is a true leader.
Tom Calarco is a freelance writer from Schenectady, N.Y. His book The Outpost to Freedom, a History of the Underground Railroad in Upstate New York, is set for publication in 2003.
From the November 2002 issue of Diversity & The Bar®