Senior women lawyers across Asia describe their journeys to success and share words of wisdom for aspiring juniors in the profession. Vandana Chatlani reports

W

omen in the legal profession and beyond are often asked about work-life balance, family matters and inequalities when exploring their paths to success. While these are crucial factors in the quest for true equality, we sought to create profiles beyond these parameters, viewing women as leaders, mentors and multidimensional individuals with rich life experiences. The objective was to understand what has inspired and shaped these lawyers, rather than focusing solely on what is intrinsic to their womanhood.

The result is colourful and controversial. The stories include a lawyer who was drawn to the profession after watching an American law school drama from the 1980s, another who handled an M&A negotiation where the all-male counterparty refused a handshake because she was female, and another who worked for a manipulative boss and was the first woman to negotiate her salary at her company.

The observations of these women discuss concrete policies that have helped destabilise unequal practices, offer advice to fledgling lawyers, and reflect on role models and mentors within and outside of the profession. They also share life advice and notes on the books, podcasts and films that have made an impression on them.

Unsurprisingly, there is a return to the problems of balancing career and home, preserving individual identity, and challenging cultural norms. The lawyers call for greater flexibility in working hours to minimise attrition. “This would reduce the pressure on female lawyers, at least in the first few years of motherhood, and help facilitate their transition to a full-time schedule,” says Hoang Nguyen Ha Quyen, a co-founder of and managing partner at LNT & Partners in Ho Chi Minh City. “It would also improve productivity and performance at work.”

Santhi Latha, dean of Rajah & Tann Asia Academy in Kuala Lumpur, shares a similar view. “It would be empowering to legal professionals, mothers and fathers, if there was an entrenched system of flexible work arrangements for those who need it,” she says. “This would allow a parent to negotiate their terms of engagement and not be limited to the ‘all or nothing’ perspectives that currently dominate.”

It is perhaps difficult to accept that these conversations are still necessary and relevant. The 2022 World Bank Women, Business and the Law Report, which examines the laws and regulations that affect women’s participation in the economy across 190 countries, highlights why.

The report assesses eight parameters: mobility, the workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets, and pension. It reveals that 178 countries still have laws that prevent women from participating fully in the economy. It also showed that only 31 out of 190 countries met all five parenthood criteria to obtain a score of 100. Part of the parenthood criteria includes paid leave for fathers. Countries in Asia that do not legally require such pay include Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

In most parts of Asia, women who work are still often expected to juggle the lion’s share, if not the entirety of responsibility for domestic, childcare and other familial duties. This is where legal, governmental and organisational restructuring could be valuable.

Only half of the countries surveyed in the World Bank report required equal pay for equal work. In Asia, the countries that do not mandate equal pay include Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan and Singapore. The Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam do have such laws in place.

Such statistics force critics to argue that little has changed beyond the surface-level pretence, rhetoric and tokenism around equality. Many organisations pride themselves on their inclusive policies, but when poor behaviour is not called out, and treatment is unfair and unequal in practice, then even the best policies become meaningless. Institutional change is fundamental to ensuring a level playing field for all professionals but this requires consistent top-down messaging, management engagement and introspection.

Rika Nakajima, associate general counsel and representative corporate executive officer at Oracle Japan, observes why diversity should be taken seriously. “I notice that in the boardroom, I can provide a perspective that others may not even consider,” she says. “They can pass racist and sexist remarks unconsciously, and I can pull them up on that. Diversity may lead to a clash of opinions, but we need that to ensure we have no blind spots. Minority voices should have the audacity to speak.”

Nakajima also believes in the power of good character and its impact on organisational culture. “You are put under a microscope the more senior you get,” she says. “We need to be bold about being kind, respectful and compassionate. At Oracle I feel safe about just being who I am, and that I can be vulnerable at times. My hope is that we continue to foster that environment where people feel safe and supported as they strive for excellence.”

This article profiles lawyers from China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore and Vietnam. They have worked in academia, as general counsel, in litigation, arbitration, and in senior corporate roles.

These profiles offer a glimpse of the realities for women lawyers in Asia. There is no way to paint their experiences, even in one jurisdiction, with a single brushstroke in a region so diverse, complex and divided by language, economics, politics, history, religion, geography, tradition and sociocultural codes.

These personal stories underscore the need for organisational, structural and cultural reform towards gender parity. The fact that these women occupy some of the highest positions in the legal world is perhaps evidence of progress. But nuanced stories of women being undermined, underestimated, underpaid and undervalued suggest there is still some way to go. Nevertheless, these accounts celebrate the joy these women hold for the law while showcasing their tenacity, professional excellence and vibrant personalities.


[ JAPAN – RIKA NAKAJIMA ]Women-in-their-voices

EMBRACE YOUR IMPERFECTIONS

RIKA NAKAJIMA is the associate general counsel and representative corporate executive officer at computer technology corporation Oracle Japan in Tokyo, the latter title one rarely held by women in the country. She has had more than 20 years of experience, having worked at prominent law firms and companies across Japan and the US including EY, Baker McKenzie, Macquarie Group, Shearman & Sterling and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Nakajima was keen to study in the US, but her father insisted he would only allow her to go if she became a lawyer or doctor. So she chose law. “I think I made the right decision, as I have always had a love for learning languages, and being a good lawyer requires strong language, analytical and communication skills.”

Nakajima’s current role at Oracle is a prestigious one, but one that resulted from a turbulent journey. She tragically lost her husband when her sons were very young, and found herself unemployed for nine months amid her grief. Although she eventually found a legal job, Nakajima felt stuck and unfulfilled by it, but as a single mother she stayed put to support her family.

Nakajima remained tenacious. She dug deep, got her hands dirty and discovered what she was best wired to do. She also collaborated with colleagues to hone her legal skills. “Lawyers, in my opinion, were quite collegial and helpful to each other,” says Nakajima. “Especially when you’re young, your peers can polish you in unexpected ways.”

There is merit in choosing the harder and more challenging jobs, says Nakajima. “You might hate the hard work, but if you feel you’re growing, it will be a real gift. You will be a better version of yourself and gain skills that no one can take from you.”

She cautions against keeping a job that doesn’t “tingle your heart” in some way. “I have seen people stay at jobs that they don’t like for reasons including salary, brand name and simple fear of taking risks. That kind of risk-averse attitude is bad for the individual and society. You need to go find your talent and let it shine for the whole world to see.”

Now in the prime of her career, where her credibility is assumed, Nakajima has noticed the significance of people skills. “My bosses, Dorian Daley, Oracle’s global general counsel, and Michael Wilde, general counsel covering Oracle Japan and Asia-Pacific, taught me that good character comes before any legal knowledge or experience that I may bring to a job.”

Nakajima is keen to set the tone from the top, fostering a culture of respect and compassion, promoting diversity and equality, and encouraging lawyers to embrace their imperfections. She recognises that many women fall into the trap of feeling “not good enough”, and understands how this is exacerbated by cultural norms.

“As a Japanese woman, societal pressure to be ‘perfect’ is even more pronounced than in other parts of the world,” she says. “I am much more forgiving about my imperfections now, thanks to my partner, who has reminded me that striving to be perfect only makes you unhappy and inhibits you from taking on challenges in life.”

Wider structural shifts are similarly important to challenge entrenched gender views. Nakajima points to the fact that male workers in Japan are entitled to paid paternity leave for up to a year after a child’s birth. However, less than 20% of them take such leave. From October, companies in Japan will be legally required to instruct their male workers to take this leave.

“This is an example of a policy that is effective,” she says, “as it sends a message to society that the roles of raising children should be equally shared between partners, and that men should also be proactively engaged in raising children.”

To actively promote equality in the profession, Nakajima recommends that junior lawyers take the initiative to form supportive communities. “Don’t worry about whether you are good enough,” she says. “Just think of something that you can start, say a weekly lunch gathering of like-minded people – and put that in action. You may not do everything perfectly, but your action will gain traction and people will come and help you.”

RIKA NAKAJIMA

[ INDIA – MAMTA SUNDARA ]women in their voices

INTERVENTIONS AND SUPPORT SYSTEMS

MAMTA SUNDARA is general counsel of beverage alcohol company Diageo India. She leads the legal, brand protection and corporate security agenda for the company. She also holds responsibility for the real estate portfolio of the company. Sundara has more than 17 years of experience in the field of law, having worked in corporate counsel roles as well as in private practice across a diverse range of industries and geographies including India, Southeast Asia and the UK.

Prior to joining Diageo, Sundara worked at British Telecom for four years in the global services division in Singapore. Between 2000 and 2004, she was a partner at Law School Tutorials, the first education platform aimed at helping students prepare for national law school entrance exams in India.

“My teachers always told me that I was good at winning arguments and hence I should pursue law as a profession,” says Sundara. “In reality, the decision wasn’t driven by any deep self-awareness as much as by the fact that the law college was conveniently located, and I got admission.” She says that her natural problem-solving skills and “ability to see the other person’s point of view in almost any situation” meant she walked into a profession that suited her well.

Sundara’s family has influenced and mentored her in important ways. “My parents role-modelled ambition balanced with hard work and integrity, and my sister encouraged me to pursue all my goals with courage,” she says. She is also grateful for managers who believed in her when she doubted herself, and credits her detractors for motivating her to learn and grow. “I owe my success to the unflinching support and encouragement of my ecosystem and take every opportunity to pay this forward to as many people as I can.”

Concrete actions and policies aimed at promoting gender equality do not have to be specific to the in-house community to create lasting change, says Sundara. She has seen women in-house benefit from universal interventions such as leadership commitments, target-driven gender representation, friendly policies such as enhanced parental leave and flexible working, proactive and planned career progression and sponsorship, and sensitivity training.

“Particularly useful to me have been maternity leave for adoption, flexible working hours, and mentorship from more senior women colleagues particularly at challenging times in my career such as returning from maternity leave,” she says.

Although this was a challenging time, Sundara says it was an equally rewarding point in her career. Diageo promoted her to a senior role, a move that she says exemplifies the company’s commitment to equity, inclusion and diversity. The role forced Sundara to use curiosity and courage, ask questions and grapple with complexities to understand the business better and develop more effective and holistic solutions. “The desire to constantly learn leads to openness in embracing new opportunities and portfolios,” she says. “Our ability to accept every experience, learn from it and move forward, is the most valuable skill we can develop.”

To aspiring women lawyers, Sundara says, “trust in yourself”. She advises junior members of the profession to be courageous when making life choices, and to ask for support to ensure those choices are successful. “Learn to filter out judgment, but accept honest feedback from people with positive intent,” she adds.

For those wanting to be better allies for equality, action is vital, says Sundara. “Be more vocal about your allyship as it is a source of support and inspiration, and challenge others when you see words or conduct that detract from gender equality.”

Sundara hopes more measures can be adopted to increase opportunities for women throughout the legal ecosystem in India, particularly in the judiciary, where “women are severely under-represented”. Policy and target-driven campaigns are also crucial at the law firm level. “While there are many women in law firms at the junior and mid-levels, there is an immediate need for interventions to enhance representation at senior levels,” she says.


[ CHINA – YANG LING ]Women in their voices

ACADEMIA MEETS PRACTICE

YANG LING is deputy secretary general of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC) and chief representative of its Shanghai Office. Prior to joining the HKIAC, Yang was an associate professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law, where she taught international arbitration for more than eight years.

During her tenure there, Yang focused on exciting research, sharpened her legal analytical skills and published academic articles and monographs. In 2017, she was a visiting scholar at Boston University School of Law. Yang has also been appointed as an arbitrator. She obtained a PhD in 2009 and an LLM in International Law in 2006 from Wuhan University.

“Looking back at the past decade, it was not that I intentionally chose law or international arbitration, but rather that everything was meant to happen under the guidance of interest,” says Yang.

She says her greatest mentor is Song Lianbin, the supervisor of her LLM and PhD degrees in Wuhan University, where Song is a professor of law. “In addition to academic guidance, he also established a model as an independent person with the capacity of critical thinking, from which I have benefited throughout my life.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former associate justice of the US Supreme Court, stands tall among Yang’s role models because she “fought tirelessly for gender equality and influenced the younger generation to be independent and powerful individuals”.

“Equality was not the centre of discussion in the traditional Chinese context, and the rights of female lawyers were not given much attention in the past,” notes Yang. “However, in recent decades, the rise of ‘she power’ and the proposal of several initiatives have led to some positive steps.”

Yang points to ArbitralWomen as an example, which was established in 1993 to bring together women in dispute resolution. More recently, in 2016, the Equal Representation in Arbitration Pledge was launched to improve the profile and representation of women in international arbitration. And in 2018, the HKIAC launched an initiative called Women in Arbitration (WIA), which aims to promote female practitioners in international arbitration and seeks the appointment of female arbitrators. “Public awareness of equality issues needs to be raised, and concrete actions need to be taken to make equality a reality,” says Yang.

In the field of arbitration, Yang is inspired by professor Philip Yang, honourable chairman of the HKIAC. “There were very few Chinese faces in the field of international arbitration, which signifies the lack of diversity in another dimension,” she says. “Yet professor Yang became a highly respected and influential arbitrator through his diligence and persistence. He has also contributed immense personal time to guiding and nurturing aspiring arbitrators in China and beyond.”

Having studied in a civil law environment, Yang relished the chance to gain experience using the common law framework at the HKIAC. “I was inspired by the best practices of international arbitration from a completely new perspective,” she says. “The HKIAC opened me to first-hand cases and cutting-edge information in a global sense, and has helped me to learn, teach and practice in a more innovative way.”

Professional associations play a very important role in changing the legal ecosystem and fostering greater diversity, says Yang. Arbitration institutions can also take on this responsibility. The WIA recently launched the WE GROW mentorship and coaching programme to help junior female practitioners develop their careers under the guidance of a senior member. “Such initiatives have also established a community that will allow senior female professionals to share experiences and information, ultimately contributing to a more equal legal ecosystem in China,” says Yang.

Yang advises junior Chinese lawyers who want to pursue a career in international arbitration to gain direct experience in jurisdictions where the best international arbitration practice is conducted. Making proactive efforts to collect information and communicate with international peers and colleagues will also go a long way, she says. She also encourages self-belief: “Don’t underestimate your own capacities and always be confident when faced with challenges.”

Women in their words

[ HONG KONG – DENISE JONG ]Women in their voices

HARD WORK, EMPATHY AND RESPECT

DENISE JONG is co-chair of the global corporate group and has been a partner of Reed Smith Richard Butler in Hong Kong since 1998. Jong has assisted startups, worked on private equity (PE) investments, negotiated and executed both public company takeovers and private company M&A, and led more than 50 successful IPOs on the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong. She also advises clients on corporate governance and compliance, regulatory investigations, corporate restructurings and privatisations.

Jong is one of nine equity partners out of almost 70 lawyers in Hong Kong. Four of the nine equity holders are women and, until 2022, women held the majority of the equity partnership in Hong Kong.

For Jong, the inspiration to become a lawyer came from Paper Chase, an American TV series that aired in the mid-1980s. The series follows a law student from a rural area who enters the intensely competitive environment of a prestigious law school specifically to study with the character named Professor Charles W Kingsfield, the world’s leading authority on contract law.

“Kingsfield inspires both awe and fear in his students in his unremitting determination to prepare them for the practice of law,” says Jong. “It was the prospect of the intellectual demands and competition that attracted me.”

Jong witnessed first-hand the importance of hard work through the example set by her grandmother, who lived to the age of 104. “She slaved and worked to bring up five children alone, started a business, in fact two – a sewing school and a provision shop – and was determined to provide the best for her family.”

Jong’s father, a passionate architect, also made an impression on her with his lesson on giving back. “He taught me that contributing to one’s profession was a legacy worth leaving,” says Jong. Perhaps this is why, despite her many achievements, Jong cites the opportunity to groom future lawyers and see one of her first trainees become an equity partner as one of the most rewarding parts of her career.

Of course, no success story is without its hurdles. Jong says managing a business during covid was challenging, and stresses the importance of “empathy and a laser focus on the mental wellbeing of all our colleagues”.

This wellbeing and satisfaction is intricately tied to opportunity. “Equality is about equality of opportunity,” says Jong. “The rest is up to the individual. I think people should remember that equality is not determined by whether promotions result in an equal proportion of men, women or races. The right question is whether they all received the same opportunity.”

While women are well represented at the senior level at Reed Smith, this is not necessarily the case throughout Hong Kong’s legal system. Jong is keen to see more engagement from men when discussing opportunities for women in leadership positions, “rather than just an echo chamber, or primarily women”.

Jong also emphasises the need for healthy collaboration in the profession. Lawyers must “be supportive of each other to create an environment of equal opportunity”, she concludes. This includes a zero tolerance approach to disrespectful language and conduct. “Work should not be a place where gossip includes inappropriate comments or behaviour.”


[VIETNAM – HOANG NGUYEN HA QUYEN ]Women in their voices

HOLD YOUR GROUND

HOANG NGUYEN HA QUYEN is a co-founder and managing partner at LNT & Partners in Ho Chi Minh City. Hoang leads the firm’s corporate practice group, advising on corporate and commercial compliance, M&A, contract drafting and negotiation, investment, labour and IP. She is a Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution accredited mediator and actively participates in arbitration and dispute settlement.

She is also one of the few life insurance law experts in Vietnam who comprehensively understand international insurance regulations and their applicability under Vietnamese law. Prior to co-founding LNT & Partners, Hoang was chief counsel and head of public relations for a US insurance company, where she was a member of the executive board and involved in strategic decisions for the company.

“There was a time when I thought that I was unlucky to be born a girl in a small village in Vietnam,” says Hoang. “I decided that I would make those who thought lowly of women regret their outdated views. I thought that no one would dare to look down on a woman who was a lawyer.” With this motivation, Hoang completed her LLB degree at 20, two years younger than her classmates. After graduating, she undertook training courses in Vietnam, Sweden and Egypt and, in 2007, she studied for her LLM in the UK.

Hoang may have changed attitudes in her village, but she was still faced with discrimination in practice. “I once represented my client in an M&A negotiation where the other side – all men – showed zero respect for women. They came from a country with a notorious gender inequality record and refused to shake hands because I am a woman.”

Hoang says the negotiation was extremely difficult because the other party had no intention of pursuing a dialogue or discussion. They simply disagreed with Hoang’s conditions without explaining their reasons for doing so.

“In that situation, I knew that the negotiation would fail, and my client would not achieve their goals if I expressed any anger,” says Hoang. “I chose the opposite, explicitly letting them know that I was experienced and fully understood how negotiations worked. I asked that they negotiate with respect. Gradually they realised that I couldn’t be bullied into accepting unfavourable terms, and negotiated with a more collaborative attitude.”

Hoang’s outlook has been shaped by her father, who is “optimistic, selfless and a non-stop learner”. She was also influenced by a mentor at the software development company where she worked after graduating, while waiting for a suitable vacancy at a law firm. “The biggest lesson he taught me is that when presented with a problem, you must first do your best with all available means to solve it before asking others for help,” says Hoang. “This mindset really pushed me to develop my problem-solving skills and to be creative in all circumstances.”

One of Hoang’s most rewarding moments came at the end of a five-day, 15-hour per day negotiation, when the counter-party came over and thanked Hoang for being professional, calm and gentle yet resolute. “It was one of the key factors that facilitated the success of the transaction. They came to me and said that the deal wouldn’t have gone through had someone else been the lawyer.”

Hoang’s success is an example for striving young women lawyers in Vietnam. However, statistics show that although female students generally outnumber male students at law schools in the country, fewer women end up in practice.

“It is unfortunate that many female lawyers feel they have to choose between having a successful legal career and building a happy family, or that they have to give up one for the other,” says Hoang. She is convinced that women lawyers can enjoy the best of both worlds if they keep an open mindset and have a good support system.

She also encourages junior women lawyers to hone their time-management skills. “Good time management has allowed me to make room for my family despite a busy work schedule. You can set aside a regular time to eat together or plan ahead for the weekend with your family without work-life conflict.”

As for young men in the profession, Hoang says: “Support your female colleagues wholeheartedly. They will be one of your greatest allies, too.”


[ SOUTH KOREA – EILEEN KIM ]

BUILDING BRIDGES AND LEARNING RESILIENCE

EILEEN KIM is head of legal and vice president at South Korean battery manufacturer Kokam. When studying for her Juris doctor degree in Washington, Kim was a broadcaster for Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded non-profit news service that produced radio shows and news programmes for audiences in Asia.

While pursuing her LLM in tax law at Georgetown University Law Centre, Kim worked at Skadden’s litigation practice. From there she took on in-house roles – first as lead litigation counsel at LG Display, and then as senior legal counsel dealing with crisis management and compliance at 3M. She was then appointed as head of ethics and compliance at Philip Morris International before eventually joining Kokam.

Kim was drawn to lawyering following a conflict between students and teachers at her high school. After heated discussions and arguments between the parties, Kim stood up to explain the students’ position, leading the teachers to better understand their anger and concern. “That experience showed me that I could use my skills to represent others, help to bridge gaps, and be appreciated.”

Kim counts professors Kim Eunmee and Cho Kisuk, of Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul, as her role models. “To me, both women never got too comfortable with where they were or how accomplished they were already,” she says. “They continued to take risks, expand their knowledge and make a positive impact on others. One worked for the president of Korea and the other ran an election to become the president of the university. They both had to step outside their own comfort zones. I admire them for their courage more than anything else, because I know personally that it wasn’t always easy, nor did things just happen naturally.”

While Kim has successfully climbed through the ranks over the years, her rise to seniority has been rocky and required steadfast commitment and tenacity. “The challenges I experienced ranged from not having confidence in myself to do something with my law degree, to being promoted when someone didn’t agree I deserved it. I also dealt with a manipulative boss and was characterised as ‘too aggressive’ during a salary negotiation at a time when no woman had ever done that in that particular organisation. I had to suffer from that stigma in a very male-dominant organisation.”

Kim recalls that each case felt challenging when she was in the moment, but they all taught her resilience. “There are so many challenges in career and life, but they don’t necessarily break you,” she says. “The greatest lesson I learned is to have other elements in your life apart from work so that one particular career problem is a relatively small fraction and thus does not feel too heavy. Then, it is easier to get up and go again.”

Now in a position of leadership, Kim hopes that she can make a wider impact in the legal profession. “More than 50% of law students are women, but the percentage of women at the top and in management positions in law firms is still very low,” she says. She hopes to see more gender-balanced representation within law firm partnerships in South Korea, and believes that express requests for diversity and inclusion from global companies could help propel these changes.

Education is vital to making such transformation meaningful. “As an in-house counsel, I would like to see Korean law firms show more passionate and active efforts to develop women’s talent for key positions, not because it is asked for, or to check a box, but because it helps them to serve their clients better.”

Kim encourages junior women lawyers to stay the course and work their way to the top where they can become influential decision-makers. “Until you, too, become leaders, it is important to work with the existing order,” advises Kim. “It is quite difficult at times and requires a fine balance between respecting what’s been done already and aiming for more.”


[ SINGAPORE – MARINA CHIN ]Women in their voices

AMBITION AND PERSEVERANCE – PRIORITISE YOUR CAREER

MARINA CHIN is a founding partner of Tan Kok Quan Partnership (TKQP) in Singapore. She is also the joint managing partner and co-head of the firm’s dispute resolution practice. Prior to founding TKQP, Chin worked with Lee & Lee, where she was elected to the partnership.

For more than 30 years, Chin has advised companies on disputes and general business matters across a broad spectrum of sectors in Asia. She is a member of the Specialist Mediator Panel (Singapore), the Singapore International Mediation Centre, and the Appeal Advisory Panel of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

In January, Chin was elevated to senior counsel for her expertise in advocacy, legal knowledge and professional standing. She takes on both domestic and cross-border matters in the Singapore courts and also handles arbitration proceedings.

Chin says her path to law was “circumstantial rather than inspirational”. She knew little about reading law but always enjoyed a good debate. “It was serendipitous that not being able to afford to study politics and philosophy overseas found me applying for a place in law school,” she says. “My eyes were then opened to a discipline that I am probably better suited to.”

As with many other lawyers, Chin sees Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a role model, but also holds former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright in high esteem. “Two incredible ladies who rocketed through glass ceilings against all odds – the faint-hearted would have given up,” says Chin. “Quotable quotes attributed to these formidable females on the subject of gender inequality say it like no other.”

Chin names her paternal grandfather as a mentor in her life for being “brave and uncompromising when it came to doing what was right, and humble to the very end of his 99 years”.

Chin’s appointment as a senior counsel is an achievement beyond what she had dreamed of and would not have been possible, she says, without the support of colleagues who have become her friends. She hopes that her success will inspire her peers and younger women lawyers to persevere and prioritise their careers.

She supports women who choose to leave the profession of their own volition, but laments departures that are forced by external circumstances. As a mother of three, Chin understands the balancing act required to sustain ambition and family life, and notes that women tend to leave the profession as they begin to advance because of responsibilities at home.

“It was challenging in my younger days to be treated seriously as a litigator by clients, as it was often assumed that men would do a better job,” says Chin. “However, never underestimate the ability to rise above a challenge and prove narrow-minded naysayers wrong. If you want a career and you choose not to be defined solely by your roles as wife and mother, you can make it happen.”

Chin encourages junior women lawyers to continue the conversation on equality, focusing “not just on what should be done to help break glass ceilings, but also what should be done to get off the sticky floor”.

Law firms and legal institutions must do their part and offer flexibility to keep women in the profession for the long term, says Chin. They must also “educate and bring about awareness that ‘insular boys’ clubs’ reflect poorly on their members and organisation, and that diversity is a win for all.”



[ INDONESIA – MIRIAM ANDRETA ]Women in their voices

A CULTURE OF INCLUSIVITY

MIRIAM ANDRETA is a partner at Walalangi & Partners in Jakarta. She has more than 15 years of experience advising foreign and domestic lenders on high-profile syndication financings to Indonesian companies. Andreta has also represented local and international companies on various antitrust issues relating to their businesses, and assisted with the merger notification process.

Japanese companies flock to Andreta for her expertise. She counts Mitsubishi, Tokyo Gas, Cool Japan Fund and other entities across the telecommunications, banking, logistics, manufacturing and pharmaceutical sectors among her clients.

Pursuing a career in law was an appealing proposition, says Andreta, because of the “analytical and intellectual challenges” it offered, and “the opportunities to help clients structure their business plans to achieve their commercial goals”.

Walalangi & Partners consists of 21 men and 26 women between the ages of 23 and 56, from varying religious, race and ethnic backgrounds. The firm is led by four partners, two men and two women, and operates a meritocratic system without discrimination.

Andreta believes the firm is one of Indonesia’s most diverse and balanced. She describes it as “a miniature of Indonesia”, diverse, accepting, open-minded and respectful of everyone.

Luky Walalangi, the firm’s managing partner and one of Andreta’s mentors, pioneers this philosophy of equal opportunity through an open partnership system where lawyers can be admitted regardless of their gender and heritage if they possess the right capabilities and experience.

“We believe that a more diverse workforce will reinforce our inclusive culture and make us an even better firm,” says Andreta. “We know that improving the gender balance will lead to better decisions, stronger innovation and higher employee satisfaction.”

Andreta has worked under Luky Walalangi’s wing since the start of her career in 2005. “Not only did he teach me everything I needed to know to be a skilled lawyer, but also the good values that I needed to uphold as a professional, and in daily life. I’m still learning many things from him today.”

Andreta also looks up to her mother, who she describes as “a strong, smart and passionate woman, always eager to learn new things”. She values the example she set in maintaining a successful career while performing her role as a mother “tremendously well”.

Client satisfaction is the ultimate reward for a lawyer, says Andreta. Often the route to this result involves dealing with unreasonable counterparts, which can be frustrating and time-consuming. However, she says these exchanges provide an ideal opportunity to finesse her negotiation skills and techniques.

To aspiring young women lawyers, Andreta says: “Just focus on the work, try to deliver your best, and ignore the ‘noise’.” She hopes that Indonesia’s legal ecosystem will evolve further to provide women and other minorities with opportunities to be key decision-makers and policymakers.

in her words

[ PAKISTAN – NUDRAT PIRACHA ]Women in their voices

BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE

NUDRAT PIRACHA is a senior partner at Samdani & Qureshi, and CEO of the International Centre for Appropriate Dispute Resolution and Prevention in Islamabad. She is the first lawyer from Pakistan to become a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, UK, and the first woman in Pakistan to have qualified as a scientiae juridicae doctor.

In a career spanning 17 years, Piracha has worked as a counsel in arbitrations before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), the ICC International Court of Arbitration, the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, the Dubai International Financial Centre-London Court of International Arbitration, and ad-hoc tribunals.

“I was inspired by my mother, who was not very educated herself but wished for her daughters to be high achievers,” says Piracha. “From a very young age she used to call me Quid-e-Azam, who was the founder of Pakistan and a lawyer by profession.”

Piracha has a long list of mentors, but her greatest was barrister Farrukh Karim Qureshi, an “extremely competent and thorough gentleman of great integrity”, who helped her develop legal acumen, gain confidence, and stay true to herself.

Piracha believes mentorship programmes can be instrumental to achieving gender equality in the legal profession. In the context of Pakistan, she also advocates the granting of scholarships on a quota basis to bolster opportunities for women, and supports legislative requirements that mandate the inclusion of a certain number of women on company boards and in executive roles.

In addition, Piracha says, initiatives such as Women in Law, which connects female legal professionals and their male allies around the world, can make a difference by recognising and celebrating the achievements of women lawyers.

In the arbitration regime, Piracha lauds international organisations that have pushed for diversity pledges resulting in an increase in diverse appointments by arbitration centres.

She says diversity in Pakistan’s classrooms is proportionate, but the problem arises after education is complete, as many girls do not get permission to practise in the country. “I am working with the courts to introduce alternative dispute resolution as part of the system and improve the quality of the court experience so that it will not only increase access to justice but also give families comfort that it is a decent environment in which their daughters may work.”

Piracha is also collaborating with the Washington Women’s Bar Association to start an incubator project where young girls and boys will get exposure to high-end work, which is either not available in Pakistan or is not shared with others based on gender and age discrimination.

Piracha is determined to achieve her ambitions and looks to a number of role models for motivation and inspiration. Apart from Qureshi, Piracha admires judge Charles Brower, “a legend in the field of arbitration and international law”, for his competence, humility and desire to further the aspirations of others. She also has great respect for Martina Polasek, deputy secretary-general at the ICSID, who is “wise, competent and always willing to help other women in the profession”.

Piracha’s determination and conviction have contributed immensely to her success. “The most challenging part of my career has been gaining respect and acceptability in a male-dominated field,” she says. “I have learned that hard work and perseverance will conquer the day.”

Piracha calls on young women lawyers to take the reins and seize the day. “As Gandhi said: ‘be the change that you want to see.’ Be the change in your limited capacity, in your circle of influence, and it will have a ripple effect. In the history of nations, all that changed hundreds of years of tyranny is a few like-minded people coming together and persevering. To change things, someone must rough it out … someone has to do it. Why can’t that someone be you?

“You may find yourself unappreciated, unnoticed and struggling for acceptance. Take all the negativity you receive and channel it into positive action. Never stop growing. If I can make it, so can you.”


[ MALAYSIA – SANTHI LATHA ]Women in their voices

EVERY VOICE COUNTS

SANTHI LATHA is the dean of Rajah & Tann Asia Academy in Kuala Lumpur. Latha’s work involves designing insightful educational and training systems, and creating structures and content that focus on specific knowledge and expertise as well as varied skills, competencies and mindsets.

She is also the president of the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) in Malaysia. She began her career as a law teacher and later joined the Malaysian Bar Council to set up its national continuing professional development structures before her appointment at Rajah & Tann.

“I wanted to be a journalist or writer and was told that having a law degree would enable me to evaluate the veracity of what I would write, that it would teach me to think and write better,” says Latha. “But once I started my law degree, I fell in love with the law and what the proper application of laws would mean to society and governance.”

The early years of Latha’s career were spent in academia. “I had the opportunity to nurture young minds, full of aspiration and hope, and provide guidance on their path to become lawyers,” she says. “This includes individuals who faced financial, familial and other challenges, but who today stand among the well-respected in the legal profession and other industries in Malaysia. This makes me proud of them.”

Social impact has been at the heart of Latha’s work. After more than 20 years of campaigning to put an end to any form of harassment and sexual harassment in the legal workplace, the Malaysian Bar introduced the Peer Support Network (PSN) in December 2021. Its objective is to provide survivors of harassment and sexual harassment with guidance in the form of trained case handlers who would journey with them to find a resolution to their experience.

“I was privileged to be involved in the conceptualisation of the PSN, and worked with others to design the training curriculum and conduct training for case handlers,” says Latha. “This decision by the Malaysian Bar sets the platform to continue working towards zero tolerance.”

In 2020 and 2021, Latha also worked with the Kuala Lumpur Bar Committee to draft the documentation that would form the fundamentals of creating an environment free of harassment and sexual harassment in the legal workplace. “These same policies have since been adopted by the Johor Bar Committee and by the Sabah Law Society as well,” she notes.

Latha’s career has not been without its struggles. She recalls times when “the loudest voices were the smallest minds”, and the challenges of dealing with things said and done behind her back. “I believe it is Eleanor Roosevelt who said, ‘great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people’. I learned that it is not necessary to respond to such individuals and that my work would speak for itself. I work not to please others but to satisfy my expectations of myself, which are quite high.”

Latha gained confidence and determination by learning from the examples set by her role models. She admires Rajen Devaraj, CEO of the Bar Council Secretariat in Malaysia, for being “steadfast in his commitment to the betterment of the legal profession”, and “working quietly behind the scenes to bring to fruition the policies stipulated by the Bar Council”.

Latha is also grateful for Meera Samanther, the former president of the AWL, who empowered her to speak for the vulnerable in their community and support those working to improve the Malaysian Bar and society in general. “She taught me that my voice is powerful and worthy,” says Latha.

Within her family, Latha greatly respects her maternal grandmother, who came from very humble beginnings. “Her devotion to family, her resilience in times of trouble – and there were many – and her courage in the face of adversity continue to influence my perspectives when facing challenges.”

Latha reminds aspiring women lawyers that their voices and conduct can bring about meaningful change. “Whether it is standing up to a bully in school, or a corrupt leader, whether you do this in public or in private, every single thing you do matters. Use that voice and take that action that could make a difference.”