Though NAPABA is the only national APA bar association, NAPABA was not the first. In 1980, a bar was formed by APA attorneys attending a national minority attorney conference in Washington, D.C. However, the APA attorney population lacked the critical mass nationally to support the organization and it failed.

In the late 1980's, as a result of the proliferation of state and local APA bars throughout the country, the concept of a national APA bar association was revitalized. In 1987, the goal of a national APA bar association was adopted by the Asian Pacific Bar of California (APBC) under its then-president, Brian Sun - who later became a NAPABA president. One of the major steps toward realizing this goal occurred when Bob Kwan of Washington, D.C., Harry Yee of Massachusetts, Nick Chen of New York City, and others met with the APBC Board at the California Bar Convention in September 1987. Thereafter, letters were sent and phone calls were made to determine the interest of APA bar associations throughout the country. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

In May, 1988, approximately 30 APA attorneys attended a national conference of minority bar leaders sponsored by the American Bar Association's ("ABA") Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Legal Profession. This core group of APA attorneys previously agreed to discuss formation of a national APA bar during the conference. By the end of the conference, the agreement to form a national APA bar association was announced. The consensus of those in attendance was that an organizational conference would be held in Chicago. To facilitate the planning, the group appointed John Chang (Delaware Valley), Harry Gee, Jr. (Houston), Young Kim (Chicago), Peggy Lum (Seattle), Hoyt Zia (California), and Robert Zung (Washington, D.C.) as members of an Organizational Committee. Among the various organizations represented were the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association, the Asian Pacific Bar of California, the Asian Bar Association of Sacramento, the Vietnamese American Bar Association, the Filipino Bar of Northern California, and the Asian Pacific Lawyers Association of New Jersey.

NAPABA's Bylaws were drafted during the summer of 1988 and in November of 1989, the officers and Board of Governors were installed by Judge Thomas Tang of the Ninth Circuit at the first annual convention of NAPABA in San Francisco, California.

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