Senior women lawyers across Asia share their personal stories of success, strategy, struggle and loss, all towards a more inclusive legal profession. Putro Harnowo reports
The legal profession has long been subject to criticism for an entrenched “boys’ club” mentality, but recent moves from multinational firms such as Linklaters, Freshfields and Herbert Smith Freehills to elect women lawyers to lead their global operations is surely a sea change. The question is, will such progression globally signal the beginning of a broader leap forward within Asia’s complex legal and cultural ecosystems?
Many studies have found that gender and ethnic diversity are good for business and decision-making. McKinsey & Company, in a 2020 report titled “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters” found that the top quarter of gender-diverse executive teams was 25% more likely to contribute above-average profitability than the least-diverse ones. Companies where more than 30% of their executives are women are more likely to outperform those with fewer women executives, or none at all. Many reports also note a slow improvement in the figures towards inclusivity.
Yet 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 that number continues to grow, it still only represents 7.4% of the businesses compiled annually by the magazine. In India’s legal profession the gender disparity is no better.
Rebecca Mammen John, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India, notes that 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.”
Elsewhere in Asia, a similar picture emerges.
“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 despite their efforts.
“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 intellectual property and technology, media and telecoms practices at Skrine in Malaysia, 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”.
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, Japan, 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, Korea, 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 achieving a work-life balance with children and family.
Still, emerging technology has 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 independent 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 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.
Giddy highs, dark lows
Rebecca Mammen John, senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India in the Delhi
Rebecca Mammen John has been practising law since 1988 and has played an essential role in moulding criminal jurisprudence in India since then. She is the first woman to be designated as a senior counsel on the criminal side by the High Court of Delhi, in 2013, and has represented the accused in many landmark cases.
“Criminal law is a high-pressure space, and it is full of highs and lows. No day is like the previous one, and sometimes each day is a mixed bag. Some people are granted relief, and others are not. There can be many low and high points in a single day. You could face personal attacks, judges who will pass perverse orders. You see injustice daily.
“A couple of low points stand out. One was when the trial court convicted my clients Rajesh and Nupur Talwar of murdering their daughter and their domestic helper. I had seen the couple being hounded by bloodthirsty media, and there was so much prejudice against them. Seeing them face a jail term on loose and sketchy evidence was a particularly low moment.
“On another more recent occasion, during the covid-19 lockdown, I had argued a matter before the Delhi High Court, representing a terror suspect, where I was subjected to personal attacks by a senior law officer of the government. I did not let it get to me during the arguments, although I was deeply disappointed with the judgment that followed, as it did not take into account the rights of an accused person guaranteed under our constitution. One is affected on multiple levels, the supreme indifference and callousness of investigating agencies, their vindictiveness when they try to create something out of nothing, the lack of concern and rigour shown by courts, which should be monitoring these agencies, and upholding the rights of citizens. When they let you down, these are all low moments.
“But, like everything in life, there are incredibly gratifying moments too. The conviction of 16 police officers in a case of custodial killings of 43 men decades after the incident was a profoundly humbling and satisfying moment. The families of these men had placed their trust and faith in me when we began this journey for justice, and seeing them receive a verdict that acknowledged their loss and pain was an important moment in my career.
“The recent acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation case filed by journalist, politician and minister MJ Akbar was another significant victory, notably, since it recognised the sexual harassment faced by women at the workplace, and their right to speak up.
“I have largely faced respect from the courts, my juniors, colleagues in the profession. I am deeply gratified by the respect that I have earned, and had given to me, because of my work. That truly overwhelms me.
“When I joined the legal profession, I was one of the few women in the field, and male lawyers would look at me as though I had come from outer space. I didn’t know where to sit, whom to talk to. When I walked into courts, my male colleagues would stare at me, and the judge would look up, evaluating my presence. I felt awkward, unsure, and very lonely.
“However, the office I worked in was gentle, generous and kind. My senior, Dinesh Mathur, the legendary criminal lawyer of the Delhi High Court, did not distinguish between his male and female juniors. Once he realised that I was keen to learn, he taught me everything he knew. He allowed me to argue matters in the High Court, after telling the judges that if they were dismissing the matter, they should record his presence, but they should only record my presence in the case if they were allowing it. Slowly courts got used to me and began recognising the effort I put into matters.
“Today, I think there are still some men who would like to slot me as a woman who does ‘women’s cases’. Sexism takes many forms, including not acknowledging the work that women have done in very hostile environments. My work in criminal law is all-encompassing. I have appeared in terror trials, in complex cases of financial fraud, for the cross-examination of witnesses, and I have argued murder appeals. I champion women’s causes, but perhaps men would only like to acknowledge that work, as they perceive it as ‘soft’ work.
“The challenges I have faced have been overcome through hard work, and my seniors and colleagues’ support over years of practice. I never gave up.”
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 and 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 I had 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 5 am, after pulling an all-nighter. After returning from maternity leave, I travelled five times in eight weeks, armed with my breast pump, icebox, 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.”
Her 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.”
Lee 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 as- signed 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.”
Nurture the young
Preeti Balwani, general counsel of Hindustan Coca-Cola beverages in Mumbai
Some lawyers, like the best of people, glean the greatest contentment not from personal ambitions achieved, but from providing the support for the next generation to soar. Preeti Balwani is such a person. “I derive a deep sense of satisfaction in building teams and leaving behind a legacy of having mentored young lawyers to succeed in their careers,” she says. “I would say that one of my happiest career highs has been to see the success of teammates. One of my former direct reports has gone on to become a young general counsel in her own right, which has given me immense joy.”
Balwani is a commercial lawyer with experience in both in-house and private practice. She has spent more than 10 years working in Indian law firms Singhania & Partners, Khaitan Sud & Partners, and ALMT Legal, providing legal advice to Indian companies on M&A before moving on to companies as a general counsel and executive director.
She is an active member in the legal community, and a member of the International Bar Association and the American Association of Corporate Counsel. Balwani routinely speaks at various forums on gender diversity, women in the boardroom, sexual harassment laws, data privacy and corporate governance.
“I have been fortunate to work at some of the most inclusive law firms and companies that have cared about recruiting and promoting women, and chose to hire young leaders. Having said that, I have faced some gender stereotyping with respect to being a young female law firm partner, and later as an in-house general counsel. I am not sure if our male counterparts face that as much as women do.
“Such evaluations should be based on competence and not extraneous issues like age, gender, etc. The most important tools we have are creating awareness, speaking up against discrimination, supporting others facing similar challenges, and developing a strong talent pipeline at the workplace. The challenges that I have faced taught me a valuable lesson to promote competence and advocate for diversity and inclusion.
“There has been a positive shift in hiring more women in the past decade. However, the gender imbalance persists in the legal industry. According to a survey by Legally India, India’s top law firms have only 30% of women as partners, and the gender ratio at these firms is even lower. Out of 673 judges of the high courts in India, only 73 are women. Out of the 30 judges of the Supreme Court, only two are women, as of March 2021 – and subsequently, one has retired.
“According to BW Legal World, in association with BW Business World magazine, out of the top 100 general counsel in India, only 29 are women. Some of the most persistent challenges remain access to education, lack of pay parity, and gender equality policies. A case in point is the Indian Maternity Benefits Act – now combined in the Indian Code on Social Security, 2020 – which was amended in 2017 to increase paid [maternity] leave to 26 weeks, and for organisations to have creche facilities. While this is a step in the right direction, women still face invisible barriers. The primary responsibility of child-raising is still seen as a predominantly female responsibility.
“I think the pandemic has taught me to be resilient and grateful for what we have. When we all moved to working from home in the early days of the pandemic, we would end up spending hours at our desks on virtual calls, without a sense of balance. As a legal team, we were spending most of our time ensuring business continuity and decoding different pandemic-related restrictions that were being issued by every local district – we have 792 districts in India, to be precise.
“During the year, all of us at the legal team of our organisation pledged to make mental well-being our priority. We would organise virtual social gatherings, send over care packages, and ensure that there was enough time for each of us to look after our families and dependents. I usually divide my day into three parts – an early start and a quick workout, a healthy breakfast, and a list of what I need to get done through the day.
“My advice to young women lawyers – the first one is to believe in yourself. The other one may sound unconventional, but it is to be audacious. The best innovation comes from challenging the status quo. And finally, find a workplace sponsor.”
Casualty of law
Rahayu Ningsih Hoed, senior partner of Makarim & Taira S in Jakarta
It seems that everything has a price, and sometimes that price tag may be just too high. Rahayu Ningsih Hoed’s battles in a male-dominated profession ring familiar to our other women in law in many ways, but for her a bitter twist was both cathartic and tragic.
“There is always a battle for a working female, especially in Asia, between having a thriving career and being a dutiful daughter, successful wife or mother,” she says. “There has been a traditional expectation that women take care of the family and men are breadwinners. Although many women have proven to be as successful as men in the legal profession, we often have to choose between our career and family in times of crisis.
“I have faced such difficult choices before. I once chose to lead a crucial meeting with many parties from different countries instead of being with my husband, who complained of coughing. I had already taken him to the doctor the day before. He died of a heart attack while I was in the meeting. The guilty feeling was paralysing, and I could not function for months.
“Therefore, my advice is that if you are ever faced with having to choose between your career and your family, choose your family first. Our work is indeed rewarding from the self-esteem and financial aspects, but your career will still be there, and you can always resume it elsewhere, while your family could be gone, your children would move out, etc.”
Hoed, or “Yayuk” to her friends, says she does not feel that women in the legal industry are treated differently to men. “Traditionally, it is common for women in Indonesia to assist their family or support their husbands,” she says. “However, it is true that although we have had female judges, prosecutors and litigators for more than 70 years, there are more male lawyers in litigation.
“Most female lawyers work on corporate and commercial, banking and finance matters. Perhaps because they do not like confrontation, they prefer to be in a supporting role, facilitating transactions to go well as planned.
“The change in the past decade has been that working long hours, which is a characteristic of the legal profession, is no longer appealing to younger generations. They want a more balanced life. In the past, the challenge came from parents or husbands who objected to female lawyers for working long hours, arguing that raising children and managing the household should be their priorities, as they are not the primary breadwinners. However, nowadays, even the seemingly ambitious lawyers want to socialise, go clubbing, and not work until late at night.
“Thirty years ago, women lawyers were often teased by the opposite sex we encountered in our line of work. It was not abusive, but included inappropriate compliments or dirty jokes. Perhaps they thought such behaviour would be flattering, or maybe it was done in the spirit of camaraderie, as sexual harassment was not a grievance then. I overcame the challenges by ignoring their remarks and continued working, and if they went too far, I told them to go elsewhere.”
Hoed has been with Makarim & Taira S for more than 30 years, and is the most senior partner at the firm. She has extensive experience in almost every aspect of legal practice due to her background as a journalist and paralegal.
She is widely recognised in corporate and M&A transactions, arbitration, employment, and project financing. She has successfully negotiated land acquisitions for many foreign embassies, power plant developers, resort owners, oil and gas companies, manufacturers, and the mining industry.
“The highest points in my career were when we were able to close transactions that had been ongoing for a few years, sometimes even more than a decade,” Hoed recalls. “I handled infrastructure projects from greenfield, so delays were often inevitable. When the clients’ concessions were extended, or long-term loans repaid and bonds redeemed, I felt a triumph for accomplishing the work well. The lowest points in my career were when losing cases, not because of the lack of a sound and solid defence, but due to extrajudicial measures, which are unfortunately still common in Indonesia.”
“I see the pandemic as a reminder that we need to slow down and prioritise what is important in our life, such as health and family. Our lives as lawyers are often like a roller coaster – there are so many deadlines to meet, and our time is limited. Clients demand that work be completed yesterday, and as female lawyers, we have to juggle between family and professional life.
“Suddenly, due to covid-19, we have had to stay at home. Initially I felt like holidaying, because projects were postponed, but then the pandemic continued to rampage, and I became anxious. I never touch anything without spraying it first with disinfectant, and I never remove my mask whenever another person is in the room. After a few months of telecommuting, however, I found my rhythm. The key is discipline, such as to start working in the morning.”
Naomi Koshi, former mayor of Otsu city and partner at Miura & Partners in Tokyo
Naomi Koshi was only 36 years old when elected mayor of Otsu city, the capital of Shiga prefecture in Japan, making her the youngest and one of the 2% of female mayors in Japan. During her two four-year terms, from 2012-2020, she has advocated for gender equality measures for women to stay in the workforce after having children, including improving access to childcare.
In the long journey from lawyer to public office, this champion for women’s rights in Japan on many occasions had to blaze a trail for others to follow, such has been the slow development of gender equity in the country’s conservative culture.
Koshi began her career in 2002 at Nishimura & Asahi as an associate, then continued her study at Harvard Law School, and was seconded to Debevoise & Plimpton. She is currently back in private practice as a partner at Miura & Partners, advising clients on gender diversity in Japanese corporate governance and startup ecosystems.
“My real lowest point was when I failed the Japanese bar exam three times, before I passed it in 2000,” she recalls. “I graduated from Hokkaido University. Due to the economic recession, it was very difficult for women to find a job, and I had no other choice but to continue trying to pass the bar exam. Male graduates could still find a good job at a big Japanese company relatively easily.
“As a woman, I did not have as many options without passing the bar. It was the first time I noticed the professional inequality between men and women. I was anxious every day, thinking about what I would do if I failed again. Even though this was my lowest point, however, it planted the seed in my mind to work towards equality for women in Japan, and ultimately contributed to my courage and motivation later.”
Another turning point for Koshi occurred after her graduation from Harvard Law School in 2009. “I felt lost about my next career step,” she says. “I had been working in law already for a decade, and I didn’t know if I should continue doing the same work or take the much bigger risk and run for mayor. I felt strongly about improving the situation for women in Japan, but when I sought advice from politicians in Japan, some were discouraging. They told me I was too young, too inexperienced, and could not be a mayor. I doubted myself heavily at that point. But then one of my friends said to me: ‘You are lucky! Most people in the world cannot choose where they will live, or what they will do. You have the freedom to choose.’
“Although this was a scary period, to take such a huge risk and change careers, it became one of the highest points of my life. I had choices, freedom, and discovered the courage to take that risk. I also was fortunate to have supportive friends who helped me find that courage.
In the past decade, Koshi says attitudes towards women in the legal industry have improved, but the changes are too small. In 2008, there were 3,599 female lawyers in Japan, only 14% of the total. In 2018, the number had increased to 7,474 female lawyers, more than double but still only 19% of the field. She says even though the total number of female lawyers has doubled, this ratio had only increased 5%, and still women make up a small minority of lawyers in Japan.
“In my observation, one of the primary barriers for female lawyers is tied to larger societal issues surrounding childcare and the presumptions that fall on women when it comes to raising children,” she says. “Women in Japan are still expected to be the primary caregivers for children and, combined with insufficient childcare services for female workers with children, it creates the largest barrier for women in the workplace. The barrier can be even larger in the legal field, which commonly demands long hours.
“Like women in other industries, female lawyers often struggle to find a nursery to take care of their children. Even if they can find a nursery, they may be unable to pick up their children before the closing hour as they must often work late. Also, in Japan, nannies are quite expensive, even for a lawyer. Therefore, it can be difficult for female lawyers to both practise law and raise children. This was the main reason I ran for mayor – to change working women’s situations in Japan.”
As a fresh-faced elected mayor, Koshi noted that almost all her subordinates were men who were older than her, many in their 50s and in lifetime public service positions. “One day, in a meeting with the employees, I tried to convince them to adopt one of my policies. One of the managers got so mad that he shouted and punched the desk. They sometimes said, not to me directly, but to citizens, that my leadership was ‘too strong’. They said that I made decisions by myself and didn’t listen to others. But did they treat the former mayor the same way? Of course, they did not. The former mayor was a 70-year-old man. The mayor before that was an 80-year-old man. The employees didn’t like to listen to a younger woman.”
When campaigning for her second term, in 2016, things became violent. “I was handing out flyers at a station. A man around 50 years old spoke to me, and began complaining about the pedigree of my high school, and then kicked me. Another man, also around 50, shouted at me: ‘You are bad and too strong. You don’t listen to older people.’ In Japan, there is a lot of resistance to strong women. Many still cling to outdated and unfair inequalities between men and women.”
Regardless of this gender bias, Koshi had goals and promises made, and was determined to achieve them. “I wanted city hall employees to understand my policies, such as improving the childcare system, and why it was so important for female workers and the entire community,” she says. “Gradually, they came to understand my policies as well as my personality. Through many meetings, I also came to understand why some employees and citizens opposed my policies. As we continued to communicate and discuss our respective issues and policy goals, we learned to better understand each other as people, and the situation improved.
“I focused on improving the childcare system and built 54 nurseries for approximately 3,000 children. The number of working mothers with children un- der five years old has increased by 70%, and they can now choose to continue to work.”
Koshi says the additional challenge for female lawyers within law firms, especially large corporate ones, comes from the long hours worked, often late into the night. As a result, female lawyers with children often choose to work as in-house counsel instead.
“After I stepped down as mayor, my next questions were, even if women can continue to work, are women in the same position as men in a company? Do women get the same salary as men? The answer is no. My next goal is to promote more women being on boards and in leadership positions.
“Besides practising law, I have launched my new company, OnBoard KK, to diversify Japanese corporate boards, with my colleague at Miura & Partners, Kaoru Matsuzawa. It will train female board members and candidates, and provide matching services for the candidates and companies seeking female directors.”
Breaking the fear of fear
Wolora Rasna, founder and president, women in IP Bangladesh, based in Dhaka
“Being women makes us different, and we must embrace it. No matter how hard the situation gets, we all must remain dedicated and break the fear of fear. Women face challenges in their daily lives, so we must learn to deal with them – the sooner, the easier,” says Wolora Rasna.
Resiliance and determination seem to sum up the attitude of the above words of Rasna. who specialises in intellectual property (IP) law, and founded the network for women IP professionals in 2018, to promote gender equality and provide a knowledge base for collaboration.
She is the managing partner at a boutique law firm, Wolora Ashfaque & As- sociates, in Dhaka, where she is primarily involved in providing legal services regarding IP, technology transfer, media and communications, and alterna- tive dispute resolution. A regular speaker on IP in seminars and workshops, she is also an accredited mediator of the London-headquartered alternative and online dispute resolution provider, ADR-ODR International.
“I feel attitudes towards women in the legal industry and society at large have not changed much,” she says. “Although the participation of women in the legal industry and other corporate sectors has increased, the number of women dropping their careers at a certain time is still prevalent – and the numbers doing so are not less.
“Persistant challenges are, firstly, opting for studies without being married, especially in Asian countries. Even after marriage, the freedom to do work rests on the decisions of the in-laws. Secondly, working late nights at chambers or even corporate offices due to workload are not seen positively, as it is with men. Thirdly, in litigation and the judiciary, the number of women participating is still less, because of the default male-dominant nature where women who take active roles are not appreciated by society.
“The gender-related challenge is not new in Bangladesh. A male is preferred because there will be no issues of leave for marriage and maternity. A male is also favoured more in terms of dealing and pitching clients, as in a patriarchal society a male character is seen as more comfortable. I have tried to overcome these hurdles by attaining more academic and professional degrees, and developing skills to deliver the solution quickly.
“Becoming a mother is a great decision, and no woman should be afraid of taking this decision at any point in their career. My children are blessings for me, and I have developed my hidden multi-tasking skills after their births, and cherish their presence. No matter what, every individual woman must be financially independent, irrespective of her family, and must continue with her true potential and the spirit of never giving up.”
“During the pandemic, where survival is the key challenge, and being part of this industrialised world, balancing work and life is vital. Hearing the news of deaths of near and dear ones is very devastating. Children staying at home without enough space to play and go to school causes interference, even if you are working from home. Losing clients due to a disrupted schedule of courts and pending cases also comes into play. However, staying focused and fostering teamwork with my other colleagues keeps me motivated to continue further.”
Byun Ok Sook, partner at Shin & Kim in Seoul
Byun Ok Sook’s experiences of her career journey and development in many ways typify the difficulties facing women in law, although her achievements are far from the norm for women in South Korean law.
Byun has extensive experience in healthcare and life sciences, but it is in criminal work that she has excelled, in white-collar and political crime, and investigations of various entities. Before joining Shin & Kim as a partner in 2010, she had served as a public prosecutor at various district public prosecutors’ offices in South Korea for 10 years.
In this highly male-dominated criminal field, Byun outshone her peers. She was the only woman among the 13 best criminal lawyers in 2020, awarded by Hankyung Business in association with the Korea In-house Counsel Association (a partner of Asia Business Law Journal).
“As I felt exhausted and was struggling to find motivation after serving as a prosecutor for eight years, and then serving as a criminal lawyer for 12 years at Shin & Kim, this recognition was a huge encouragement and boost of morale for me,” she says. “It was such a meaningful moment in my legal career.”
The achievement came after many challenges seven years prior, when she returned to work after travelling to the US with her husband, also a lawyer, to support him studying there. “Then, I decided to take leave to spend more time with my family, as we always came home late from long working hours,” says Byun. “It was such a valuable time for me to spend with my family, however, it was really difficult to make a soft landing as a partner after that one-year hiatus.
“I experienced enormous difficulties after returning to the workforce, as I had to find new clients, with no more existing clients. I was in my late 40s, and I was afraid and burdened to start anything new. However, I decided to rekindle my career and study at a graduate school in the evening to replenish my energy. I studied various subjects relating to corporate legal affairs and learned how to overcome difficulties while developing new relationships. I still remember studying and discussing passionately with other students, who were even older than me, at the campus until late at night.”
As a specialised criminal lawyer, Byun is mainly engaged in responding to prosecutorial or police investigations, also traditionally a male-dominated area of law in South Korea. “When I was introduced to clients as the main partner in charge of criminal cases, they often looked confused or concerned about the situation, however, my reliable male colleagues tried their best to convince such clients into trusting me,” she says.
“In an impressive episode years ago, a male legal manager at a client company looked uncomfortable working with me as a not-so-young female lawyer in a trial on an accident at a construction site. He mainly contacted my junior male associate at first. However, after we examined the accident site, spending more than 10 hours together at a sealed site with vinyl coveralls on a scorching summer day, we became close friends and were able to have frank discussions about the case, regardless of our genders.
“In another case, a huge prosecutorial investigation into a famous Korean company, I discussed with a male legal manager for days on how to respond to the summoning of more than 100 company officers and employees, having telephone calls with him around the clock. I built a strong relationship of mutual trust, which secured the company as a loyal client for years.”
Byun says many female lawyers have shown their competence and expertise in various legal areas in the past decade, which has helped change perceptions of female lawyers. “With more female lawyers not just stay- ing as passive members of their teams, but growing as experienced leaders based on their remarkable achievements, both law firms and companies now embrace them as equal members of their organisations,” she says.
But prejudice remains. “Even then, the female lawyer still needs to prove their competence and achievements, and, if their competence is similar to male lawyers’, they are not selected in most cases. Along with difficulties due to having children, there are still prejudices against success-oriented women, often subject to checks.”
Byun says a newer generation brings hope. “Unlike men in past generations, those in the current generation are eager to understand their female colleagues, and willing to recognise women’s competence and achievements. They are ready to cope with serious and important challenges with their female colleagues, which I think gives female lawyers hope in current and future generations. Any improvement can be made if there are changes to not only women’s attitudes, but also their male colleagues’ attitudes, and the entire working climate.”
Beating the boys’ club
Veronica Selvananyagy, general counsel of AIA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur
“There have been times when clients at the first instance appear to prefer the representation of a male lawyer in the discussion,” says Veronica Selvanayagy. “I recall being shocked and disappointed with this when I experienced this first hand. I also vividly recall my boss laughing at my reaction, and assuring me that the client’s perception could be easily handled and changed if I could give them sound legal advice. True enough, that’s all it took.
“In my early years of practice, there were also instances where the familiarity between the judges and lawyers from the ‘boys club’ was evident. I couldn’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed at the banter that would go on before or after the formal submissions at hearings. Justice always prevailed, and I had to keep reminding myself to stay clear and not overthink or get intimidated.”
Looking back, Selvanayagy realises that this attitude has moulded her into who she is today. Prior to joining AIA 24 years ago, she was practising as an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya for seven years, handling both litigation and conveyancing matters. She is now leading a team of experts in overseeing the legal, company secretarial, investigation, corporate governance, corporate security and occupational safety functions for all the company’s entities in the country.
She says the legal industry in Malaysia has seen the growth of successful female lawyers in the past few decades, including an increasing number of women appointed to judicial positions and leading the cause for a myriad of social issues.
“The challenges do still persist as women are sometimes underestimated, especially early in their careers, where there still is a need to prove their worth first,” she says. “Most women are aware of this and continue to persevere, and are able to destroy the perception as soon as they are given the opportunity to present, be heard, be tested or assessed.”
Selvanayagy advises female junior lawyers to remain calm, confident and caring. “Always understand the business, the issue, and put yourself in the client’s position, whether it is an internal or external client,” she says.
“Keep yourself updated on the relevant developments in the business and the law, and strive to do the right thing in the right way. Do your best not to let perceptions cloud your judgement, or affect performance. And either plan your family around your career, or plan your career around your family, whichever works best for you.”
“While there was a lot of anxiety in the beginning surrounding something as basic as how the organisation would survive and thrive, the pandemic forced me to rethink the way I work completely.
The box was gone, and I had no other choice but to think out of the box, be agile and focus on how to serve our customers. Change is never easy and so, as you can imagine, the idea of remote selling, connecting virtually, digital signatures and working remotely was initially met with some resistance. But once we got past that and people began to realise that change was paramount, we were able to overcome all challenges.”