Women lawyers across Asia share their personal stories of success, strategy and struggle for a more inclusive legal profession. Putro Harnowo reports
For a long time, the legal profession has been a subject to criticism for its entrenched “boys’ club” mentality, but recent moves from multinational firms such as Linklaters, Herbert Smith Freehills, and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in electing the first women lawyers in their ranks to lead their global operations is surely a sea change.
The question is, will this progression be the beginning of a broader leap forward within Asia’s complex legal, and cultural, ecosystems? Many studies have found that gender and ethnic diversity is good for business, and decision-making. McKinsey & Company, in a 2020 report titled Diversity wins: How inclusion matters, found that the top quartile of gender-diverse executive teams was 25% more likely to contribute above-average profitability than the least-diverse ones. Companies with more than 30% women executives were more likely to outperform those with fewer women executives, or none at all.
Yet, many reports also note the slow improvement. Women remain underrepresented at the top of leadership. Although the number of women running Fortune 500 companies hit a record of 37 last year, and the number continues to grow, it still only represents 7.4% of the businesses compiled annually by the magazine. In the Asian legal landscape, the gender disparity is no better.
“In Taiwan, women account for 45% of the population with postgraduate degrees,” says Jaclyn Tsai, co-founder of Lee Tsai & Partners in Taipei. “However, there is a difference between men and women in leadership and entrepreneurial positions. Managing partners and founders at law firms are still predominantly male, which is the same in other industries, where women account for just 8% of the CEOs in Taiwan.”
Still, as more women join the industry, Lorraine Lee, general counsel at health and security services firm International SOS in Singapore, believes gender equality is no longer a pipe dream. She started out without a female role model in her company, because there were none, and with male colleagues discouraging her career options. She succeeded, and proved them wrong.
“We are definitely moving in the right direction towards gender parity, and having an equal number of male and female law graduates is a very good start, but it is just the beginning,” she says. “Achieving gender equality requires leadership in all parts of society and industry, from people like ourselves.”
Charmayne Ong, head of the IP and TMT practices at Skrine in Kuala Lumpur, argues there will not be a quick fix for gender disparity, but the progress taking place cannot be ignored.
“In my view, attitudes towards women in the legal industry have evolved significantly, and discrimination, whether gender-related or otherwise, is generally not acceptable, at least in my workplace.”
She also admits that socio-economic mores and norms in Asia still play a substantial role in creating even more expectations on women’s role as “superwomen”.
Rebecca Mammen John, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi, says many women lawyers are significantly recognised for their skills and legal acumen, and have even expanded into hitherto male-only practice domains, but stereotypes and bias remain intact.
“Courts have become accustomed to seeing women excel in the legal field,” she says. “However, sexism and misogyny continue to exist in the way male colleagues treat their female counterparts. Young lawyers are often subjected to comments about their appearance that tend to overshadow their professional abilities and standing.” Older women lawyers who have made a significant contribution to the growth of law are often targeted and labelled as “aggressive”, conveniently forgetting that the space inside courts is adversarial. The advent of powerful, brilliant women in the profession has only highlighted the insecurity of male lawyers.
Naomi Koshi, a partner at Miura & Partners in Tokyo, was bewildered that 50-60% of Japanese women left the workforce after their first child because they could not find a nursery. “Almost always, it would be mothers who quit their jobs, not fathers,” she says.
“Japanese women had to choose between having a job or children. I decided to try to change this situation. I believed we should be able to have both a job and a family, and not be forced to quit our jobs just because we have children.”
That was what drove Koshi to run for mayor of Otsu city, where she eventually improved the childcare system during her two terms of service. Although her policy has started to gain traction across the country, there remains much room for improvement.
Byun Ok Sook, a partner at Shin & Kim in Seoul, sees more female partners working as leaders of their teams, based on their achievements – although they may need to work harder than their male counterparts. In many cases, clients tend to select male lawyers when faced with two genders.
However, this may be set to change with the current generation more open to gender awareness. “They are willing to recognise women’s competence and achievements, and ready to cope with serious and important challenges with their female colleagues, which I think gives hopes for female lawyers in the current and future generations,” says Byun.
The new age
The younger generation of women lawyers might not feel such harsh discrimination towards them in the legal industry. As general stereotyping towards women is mainly influenced by culture, globalisation has helped women to have more of a voice and hold more influential positions in their organisations.
“I see more opportunities and recognition for women’s capabilities and their aspirations,” says Kezia Pembayun, legal director of L’Oréal Indonesia in Jakarta. “It could also be because there are more platforms to voice the equality of opportunities for women compared to decades ago.”
However, she admits that men’s domination in some legal positions, or specific roles, is evident, partly because women choose to take certain legal specialities, for example, a corporate function, as they see a better chance of work-life balance with children and family.
Still, new emerging technology has also opened new opportunities for women lawyers to navigate their career paths into uncharted territory, as tech companies have a characteristic of being flexible and inclusive. Women lawyers more than ever are enjoying being in-dependent and self-determined in both their lives and professional careers. Challenges persist, and the glass ceiling may seem thicker in some places than others, but the cracks are ever-increasing, opening more paths for those embarking on a legal career.
The following mosaic offers the personal stories of women in law across Asia’s jurisdictions, while also drawing on a wealth of shared experiences that join them. On offer are advice, experience and encouragement for the ones who follow.
[ Mainland China ]
Voice of optimism
Vivi Huang, Legal Director of Weixin in Guangzhou, China
When you are working on the cutting edge of innovation, the work culture tends to follow suit, and so Vivi Huang has found during her career heading up legal at leading internet companies. As the general counsel of a national product used by more than 1.2 billion users, in a way her own experience is providing a window into the future, from a professional and a cultural perspective, and her optimism is illuminating.
“From my personal experiences, women in the legal industry can generally obtain comparatively equal opportunities and treatment,” she says. “With the rapid development of society, the attitudes towards women in the legal industry, and society at large, have also changed positively in the past decade. The differences between women and men in the legal industry are becoming less and less. Women are more confident and eager to show their abilities and confidence in their profession.
“I am fortunate that I have never experienced any gender-related challenges in my career. The working environment in internet companies is very fair and flexible – professional and problem-solving abilities determine the business impact within the company, not the gender.
“Some people may think that women in law have to deal with difficulties such as long working hours, demanding clients, work-life balance issues, etc., but I think these problems are for all legal professionals. Women appear to enjoy being independent and self-determined, in both their lives and professional careers, and are willing to take more responsibilities when they know their life goals and how to achieve them.”
Huang joined tech giant Tencent in 2013 as legal director of its Chinese-based social messaging app, Weix- in, better known as WeChat for overseas users. Previously, she was head of litigation in the legal department of another Chinese tech giant, NetEase, since 2005.
“One challenge that I face is that the product can be very innovative, with no specific laws or rules,” she says. “It requires us to understand the product and business well, which can be very technical, and adapt it to the relevant legal requirement correctly and accurately. Nevertheless, this experience has helped me build the ability to understand business deeply, which is the basis to providing constructive and practical legal opinions to my business partners.
“To establish an effective channel to handle complaints, resolve disputes and protect the interests of the stakeholders and users, I led the team to explore solutions to IP protection applicable to a social media platform. I have found it very important to be innovative and creative as a general counsel in an internet company, to suit both business development and risk control needs.
“My advice to women in law, especially for those just starting their careers, is do not set a limit on yourself – both for life and work. Your potential and ability can be unlimited as long as you set a goal and insist on achieving it. It is also essential to be confident, strong and financially independent.”
“The pandemic has had a huge impact on people’s life and work all over the world. Fortunately, mobile working, or telecommuting, is a common way to work in the internet industry. The Chinese government has attributed lots of effort to controlling the pandemic, and the environment appears to be safe and organised. It gives us confidence for the future.
“Also, during the pandemic, to help resume operations and production swiftly, Weixin underwent frequent updates to provide various functions. I led the team to keep pace with the product updates, and helped the company grow quickly, while controlling risks. Particularly with the pandemic, people are relying more on internet products in their daily lives. Weixin moved fast to update many new functions for users, such as live-streaming, medical services, related mini-programmes, etc. My team and I have provided legal and compliance support to all these products.”
[ Hong Kong ]
The talent pipeline
Lorna Chen, Asia Managing Partner and Head of Greater China at Shearman & Sterling
A member of the firm’s executive group, Lorna Chen founded and leads the asset management and investment funds practice in Asia. She has more than 19 years of experience in the investment funds and private equity field, advising clients on structure, restructure and operating alternative investment products and co-investment structures.
Chen worked in the firm’s New York office for eight years before relocating to Hong Kong in 2008. She is a frequent market commentator, through the media and major industry conferences, on investment trends in the region.
“I believe there has been greater awareness and emphasis on developing the female talent pipeline,” she says. “There are more open discussions about the issues faced by female legal professionals, and more male supporters actively participating in such talks, which is essential to making progress. Gender diversity initiatives have become increasingly institutionalised and embedded in corporate culture.
“At Shearman & Sterling, diversity and inclusion are part of our fabric, interwoven in who we are and all we do as a global elite law firm. We established a dedicated global diversity and inclusion taskforce in 2018, of which I am a member. Our women partners or associate mentoring circles provide our women associates with the opportunity to self-select mentoring and engage with women partners and peers in a way that resonates with them.
“From my observations, the positive shift in attitude has contributed to more women pursuing long-term careers in law. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement, as there are still disproportionately fewer female leaders in law firms. We need to study and address the systemic barriers that women continue to face in the workplace and society.
“It has been incredibly fulfilling to have my efforts recognised by clients and my firm, and consistently progress my career to reach a senior management position. But what I have found even more rewarding than my accomplishments is supporting and developing junior female lawyers within the firm, and in the broader legal community. I hope to inspire more of them to aim for the highest levels.
“My advice to junior lawyers is to keep an open mind and learn about different areas. Being flexible and trying out different types of work will help you figure out what you enjoy most because, ultimately, your work has to bring you joy. Successful careers do not always happen by careful design, but by being open to new opportunities. My other tip is that if you are not satisfied with your current situation, take the initiative and ask for changes to move you towards where you want to be. You will never know what is possible until you ask.”
[ Taiwan ]
Succeed by choice
Jaclyn Tsai, Co-Founder of Lee Tsai & Partners in Taipei
From serving as a District Court judge, to general counsel of a multinational, to founding a law firm, to a minister of government, Jaclyn Tsai has reached multiple pinnacles in her career that still fuel her observations for changes needed for true gender equity in Taiwan. For example, she views the growing numbers of women lawyers encouragingly, but is quick to criticise the decided lack of women in positions of leadership.
Tsai points to statistics published by the Ministry of Justice showing the number of women passing the Taiwan Bar Exam has gradually increased in the past few years, from 34.9% in 2015 to close to 40% today. Further, women account for 45% of Taiwan’s population with post-graduate degrees.
“It is likely that the number of female lawyers will soon be equivalent to that of male lawyers,” says Tsai. “However, there is a difference between men and women in leadership and entrepreneurial positions. Managing partners and founders at law firms are still predominantly male, which is the same in other industries, where women account for just 8% of the CEOs in Taiwan.
“My observation is that this phenomenon is due to women still having to choose between work and family life. Many women may feel that being a managing partner or founder of a law firm, where one would have to tackle the burgeoning caseload and spend time building the network, is not conducive to building a family. As such, we see many women opting for in-house counsel positions, where they feel that they can have more of a work-life balance.
“Like many women, I had a point in my career where I was at a crossroads between choosing family and corporate life at a major multinational corporation. Being an executive at a multinational, I spent a significant amount of time travelling around the world, which meant that time with my family was scarce. Given that my children were still young at the time, I decided to give up my pursuit of a higher position to return to Taiwan to start a law firm.”
Tsai founded Lee Tsai & Partners with her partner, Lee Chung-teh, in 1998 after leaving her position as general counsel of IBM Greater China. In 2013, she moved again, this time into politics, and was appointed as Minister without Portfolio of Digital Related Policies. During her term, she was responsible for the reformation of laws relating to virtual world development, e-commerce, the sharing economy, digital convergence, the startup environment, open data, and data governance.
“The highest point in my career was to be appointed the minister without portfolio,” she says. “I was able to take the practical experience and knowledge that I had from being in the legal industry as counsel to a number of high-tech corporations and startups, to lead government policies that made sense to the industry players. While it was one of the most challenging positions I’ve held in my career, it was likewise one of the most rewarding.
“As for the lowest point in my career, I would say having to give up pursuing my career at IBM. With that said, I believe that things work out for the best. Had I not chosen the path to start my law firm, which has also been a very rewarding journey, I wouldn’t have reached that highest point in my career.”
Tsai returned to her law firm in 2016, while continuing to serve as a commissioner of the Smart City Committee and Data Governance Committee of the Taipei city government. She is also currently the chair of the Taiwan Women on Boards Association and Taiwan Fintech Association.
[ Singapore ]
Beacon of wisdom
Lorraine Lee, General Counsel, Assistance Services Worldwide, and Chief Privacy Officer, Asia and Oceania, at International SOS in Singapore
As one of Asia’s prominent GCs, Lorraine Lee doesn’t mince words, so when she reveals the gender-based discrimination she received working while pregnant, you might expect a harsh recollection of the male ignorance on display. And it’s true, the recollections are harsh, but only in the telling. Her observations are more circumspect, displaying a wisdom and an erudition that younger women, and men, in the profession would do well to try to emulate.
“When I became pregnant, senior male colleagues started saying, ‘if you come back after your maternity leave’,” she says. “I was quite taken aback and questioned that. ‘Well, some women don’t come back after their maternity leave,’ they said. So that was the assumption. At least they said it out loud, so I could disprove it. The penny dropped. Not only had I to prove that I am as good as, but I had to prove that beyond a shred of a doubt. Crazy business travel was worn as a badge of honour in the industry, so I wore mine.
“During my pregnancy, I travelled every two weeks for six months on a significant M&A deal that signed at 5am, after pulling an all-nighter. After returning from maternity leave, I travelled five times in eight weeks, armed with my breast pump, ice-box, and wrist in a wrist guard (a common post-partum issue).
“On another deal, I sent an email to my colleagues explaining that I was breastfeeding and would have to take a comfort break every four hours during meetings. Even then, this was met with irritation by the host colleague. ‘Can’t you do this while we have lunch?’ he asked. ‘No, I’m afraid not,’ I said. ‘It’s like going to the toilet. When you have to go, you have to go.’ To be fair, this was not part of my awareness either, before having a baby, but it spoke volumes that I had to explain this to a parent with kids.
“I am glad these men said it out loud. It was hard to hear, but it has made me an advocate of diversity, and a life-long learner of unconscious bias.
“I have come to realise that diversity is layered. It’s impossible to talk about gender issues without layering it with ethnicity, age, disability and acknowledging privilege. I see it as the maturation of our society, to be able to have these hard discussions and continue towards reaching equality, predicted to take 135.6 years in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2021. This requires leadership in all parts of society and industry, from people like ourselves.
“Diversity is not just the right thing to do. It is good for business and decision-making, as different experiences bring different views. As leaders of any gender, our commitment is for future generations, and I am grateful to be able to pay it forward.”
Lee’s perspectives on gender-related challenges expanded when she joined multinational companies as an in-house counsel in male-dominated industries, first serving as a legal manager at Singaporean conglomerate Keppel Corporation, and moving to Hilton Hotels & Resorts as a senior counsel, before landing her current role.
“I had the privilege and challenge of being the first Asian counsel, first counsel outside of the headquarters, and the first to start up a legal team, supporting a fast-growing company in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. I was young, female and Asian – with no Asian, senior female role models.”
A dual Singapore and UK-qualified lawyer, she started her career at Wong Partnership and Rajah & Tann. Despite never experiencing any discrimination for her gender, she observed a certain degree of stereotyping in how associates were assigned to a specialisation.
“Real estate and corporate had more female lawyers assigned, while litigation and shipping had more male lawyers,” she says. “That did not affect me personally, as my choices were aligned, but a female lawyer wanting to do shipping litigation, for example, would have had the biggest hurdle.”
“In the midst of the craziness of lockdown in 2020, I started a non-profit called Live on Purpose, gathered a group of awesome volunteers and invited some terrific folks to a sounding board. A mobile app is being developed to help make giving easier, and alleviating some of the inefficiencies inherent in the ‘giving’ space. Putting my dream into action has fed my soul, and given me purpose.“I am also fortunate to be able to contribute to a purpose-driven organisation that helps other organisations keep their workforce safe and healthy. It feels meaningful, being able to help during the ongoing pandemic, with conversations now turning to workforce resilience and returning to the workplace safely.”
[ Philippines ]
Be bold, be better
Camille Aromas, Head of Legal at Huawei Technologies Philippines in Manila
“I have had my share of sexism and harassment, especially considering that I spent the first few years of my legal practice in litigation,” says Camile Aromas. “There was no other way to address it but to be bold and direct about it and to resort to our firm’s policies to address the incident.
“The legal profession has never been more cutthroat and competitive. It will be difficult to succeed if someone does not set high standards for themselves, and put in the requisite time and effort to meet those standards.”
Aromas tackles issue with her work head on, and believes women nowadays have more collective strength than decades ago. The current positive developments gradually but continually reverse entrenched negative perceptions, including that being female per se has a career-limiting effect.
“Women are more empowered to objectively assess their situation, to identify gaps in treatment, and to actively and effectively participate in agile measures to address these gaps,” she says. “In the Philippines, for example, there is a good balance of women practising law and occupying managerial positions.”
She advises young female lawyers to “keep on moving forward, have grit, and know that you are not inadequate. More importantly, you have got to put in the work. Be kind to your colleagues, kindness is such an underrated trait in the legal profession, but it can go a long way for you.”
Aromas started her career in 2010 as a governance consultant of the Asian Development Bank Institute, the bank’s think tank, then a year later joined Baker McKenzie in Manila as an associate. In 2015, she joined DivinaLaw as a partner in the Manila and Singapore offices, and had a chance to learn arbitration at American firm WilmerHale in London as a trainee. Since 2019, she has been with Huawei Philippines, leading the legal team.
“Use this pandemic as a basis to point to the innate ability to change and to reinvent ourselves, to find and create opportunities for growth.
“I feel fortunate that the transition to working from home was not very difficult for me. I attribute this to the fact that I live alone and close to the office. However, it was not all that seamless. This pandemic has a lot of unknowns, and each day seems to generate a surprise situation or issue that the legal department has to deal with in the confines of our home.
“It is simply difficult to lead remotely. I had to hone my digital skills, change my mindset, and move away from traditional processes to deal with a constantly and abruptly changing environment. I feel that I have become more vigilant, level-headed, innovative, and better at crisis management as a consequence.”
We selected a few representatives from our sister publication, Asia Business Law Journal. For full story, please visit https://law.asia/ladies-justice-women-lawyers/