Our collection of top 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, 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 any 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 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 intellectual property and technology, media and telecoms 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, sees 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 achieving a work-life balance with children and family.
Still, 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 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 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.
[ 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 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 5am, 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 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.”
[ Indonesia ]
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. Behind every successful woman stands a great family.”
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. It may also be because female lawyers are more patient, diligent, resilient and thorough, all qualities required in corporate and commercial, and banking and finance work.
“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.”
[ India ]
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.”
[ Japan ]
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 under 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.”
[ Bangladesh ]
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 & Associates, in Dhaka, where she is primarily involved in providing legal services regarding IP, technology transfer, media and communications, and alternative 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.”
[ India ]
Giddy highs, dark lows
Rebecca Mammen John, Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India in New 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.”
[ Hong Kong ]
The talent pipeline
Lorna Chen, Asia Regional 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 20 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.”
[ South Korea ]
The battle within
Cho Minah, Head of Legal and Compliance at Alcon Korea in Seoul
Times have changed since Cho Minah began her career. Back then, gender parity was a pipe dream in South Korea and the battle lines were drawn long and wide in corporate culture. Today, though, Cho observes that the lines have changed and now the real battle for women is the struggle within.
“There are no more overt challenges in terms of gender and seniority,” she says. “However, I see challenges that arise internally in very capable female professionals, and not only restricted to the legal department.
“I see many women confine themselves. So many capable women have a tendency to be too perfect. They reflect on themselves too often and always try to identify faults in themselves. However, male leaders seem to be more self-assured at work, and more forward-looking. Male leaders seem to exude more confidence, but it does not mean that they are more competent than female leaders.”
Conversely, complacency is another challenge. “Often I have encountered female professionals who just complacently settle in their comfort zone by saying to themselves, ‘I am not perfect’, ‘the role is too big for me’, ‘I have to focus on my family’, or ‘I am happy with what I have’.
“My advice to female professionals is that you can do whatever you want. No one is perfect, and you don’t need to be perfect. Just take up the challenges, because only the sky is the limit.”
Cho has fought the good fight for women in law when South Korea was a more closed and traditionally conservative place.
“When I started my career 20 years ago, it was very different from now. Korean society was marked by its male dominance and stress on seniority. I still remember when I joined a meeting to negotiate a collective labour agreement with important stakeholders. It was a key meeting with labour union representatives. However, the human resources director thinly veiled his dissatisfaction with my presence in this meeting, since I was considered too young despite my position.
“My participation was guaranteed thanks to the fact that my employer was a multinational company. It would have played out quite differently if I had been working at a local Korean company. By trying to understand the business, looking at the big picture, and finding out the best solution for the company, I overcame the hurdles of prejudice with a strong sense of mission and purpose.”
It is this strength that has ensured her success. Cho has built a legal portfolio as a corporate counsel and compliance lawyer in multinational companies for more than 20 years. She leads the Korean legal department of Alcon Korea, an American-Swiss medical company specialising in eye care products.
Cho’s career began in 1999 at Coca-Cola Korea Bottling Company, where she became a legal manager. She also spent 11 years at GE Healthcare, a subsidiary of American multinational General Electric, where she headed the compliance department.
Cho’s speciality is in the sales and marketing of medical devices, pharma and consumer products. She has been actively involved in the policymaking processes with the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korea Fair Trade Commission as a representative of the Korean Research-based Pharmaceutical Industry Association, and the Korea Medical Devices Industry Association.
[ Singapore ]
Through three lenses
Gladys Chun, General Counsel of Lazada Group in Singapore
On observing attitudes towards women in the legal industry, Gladys Chun sees changes from three different but interconnected lenses – women in tech (which is her overall industry view), women in law (the professional industry view), and women in Asia (the cultural view).
“For the first perspective, a recent global phenomenon like the #MeToo movement has provided the courage and platform for women to speak up,” she says. “This is a positive trend representing a major breakthrough, and a necessary step to closing the divide for the next generation.
“For the second, the legal industry itself has generally been slow to adapt to disruption, as well as diversity changes, remaining male-dominated for many years. However, this landscape is changing as we see more women assume leadership roles in the past decade, and becoming role models for younger female lawyers seeking to break the glass ceiling.
“The last lens might be the most challenging for many of us who were brought up in a culture that stereotyped the woman as the primary caregiver at home – whether as a daughter, wife or mother. Should she prioritise her career at the expense of caring for her family, she is often viewed negatively. However, with the advancement of technology, which allows for more flexible work arrangements, this mindset is also shifting. At the same time, technology can also facilitate options and solutions that help both men and women share their family workload.”
Being the leader of a new breed of lawyers at one of the region’s leading e-commerce platforms puts Chun at the forefront of navigating new and increasingly complex laws governing the technology space, something that might not have existed, or have been necessary, a few years ago. She leads the legal and compliance department, providing the management team and relevant business units with strategic guidance in commercial and risk management.
“My high points occur when as a team, we achieve something we thought was impossible or insurmountable,” she says. “They include the closing of Alibaba’s first US$1 billion acquisition of Lazada, which was the largest deal outside of China back in 2016; the building of an award-winning team; and being one of the pioneer teams in Southeast Asia to leverage technology to scale legal services.
“I am tasked to deal not only with the business but also with uncertainties in a legal environment that is challenged by technological advancements that some may perceive as disruptive. Nurturing young talent and the next generation of lawyers to navigate a more complex legal environment has also been a rewarding part of my role as general counsel at Lazada.
“I have faced many challenges to reach where I am today, but they have provided me with valuable life lessons and made me stronger and more resilient, as a person and a professional. I know exactly what I want, and I am someone who, once I’ve set my sight on a goal, will not lose sight of it until it is achieved.”
“Working from home is now the new normal, and it introduces its own set of challenges in terms of managing a large team remotely. I share an inspirational quote with my team every morning, encourage them to understand one another’s perspectives, adapt together and establish a strong support network to build resilience. Each team member may have his or her own set of issues, such as juggling work with toddlers at home, or caring for elderly family members.
So, it is important to ensure that we all support one another, from making a conscious effort to not schedule conference calls during meal times, to maintaining regular and open communications channels such as virtual team-building sessions.”
[ Malaysia ]
You’re not superwoman
Charmayne Ong, Head of the Intellectual Property and Technology, Media and Telecoms Practices at Skrine in Kuala Lumpur
For Charmayne Ong, there are two large roadblocks for professional women to navigate in their careers. The first is a challenge to the self, via ever increasing pressures to succeed combined with expectations of still managing traditional burdens. The second is external – overcoming biases and stereotypes that can at times seem a hopeless cause.
“If I were to identify challenges to women in the workplace, one would be the pressures faced by women who juggle work and home,” says Ong. “I may be generalising, but with the increasing numbers of women in the workplace, our socio-economic mores and norms still play a strong role in creating even more expectations on a woman’s role as wife, mother, caretaker, educator, as well as professional. The category of ‘superwoman’ does not spell to me something that is always positive. Instead, it signifies the creation of added pressures on women to perform and sometimes to outdo each other in being the best at every aspect of work, home and hearth.
“The other challenge would be the ingrained perceptions or stereotypes ascribed to women in male-dominated industries or client organisations. Women who are vocal and speak their minds are considered aggressive and hard to deal with, thereby creating invisible and often unnecessary obstacles for women trying hard to do their jobs. Further, there is still a comfort level of dealing with ‘man-to-man’. I trust these mindsets are no longer so prevalent and, as for the latter, the same could be said of a ‘woman-to-woman’ comfort level. Gender inequality these days can and does cut both ways.”
Ong began her career as an associate at Skrine, following her call to the Malaysian Bar in 1987. She was admitted as a partner in 1996. As a leading figure of legal advisory in IP and technology, media, and telecoms (TMT), her expertise includes managing the registration of, and general advisory and drafting work relating to the classic forms of, IP rights. She also regularly deals with regulators and advises TMT providers on complex and novel regulatory compliance and licensing matters.
“Although many people contributed and supported the TMT unit that I started, I do consider it my baby, and when it grew to what it is today, it was a proud moment,” she says. “Most of it took a team effort, and the TMT unit lawyers have been such great support with their strong abilities and loyalty. The members are tight-knit and work seamlessly in supporting each other. What is even more gratifying is to see that they are good friends outside of work, too.”
Ong believes it would be too idealistic to think that gender discrimination could be fully eradicated. “However, I would like to believe that something could be done about it to keep the effects of gender discrimination at bay. For me, there is nothing like going back to the basics, doing a piece of work well, and understanding the client’s needs, and how the industry works. We cannot control or force a change in others, especially with discrimination and bias, but hopefully, when the results show and the client begins to trust you, that is when you have prevailed. Take personal satisfaction in a job well done and do not compare yourself with others all the time.”
Ong has some gems of advice to administer for young women looking to follow a career in law. “For young lawyers, do not think to specialise when you first start,” she says. “I would encourage that your practice should be as a general practitioner, covering all aspects of the law. It will give you a solid grounding when you then decide that you may like to specialise.
“For those with family pressures, allocating ‘me time’ and understanding that we all cannot be superwomen all the time is a good start. When situations come across as discriminatory, take a step back and consider if it really is due to gender, or some other bias. Ask for support – it is always there in some form or another.
“Don’t let gender or any bias affect you to the point where it colours your professional life or, even worse, leave the profession. If you can learn how to manage such challenges, you have not allowed it to taint your career path. You may even have developed certain skills to deal with difficult situations that will stand you in good stead throughout your professional life.”
[ Indonesia ]
The second chance
Kezia Pembayun, Legal Director of L’Oreal Indonesia in Jakarta
As a corporate and commercial lawyer, Kezia Pembayun’s experience spans local law firms to multinational companies. Before leading the legal department at L’Oreal Indonesia in 2015, she was a general counsel of EY in Indonesia. She had also taken roles in various legal functions at British American Tobacco in its Vietnam, Sydney and Jakarta offices, from 2002 to 2014. She was an associate at boutique firm Ignatius Andy Law Offices from 2006-2008, specialising in litigation, corporate matters and competition law.
“I am very fortunate that in my 18 years of experience, both in-house and in a law firm, I have not personally experienced or seen any evidence that indicates discrimination towards female lawyers,” says Pembayun. “Corporate lawyers move up the ladder because of their merit or performance, not because of gender, partly because most of the career scheme is based on performance. Having said that, I agree that men may dominate some legal positions or specific roles, but I see this not because of the nature of that particular job that only men can do, but because most of the women would choose to take legal specialities in a different direction – so I think it is all down to the preferences.
“If I were to speak on challenges as a female lawyer, I would say that women are wearing many hats. There is an expectation that we must excel in every hat that we are wearing, be it as a wife, mother, employee, boss and professional lawyer. This challenge was for years being brushed off. The old saying was, ‘you cannot be a good wife or mother and have a career at the same time’. However, this perception has gradually disappeared. Many landmark deals or transactions were done with the help of sound legal advice provided by female lawyers, who are also great in their role as wife and mother.
“This pause moment is vital to energise us, give us strength to be agile, persevere, and continue to do what we love to do in our professional and personal lives. Procrastination is the enemy of our success. Any challenges that we face as women can be managed by us being a woman. Women are proven to be agile, able to work in many different situations. Some say that we are the queens of multi-tasking, and balancing between using our head and our heart. If we illustrate this similarity in legal concepts, it balances the ‘certainty of law’ and ‘fairness principle’.
“The pandemic does pose a very challenging situation in many ways and aspects. I have to admit that the persistent challenges could be quite overwhelming at the beginning of the pandemic, especially as a lawyer. I have to be alert to the constant changes due to the pandemic, and fully grasp how those changes may impact the business. Working from home does not mean working less. It was, in fact, the opposite. However, in the organisation I am employed in, a flexible working arrangement has been applicable long before the pandemic.
“The key element to enable us to balance our work, professional expectations and personal life, particularly during this pandemic, is by fully understanding priorities, and whether they add value to our quality of personal and professional life. Discipline on managing those priorities includes the priority to pause, rest and do something to take our mind off things. In my case, my meditative moments are when I do yoga, jog in the morning or bake bread at the weekend.”
[ 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 Camille 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.”
[ South Korea ]
Byun Ok Sook, Partner at Shin & Kim in Seoul
Byun Ok Sook’s experiences of 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 staying 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.”
[ 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, Weixin, 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 the 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.”
[ Thailand ]
View from the top
Tiziana Sucharitkul, Co-Managing Partner and Director of the Dispute Resolution and Litigation Group at Tilleke & Gibbins in Bangkok
“Attitudes towards women in the legal industry certainly have changed for the better in the past 10 years, and I think that is a continuation of a much longer drive for improvement,” says Tiziana Sucharitkul. “Many of the changes in the past decade are the result of momentum that started a lot earlier, especially in relation to the level of opportunities available to women in the legal industry. I have been pleased to see more women join the management of law firms worldwide, and the improvement in gender balance that began in the 1980s to 1990s has started to mature in the 2000s and 2010s.
“Of course, some barriers still exist, most notably the assumption that a woman cannot successfully raise a family and run a law firm, which is nonsense, but these are fading with each new example set by a more egalitarian leadership.”
Sucharitkul is one of Asia’s most respected voices on women in leadership in the legal profession, and a regular speaker at global events on diversity and equality in professional services, so her observations are encouraging, if still cautionary.
“Although women remain somewhat underrepresented at the senior management level in many firms, it is no longer surprising to see senior or managing partner roles held by women,” she says. “That trend should continue to develop. At the newly qualified level, we see more women entering the profession than ever before, to the point where women are often in the majority in law school. By the time the latest cohort reaches partnership level, I expect the balance will be much more even.
“A positive change in attitudes and working culture comes with that, but curiously, it is the little things that seem to persist even when much larger barriers have been broken down. For example, I still witness senior women partners referred to as ‘lady lawyers’ or equivalent terms by well meaning and progressive older practitioners who simply have not updated their vocabulary. I think that is the next big change.
“The glass ceiling has been cracking for some time now, but even when it shatters, there will be a cultural change that takes a little longer. And it is notable also that change in some jurisdictions will inevitably take longer than in others.”
In 2021, Sucharitkul began a two-year term as a member of the law firm management committee of the International Bar Association. She has also served as chair of the board of Lex Mundi, a leading global network of independent law firms, of which Tilleke & Gibbins is a member, from 2018 to 2019. Currently, she sits on the board of Lex Mundi’s Pro Bono Foundation, and is actively involved with its Women’s Initiative Network to Success.
“I have been heavily involved in Lex Mundi for most of my career, and the opportunity to take up a leadership position on a global scale is something that I am extremely thankful for,” she says. “That said, the greatest satisfaction in my career continues to come from my role as one of two co-managing partners of Tilleke & Gibbins. Since being appointed to this position in 2006, I have been able to work with our team to grow the firm from two offices to seven offices in six countries, while continually improving our client services and cementing our place as a market leader in Southeast Asia. That’s not an individual point – more the result of a sustained career-long effort – but it’s undoubtedly the career achievement that I’m most proud of.
“Being a co-managing partner has also provided some of my biggest challenges, whether it’s figuring out how to strengthen the firm best internally, or helping guide the firm through global crises such as the covid-19 pandemic. Guiding the firm through those challenges has certainly been a series of high points, and I am sure there will be more of those to come.
“There certainly have been times when I felt I had to put in more work than others – particularly in an international setting, where the number and seniority of women in law can vary dramatically. However, I have been very fortunate to spend most of my career at a firm that values diversity and gives equal opportunities to employees that have the potential to excel. Now, as a co-managing partner of Tilleke & Gibbins, I seek to maintain and strengthen this meritocratic environment that underpins our efforts to create an equal playing field for all firm personnel.”
[ Malaysia ]
Beating the boys’ club
Veronica Selvanayagy, 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.”
[ 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 ]
Rachel Eng, Managing Director of Eng and Co (PwC)
If she observes a glass ceiling, this woman delights in smashing it. With a career history that drips with success, Rachel Eng has reached every pinnacle despite the readily identifiable hurdles that a woman in the legal profession faces.
As a veteran corporate lawyer, Eng has more than 28 years of experience since starting her career with Allen and Gledhill in 1992. She joined WongPartnership in 1995, became managing partner in 2010, and then deputy chairman in 2016, making her the first woman to head one of the big four Singaporean firms.
In 2018, she decided to set up her own firm and joined with global professional services network PwC, where a year later she broke the glass ceiling again through her appointment to its global legal leadership team – the only woman in the nine-member team – helping oversee the network’s 3,600 lawyers across 100 countries. Eng was one of 25 women in Asia recognised by Forbes Asia in its report on Asia’s Power Businesswomen 2020.
Eng is also a director of the Singapore statutory board for the Central Provident Fund Board, and a council member of the Singapore National Employers Federation. She is also a country representative on the Asean Business Advisory Council, and a member of the appeals panel of Abu Dhabi Global Market.
Despite all these achievements, Eng identifies the highest point of her career as being honoured with the “Woman of the Year” award by a local journal, Her World, in 2014. “I was recognised as a female who had contributed to my industry and broken the glass ceiling,” she says.
Eng says she has not faced gender discrimination in her career. “But when I was a young mother raising my children, I found it extremely tough to join my senior partners for evening drinks or dinner with clients,” she says. “This would have been a career-limiting factor in most organisations. I was lucky to have understanding male partners who understood my predicament. We fixed this by agreeing to have honest conversations and let me know about the events I absolutely should join.”
She says attitudes towards women in the legal industry, and society at large, have not changed much in the past decade, “but there are slightly more women in senior leadership positions compared to the past, and they serve as role models and inspiration for younger women in the legal profession.
“Some of the challenges facing women continue to persist. Women remain the primary caregiver when they have a new baby, and thus continue to face the pressure of managing the responsibilities on both the home front and the work front. Single women also contend with the challenges of taking care of aged parents. What I do notice is the changing position of men. They appear more involved in the chores at home and have, in some cases, become more of an equal partner at home with the women.
“Law is a tough profession and may not be for everyone. But if you enjoy it, stay the course and don’t give up. Identify one more mentor as your sounding board.
“If I were a mentor to young women lawyers, the five things I would advise to keep in mind while they are working their way through and upward in the legal profession are: Be good in your work, be curious in learning, be helpful, be reliable, and be humble.”
[ Vietnam ]
Vu Thi Que, Chair at Rajah & Tann LCT Lawyers in Ho Chi Minh City
Vu Thi Que sees one of the high points of her career as being a role model for a young female candidate. “The candidate applied to the firm unsuccessfully three times, but did not give up,” she recalls. “She was finally hired after her fourth attempt. I feel a great deal of fulfilment for having inspired this young woman not to abandon her aspirations and forge a successful career.”
This mother of two did admit to the difficulties of being a mother and managing a firm simultaneously. However, as time goes by, she says that being exposed to more challenges, and entrusted to lead big transaction cases, have forged her resilience.
“If I were a mentor for junior lawyers, I would advise them to be confident,” she says. “Women can achieve the same level of success as men, and can even climb higher with dedication. Confidence is key to getting and keeping clients in the long term. Law is a competitive field where you need to be self-confident and combative to succeed. Self-confidence is a skill that must be learned and cultivated through experience. It is what allows you to shine through and prove your quality and value.
“Secondly, have a clear vision of your goals. My advice is to create short and long-term goals. Evaluate the efficacy of your plans, and adjust accordingly if necessary. My motto is: ‘If you can’t be the best, be unique.’ All the while, make sure to build up a network of contacts who can be instrumental as you develop your career.
“Thirdly, have a willingness to learn and willfully step out of your comfort zone to do so. Never stop discovering yourself or expanding your knowledge. Do not be afraid to ask others when you need help. And last but not least, never give up and maintain a positive attitude. Do not get bogged down in negativity. Make sure to prioritise working smart, rather than working hard. Always maintain your diligence.
Vu started her career at Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City in 2004, then moved to Paris-headquartered firm Gide Loyrette Nouel in 2009, where she was a senior associate. Later she moved to lead the legal and corporate matters for Bayer Vietnam, but only stayed for a year.
In 2011, Vu co-founded Rajah & Tann LCT Lawyers, and her decision to come back to private practice has proven rewarding. She is currently in charge of the firm’s corporate regulatory, mergers and acquisitions, projects and infrastructure, technology and media, and real estate and construction practices.
“I believe that attitudes towards women in the legal industry have changed in the past decade,” she says. “In the majority view of Asian people, the legal industry in Asia is male-oriented, and it is challenging for a woman to earn her place, especially in Vietnam. The long history of the Confucian and feudal system produced a traditional culture and social hierarchy in which women are often expected to be submissive and primarily assume domestic tasks. Clients have also traditionally been more ambivalent about working with the female counsel, especially in dispute resolution. Fortunately nowadays, we see a positive trend where more women are involved in managing positions in law firms.”
“Personally, I did not face much of a challenge regarding the pandemic because Vietnam is recovering relatively quickly. However, the travel restrictions have impacted me. Travel allows a firsthand perspective of the legal issues we deal with as lawyers. Without it, consequential networking events cannot occur. As we were pushed to the wall, we quickly adapted to the digital world, learning to use online communication tools in order to be as close to the clients as possible.
“From my point of view as a mother, I found it a bit challenging that schools in Vietnam were closed for a few months, so I had to homeschool my children. It was difficult at first, but we managed to create a constructive daily routine.
[ Philippines ]
Maria Elizabeth Peralta-Loriega, Founder and Co-Managing Partner at Sarmiento Loriega in Manila
“As a hardcore M&A and tax practitioner for almost three decades, I have not seen a marked change in attitude towards women in the legal industry in the past decade,” says Maria Elizabeth Peralta-Loriega. “The challenge for women in law remains predominantly the same, despite their rising number.”
Witnessing women becoming more aware and vocal about their rights to equal work opportunities is a welcome sight, but Loriega demands something more. She feels that, on the other side, men at work often feel a growing threat of women’s intrusion to the male-only, leader-of-the-house concept in every organisation. Women are welcome to say their piece of opinion or comment, but not in making final decisions that men deem as their birthright.
“Men cannot just let go of that leadership,” she says. “The male-dominated top rung of the organisation finds a woman is only acceptable if she expects to be accepted inside the enclave of leadership, if she is in shape, both in wits and resolve, like men, without regard to her gender. Thus, the challenge remains the same, to be on the top of the male-dominated legal profession, the women in law should rise higher than their gender.
“Don’t let your male colleagues defer to you when you talk because you are a woman. Let them not see you in your gender but your professionalism, brilliance and competence. Master the art of juggling as between the male-dominated legal world and your feminine world as a woman.”
Loriega began her career in 1996 at SyCip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan as an associate, then moved to Puno and Puno, where she served for 16 years and led the taxation practice. Last year, she set up her own practice with a colleague, offering M&A, taxation, energy, project finance, real estate, IP, data privacy, etc.
Having been brought up in a male-dominated household, surrounded by military men, she acknowledges that her background helped her shape the way she is now.
“I am blessed with a certain level of masculinity that allowed me to thrive in a male-dominated profession,” she says. “Thus, I have very little gender-related challenges given my comfort level in dealing and working with both male and female counterparts and clients.”
Loriega is also a lecturer in taxation at Cesar EA Virata School of Business of the University of the Philippines.
“Long before this pandemic, a good number of my major deals were closed without face-to-face meetings, especially the cross-border ones. The challenge now is the exponential number of Zooms, Google Meets and Microsoft Teams that I do in the span of a day. At times, the schedule is gruelling and back-breaking without the usual travel time, lunches out and caffeine breaks in between meetings.
“To cope with my usual hectic weekday schedule, I set aside all my Saturdays as no work, to give me a much-needed break. Other than my back-to-back meetings, I actually enjoy working from home, as my productive hours are getting longer with the three to four hours of daily traffic challenge gone.”