Soon after starting at law firm Reed Smith, Ernie Ocampo became known as the quiet guy.
He felt comfortable speaking in front of his peers, and he wasn’t shy. But at work, Ocampo acted the way many Filipino children are taught to behave: respect authority and honor your elders.
Yet in the legal world, Ocampo said, “when there’s an office meeting or you’re in a conference call, you are not just supposed to defer to the elders and stay quiet.” He knew he had to change: He had to speak out more and contribute to conversations, even when no one prompted him to do it.
“How would I have ever made partner if I had stayed quiet?” said Ocampo, who graduated from the USC Price School of Public Policy in 2000. He knows that others like him have faced the same cultural struggles in law, and he aims to help them find their place in the field.
Ocampo, who moved to L.A. from the Philippines with his family at age 6, pursued an occupation that is overwhelmingly white. According to the latest federal data, 86% of lawyers are white, and only 5% are Asian. As a member of the Philippine American Bar Association, though, Ocampo is helping build a pipeline to get more Filipino students interested in law school and connected to jobs once they graduate. The work involves going into the community and hosting events where Filipino lawyers talk with potential law students and early-career attorneys.
As more Filipinos join the legal industry, Ocampo is gratified to find more potential role models for law students than ever.
“These days, it’s much easier to find people in our community who hold those positions,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about being the pioneer or being the only person who looks like you in the field. We are trying to show that we are here — there are still too few of us, but we are here.”
He also volunteers with the Los Angeles nonprofit group Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, or SIPA, by providing pro bono legal advice to SIPA itself and participating as a speaker for the group’s entrepreneurship program. He hopes the program shows the community that Filipino lawyers are available to help them succeed.
It is particularly important to highlight the wide range of career options in the legal industry, Ocampo said. Many Filipinos, particularly newer immigrants, tend to associate lawyers with immigration law. That makes sense, given their personal experiences.
“Almost every Filipino around my age, our moms are nurses, and we all came on our moms’ H1 [work] visa,” he said, but a career in law offers choices beyond immigration.
Trojans bring diversity to white-collar industries
Through his participation in the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association, Ocampo has connected with other Filipino Trojans who are diversifying traditionally homogenous industries.
One of those alumni is Corina Irvin, who earned her bachelor’s in business administration from the USC Marshall School of Business in 2004. She is a commercial real estate broker and also Filipina. Only about 5% of all brokers in the U.S. are Asian, compared with 84% who are white, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An even smaller percentage of commercial real estate brokers are women.
Traditionally, being a female broker requires breaking into a male-dominated industry, Irvin said. Business is done during happy hours and golf outings.
“Throughout all of those years, I’ve always felt like an outsider figuring out my own way to navigate the old boys’ club,” she said.
Another reason behind the lack of diversity in the industry, Irvin said, is the perception that being a broker is less stable than other jobs. Many immigrant parents encourage their children to pursue professions like a nurse or doctor. They prefer jobs with good benefits and stable salaries. Brokers work on commission, so some may see it as a riskier profession. But Irvin says it’s perfect for entrepreneurial self-starters. And the lack of a salary means no ceiling in terms of how much she can earn.
USC alum turns a niche into a business opportunity
Irvin spent years in the industry in New York and Los Angeles, working for some of the biggest brokerages in the country. Then she decided to open her own business in October 2019. She saw a shift in the market and noticed how big brokerage firms weren’t focused on serving many minority- and women-owned small and mid-sized businesses. It presented an opportunity.
“My clients deserve proper representation, proper attention,” she said. “I give them that, since they are not getting that at bigger corporations because their space requirement is either too small or the brokers don’t want to spend their time and attention helping them.”
Irvin has also teamed up with the Commercial Real Estate Diversity Coalition — which is made up of various affinity groups like the African American Real Estate Professionals, Filipinos in Institutional Real Estate, the Asian CRE Network and the Real Estate Association of Latinx Professionals — to help develop diverse talent. One of the coalition’s main initiatives is to advance diversity and representation in the industry and to be a resource for access to diverse talent.
“So, when institutional real estate companies say they don’t have access to talent,” she said, “we can tell them to look at our job board.”