Senior women lawyers across Asia share personal stories of successes, struggles and strategies for a more inclusive legal profession. Daisy Cooper reports

A recent study commissioned by the World Bank titled “Women, Business and the Law 2020” highlighted that in the past 10 years the majority of the world has moved closer to gender equality under the law. The bad news? A key finding of the report said that on average, women have just three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men. Further, in the past two years, no economy in East Asia and the Pacific or Central Asia featured as a top reformer in the report.

The World Bank study analyzes 190 economies and calculates results on a scale of 0 to 100, creating the Women, Business and the Law (WBL) Index. The WBL Index rating for each country and the areas where the country fell short in most will be displayed with each profile in this article.

Importantly, the WBL study measures only formal laws and regulations governing women’s ability to work or own businesses. A country’s norms and practices aren’t captured by the indicators, and each has its own unique and complicated mix of factors that affect opportunities for women in the legal profession.

There are many unfortunate commonalities and universals still hindering the progression of women lawyers in Asia, and around the world. Some key ones are summarized by Priti Suri, founder and managing partner of India’s PSA: “Despite a lot of progress in the law firm world, women are still at a disadvantage with regard to elevation to equity partner, recognition of their role in business development activities, and equality in pay.”

The business community in Asia is still predominately male-driven, and discrimination – including belittling, ignoring, discouraging, and not giving women the same assignments or opportunities as their male counterparts – is common.

“I hear from peers in PRC firms that female attorneys were not always well respected by clients who are from more traditional industry sectors or regions,” says Katherine Wang, a partner at Ropes & Gray in Shanghai. “I think the cause for unequal treatment is deeply rooted in the culture. Asian culture projects women as caregivers, and expects women to spend more time at home, driving the success of their spouses or children, rather than their own.”

Asma Hameed Khan, a partner at Surridge & Beecheno in Lahore, Pakistan, once even considered quitting the profession due to her male counterparts’ attitude towards her. Discouraging younger women early on to deter them is a common theme in many regions.

“Since it’s a male-oriented society, it is always very difficult for a woman to make her own place, especially in the legal profession,” says Khan. “I have faced many obstacles in terms of male dominance. I have been treated as a secretary rather than as a law associate. During the first few years of my practice, I was discouraged by my seniors. They would send me on errands during a cross-examination, and would tell me that I was getting involved in something not meant for women.”

Kim Sae Youn, an attorney and senior member of international arbitration and cross-border litigation practice at Kim & Chang in Seoul, says she faced more discrimination in private practice than as a judge.

“I started my career as a judge, and was not fully hit with gender-related challenges when I was on the bench,” she says. “It was when I joined private practice and directly faced the world that I was fully hit with the challenges. In the early 2000s, at least in Korea, it was difficult for a female lawyer in her thirties to convince the clients that she was as capable as any male lawyer, if not more. Several senior partners in law firms were not very much used to the idea of working with a female lawyer, and these partners assigned me to only small and less important cases.”

Diep Hoang, founding partner at Vietnam’s Dilinh Legal, adds: “The persisting challenges to women, especially Asian women or Vietnamese women in particular, include: Boys are preferred in general so girls are borne with disadvantages; violence at home is still alarmingly prevalent; sexual harassment in the workplace is still an alarming issue; and women must handle multiple roles.

“The most difficult gender-related challenge in my career is managing the role of being a mother and being a partner in a law firm at the same time. I would love to see more women involved in higher positions in society, as these women would be role models and an inspiration for us, and for young girls and women.”

The need for a supportive work environment and flexible workplace policy when raising young children, and also diverse mentorships, were seen as essential in fostering the development of female lawyers.

“The persisting challenge is to translate the deep pool of talented junior attorneys that we have into women leaders,” says Louise Stoupe, partner, head of litigation department, co-chair of commercial litigation and trial practice group at Morrison & Foerster (MOFO) in Tokyo. “To do that we need men and women to identify and develop strong female talent.

“At MoFo we have groups like our women’s strategy committee, which ensures that the retention and development of women lawyers remains a top priority of the firm. Other organizations need to follow this type of example to ensure junior talent turns into senior leadership.”

Stefanie Yuen Thio, joint managing partner at TSMP Law in Singapore, points out that, “COVID-19 has forced almost everyone, all over the world, to work from home. Both parents now have direct and very immediate experience of the mayhem that is bringing up a family. The virus can be a great leveller in the household by forcing couples to divide their responsibilities, and to understand the other person’s struggles.” What implications this may have for office policy post COVID-19 remains to be seen.

Yuen Thio adds that another issue women face is the expectations others have of them. “What’s been the real challenge are the unspoken expectations,” she says. “You have to be every inch a professional, and very much a lady. Stand up to your male counterpart, but don’t lose your femininity. You must be able to carry as many documents as they can, and walk as fast; but you must do it in 3-inch heels and a smart pencil-skirt suit, because that’s how women project professional credibility.”

As more and more women in Asia gain positions of power within the legal industry, they are further disrupting patriarchal structures, introducing fairer policies, becoming role models, and improving prospects for younger women lawyers.

The following personal stories identify some of the nuances that typify women’s experiences in different Asian jurisdictions, highlighting the challenges and experiences that bind them.


The dealmaker

Stefanie Yuen Thio – joint managing partner, head of transactional practice, TSMP Law, Singapore

(WBL Index ranking: 82.5)

Yuen Thio, renowned for her deal making prowess, specialises in M&A and privatisations; equity capital markets; debt capital markets, banking and finance; corporate restructurings and schemes of arrangement; cross-border investments; joint ventures; corporate advisory; employment; regulatory and licensing advice.

An active philanthropist, she is dedicated to charitable causes such as hospices and providing free cleft surgery for needy children. Yuen Thio is also an active and outspoken commentator on topics she is passionate about, and is often quoted and published on a broad range of topics, from female empowerment to dual-class share listings.

“The high points of my career and life have all revolved around how I have been able to leverage my legal experience, the network I have built up over the course of my career, and the platform I have as a senior member of the corporate world, to do some good.

Low points – there are too many to remember. One common thread – I hate letting people down. When I don’t get the result the client deserves, when the authorities rule in a way that I think sacrifices justice for technical consistency, I take it personally. Of course, it’s much worse when I make a mistake and cost the client. That simply guts me. It’s in those moments that I wonder what business I have being a lawyer.

I think the constant focusing on work-life balance as a woman’s issue perpetuates the problem. If we really believe in gender equality, then bringing up a family is both the preserve and the privilege of both parents.

Women: to you, I say, have a child with someone who truly believes that the load should be shared equally. Then equip and empower your partner to do his part. So many women say they want equality but shoo the men away when it’s time to change the diaper or feed the baby. Way to shoot yourself in the foot.

To the men: it’s easy. Walk the talk. Also, walk the baby. But don’t just take on the physical load; it’s the mental stress that is the heaviest part of the burden. Be more involved in anticipating the child’s needs – whether this is the new car seat that he or she is going to need soon, or where they should go to school. Many men say they don’t know what they’re doing. Well, here’s a little secret: women are just as clueless. Having a kid come out of your vagina doesn’t give you a magical trove of knowledge. Find out together.

All this is about to change, however. COVID-19 has forced almost everyone, all over the world, to work from home. Both parents now have direct and very immediate experience of the mayhem that is bringing up a family. The virus can be a great leveller in the household by forcing couples to divide their responsibilities, and to understand the other person’s struggles.

Speaking of COVID-19 and its impact, I always suspected I was too much of a people person to be able to work effectively from home. Now I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I liken my office to a hospital emergency room. From the moment I step in, it’s a constant triage of whose transaction needs the most urgent attention, multiple corporate fires to put out, fielding requests from colleagues whose ‘I just need five minutes of your time’ usually leads to a detailed and complex dissection of a legal problem. I thrive on the adrenaline rush, but optimal performance needs the support of a battalion of colleagues within shouting distance who are also ‘all hands on deck’. Working from home means that the multi-tasking suffers. The same work takes longer to do. There’s less shared energy to get it done.

I’ve never been openly discriminated against. What’s been the real challenge are the unspoken expectations. You have to be every inch a professional, and very much a lady. Stand up to your male counterpart, but don’t lose your femininity. You must be able to carry as many documents as they can, and walk as fast; but you must do it in 3-inch heels and a smart pencil-skirt suit, because that’s how women project professional credibility. To this day, the dress code for the Singapore courts still discriminates against women. It’s basically the male get-up without a tie. So, the women all end up looking like less-polished versions of the men – subordinates. It’s an appalling anachronism and if I were a litigator, it’s the first thing I would lobby to change. Thankfully, my battlefield is the corporate boardroom, where I get to pick my armour.

It was hardest being a new mother. When my son was five months old, I was stuck in a 14-hour negotiation meeting. It was out of the question to take a break to deal with breastfeeding issues, because that just wouldn’t be professional. I’m so glad the business world has moved on since then. TSMP has a breastfeeding room and not one of my colleagues – male or female – would bat an eyelid now if someone needed to take a 30-minute break to get cosy with a breast pump.

Women are speaking up a lot more and it’s no longer unusual to see a woman running a law firm these days. It’s great to hear a broader range of views in the market place. Having more female views represented also means a lot of male leaders have a broader horizon. Some of the strongest supporters of gender equality I’ve met are straight married men whose wives are homemakers, but these men are still big cheerleaders for diversity in the workplace.

Clients’ attitudes have also changed. These days they don’t see a female negotiator as a runner-up. Women lawyers are free to measure up against their male counterparts on their own merits, which is the goal, isn’t it?”


Work hard, dream big

Ira A Eddymurthy – founder, senior partner, SSEK Legal Consultants, Jakarta

(WBL Index ranking: 64.4)

Ira Eddymurthy is one of Indonesia’s most experienced and highly regarded lawyers, with three decades of experience advising multinationals and domestic companies on Indonesia’s complex regulatory environment.

She is a published writer on topics such as capital markets, M&A, and doing business in Indonesia, and a sought-after speaker, including at the 2017 US-Indonesia Women’s CEO Summit in Washington DC, which brought together C-suite women from Indonesia and the US.

“The highest point of my career is establishing SSEK back in 1992, with three other women lawyers, growing the firm over the next 28 years into one of the largest and most highly regarded corporate law firms in Indonesia, and having the opportunity to work with, and even serve as a mentor to, the next generations of Indonesian lawyers. I think that is one of my greatest achievements, both professionally and personally.

The lowest point of my career would have to be the struggle we faced during the economic crisis in 1997 and 1998. At the time, SSEK was still a relatively new firm and we were just starting to grow. It was a difficult time, but we managed to cope with the crisis and survive.

People around the world are facing the same problem with the unprecedented situation brought about by the COVID-19 outbreak. Looking ahead to the next 12 months, we are all going to have to work hard and be prepared to assist clients in responding to the economic slowdown brought about by the pandemic. We need to support each other, have a strong belief that this will be over soon, and continue to monitor the situation, issue legal alerts to clients, organize webinars on topics of importance for clients; do everything we can to help our clients through this situation and maintain those relationships.

I am fortunate that I have never experienced any gender-related challenges in my career. I have seen gender-related challenges in other industries and in politics, but not in lawyering. I would say attitudes towards women and the attitudes of women themselves have changed in the past decade, and they have especially changed since I started my career.

Women lawyers now are more confident, they’re being exposed to more challenges, and being entrusted to lead big transactions. We are also seeing more women working as litigation lawyers compared to the past, when that particular area of the legal profession was dominated by male lawyers.

I would advise women at the beginning their careers in law to never give up on your dreams, work hard, and there is no glass ceiling you need to break through in Indonesia, at least in the legal profession. Women lawyers receive the same treatment as their male counterparts, so there is no reason a woman in Indonesia cannot pursue a career in law and rise to the top of the profession.”


Learn, then go forward

Anna Collyer – partner, head of innovation Allens, Melbourne

(WLB Index 96.9 – lowest indicator score: pay)

Collyer is a leading expert in the energy sector. As head of innovation, she collaborates with clients to address changes brought about by new technology, bringing about new ways to work. In addition, she worked with the University of New South Wales to launch the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation. This will serve as a base for legal researchers to collaborate with other disciplines, government and civil society to address the impact of technology on the legal system.

“Over nearly 30 years, there have been many of both career highs and lows. I’ve learned to take them as part of the bigger picture, certainly take some time to celebrate or commiserate, but then take the learnings and continue moving forward. A particularly challenging time was returning to work after parental leave to find the bottom had dropped out of the market, and having to focus on rebuilding my practice with a two-year-old and a six-month-old at home. A recent highlight has been shifting from a traditional practice leadership role to establish a new innovation team in the firm, to set us up to thrive in a changing future, and being appointed to lead that team.

I have been lucky to have a stay-at-home husband, which has relieved many of the flexible working challenges so many women face. My challenges have been around being softly spoken and at times lacking confidence to bring a different perspective to an issue or a challenge. While not necessarily gender-related, I have seen more women than men experience similar challenges. Reframing the value of a different perspective has literally helped me to find my ‘voice’ and ensure my contribution is able to hit its mark.

With the pandemic, it certainly blurs the distinction between home and work, and has made many of the things we all do to relax and switch off much harder to access. I’ve been trying to keep a routine which has a start and end to my work day that mimics what it would be in the office, including exercise in the morning and my all-important family dinner in the evenings. I’ve also set up times for virtual catch-ups with my teams to replace opportunities for connection that arise naturally in the office, and I’ve been checking in with friends using the old-fashioned telephone.

I think the change in attitudes towards women in the legal industry (and society at large) is definitely positive but still slow, and I’m proud to be part of a firm that has made a sustained effort in this area over many years. As we see more men seeking to take a balanced role in their family (and more organisations supporting this), I can see the potential for flexibility issues to become mainstream people issues instead of issues about women. We’re also seeing more diverse role models in leadership, which provides both a source of confidence and acceptance of different styles, contributing to creating opportunities for more women.”


Constant gardener

Patricia Bunye – senior partner, head of mining, natural resources and energy practice groups, deputy managing partner, Cruz Marcelo & Tenefrancia, Manila

(WBL Index ranking: 81.3)

Bunye specializes in IP, focusing on trademarks and IP commercialization, including licensing and franchising, and the registration of food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products with the Food and Drug Administration.

She was the president of the Licensing Executives Society International in 2016, and was also a past president of LES Philippines. She has spoken in many countries on IP licensing in the Philippines, and is also recognized among the foremost mining lawyers in the country. An active member of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines’ legal committee, she is a regular speaker on mining at the University of the Philippines.

“I consider my term as president of the Licensing Executives Society International from 2016-2017 a highlight, particularly since I was the first Filipino, first Southeast Asian and only the third woman to hold the position. LESI is composed of 33 national and regional societies of intellectual property professionals committed to advancing the business of intellectual property globally.

Throughout my term I had the opportunity to visit many of our societies and interact personally with our members. I can truly say that there is at least one person in every corner of the globe that I can trust because of the professional and personal relationships developed through LESI. Incidentally, my involvement with LESI started quite early in my career. As a first-year associate, I had already been a member of the organization, so over the years it was where I found mentors. Over time, I became a mentor myself.

I cannot think of a single lowest point, but of course there are days that I am so exhausted that I dream of early retirement! As you know, in law practice, you are solving other people’s problems day in and day out. I often joke that I would gladly quit lawyering to sell books and coffee.

It sometimes exasperates me to hear the younger lawyers talking about work/life balance so early in their careers when (in my mind) they have not ‘paid their dues’ or ‘earned their stripes’ yet. Perhaps I now belong to the older generation that was trained differently. I tend not to think of work as something that is separate from life, i.e., something that can be switched off at 5pm. That is not to say I am always working, but there are many other aspects of my life that I devote time to and tend (like a garden), which keep work from driving me crazy: Family and friends, my spiritual life, hobbies and other enjoyable pursuits. It also helps that my spouse has been extremely supportive.

Thankfully, I am not as anxious as others may be because I am choosing to treat the quarantine/lockdown as a “gift of time” to be at home with my husband, and to recharge and do things I otherwise wouldn’t have time for during busy days. I have always been used to working remotely/on my laptop (particularly when I travel), so the work-from-home arrangement has not been a big adjustment. The bigger challenge is helping some of my colleagues get used to it, and of course planning for the months ahead, as we do not know how long this situation will last.

I have been fortunate not to have faced gender-related challenges in my career, and have never felt that there was a glass ceiling that I had to break. Professional women in the Philippines are generally very upwardly mobile. However, that presents us with a greater responsibility, because there are women in economic classes who do not have the same opportunities. As one of my mentors pointed out: There are women who have it all, and women who have nothing at all.

That is why I am involved in another professional organization (Diwata-Women in Resource Development, of which I was founding president), where one of our flagship projects is to help indigenous women. We have sent indigenous women (from the Aeta tribe in Tarlac, Central Luzon) to the Barefoot College in India to become “solar engineers”. They have learned to assemble, maintain and repair solar panels, which they have installed in their community. The project also involves teaching them financial literacy and livelihood programmes.

In the Philippines, women are very well represented in the legal industry, and society at large. We have had two women presidents and numerous women serving at all levels of government. There are also a good number of women CEOs and high-ranking corporate executives. As I mentioned, I don’t think there is a glass ceiling to be shattered. There is also no (reported) disparity in the salaries of men and women. While there are no moves to mandate a minimum number of women on corporate boards, there is much discussion about it as part of good corporate governance.”


The long road to advocacy

Amina Khatoon – partner Doulah & Doulah (D&D), Dhaka

(WBL Index ranking: 49.4)

Women lawyersKhatoon is one of Bangladesh’s most highly regarded corporate, finance and restructuring lawyers, with an extensive international client base. In addition, she is a consultant to the Asian Development Bank, assisting them with reviewing the country’s existing laws and identifying key issues effecting the growth of the local economy.

“I feel that I have gone through a long journey in my career as an advocate. In 2020, with the world facing the COVID-19 challenge, all my clients and colleagues are facing uncertainty in business and profession, and I feel this situation is the lowest point of my career thus far. The highest point of my life was in 2018, when I led the acquisition of the Dhaka Stock Exchange together with another D&D partner, representing the Shenzhen and Shanghai stock exchanges.

The pandemic is a force majeure scenario that affected the whole world. I accommodated myself to the change, as I have the impression that this situation and economic crisis shall be a long-term process. I have started educating my team. To combat the stress, I have involved myself in cooking and spend quality time with my family members.

I have never faced any gender-related challenges in my career, as from the very beginning I got into the most reputed and seasoned law firm, Doulah & Doulah. My seniors prepared me to present myself as a lawyer, rather than a lady lawyer, and I was always blessed by an extraordinary personality and attitude, which helped me to avoid such gender-related challenges in my career.

In my opinion, I have felt that the attitudes towards women in the legal industry (and society at large) have changed remarkably in the past decade. Private university and foreign university education in law have attracted young girls to build their career as an advocate. There is gender discrimination the young lady lawyers may face, but it is not very prominent, and easy to overcome.

Being women, we should challenge ourselves to keep our dignity, experience and financial strength. We should keep ourselves updated with new changes and continue to educate ourselves to take new challenges.”


Scientifically speaking

Katherine Wang – partner, Ropes & Gray, Shanghai

(WBL Index 75.6 – lowest indicator scores: pay and pension)

A leading life sciences lawyer in China, Wang assists pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device companies on a wide range of matters including early-stage discovery, product registration, regulatory/GxP compliance, pricing, reimbursement, clinical studies, promotional practices, and product safety issues.

Once the head of pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca’s Asia-Pacific legal department, she moved back into private practice to help firms navigate Chinese regulation in the life sciences sector. She is also an expert in cross-functional intellectual property (IP) enforcement and anti-counterfeiting.

“I have a relatively unconventional career path. After graduating from Harvard Law School, I decided not to return to the legal services industry, but to start building a career in the life sciences industry. I enjoyed my days as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co’s healthcare practice, and wanted to acquire more industry knowledge after I joined AstraZeneca (AZ) as an in-house consultant.

Two years after I started to work at AZ, I was asked by the management to set up the legal function for the company in China. It was a tough decision for me, as I was not prepared to become a lawyer again. Also, I was much younger than the other functional heads, so it was not easy to retrieve authority from different functions.

I would consider the first year of being the only in-house lawyer at an aggressive business organization the nadir of my career, because I needed to build trust with the management team and balance the need for risk management and business growth. I was able to overcome resistance and scepticism over time, and the overall experience was very rewarding. The years being an in-house counsel laid a solid foundation for the next phase of my legal career, as I was able to empathize the needs of my clients better.

The highest point of my career thus far is being shortlisted as one of the 10 finalists for Legal Innovator of the Year by the Financial Times, in 2018. This is a recognition of my longstanding commitment to developing a niche practice in China.

My work/life balance was not significantly disrupted by the pandemic. I was able to work efficiently from home during the lockdown period in China, and maintain regular contacts with my team members. The travel restrictions have impacted me, both professionally and personally, because most of my clients and my immediate family members are outside China. The good thing is that they are all safe and healthy, which is definitely the most important priority for me in these turbulent times.

My only tip is sometimes you need to admit that you just cannot have it all. I took a six-month maternity leave after I had my first child, and decided to be a stay-home mom after I had my second child. I had been on a part-time schedule for seven years when I returned to private practice, and was only able to return to a full-time schedule after both of my children went to primary school. While I was on an accelerated career path before having children, the progress of my career advancement definitely slowed down significantly while my children were young. I never regretted making this trade-off, and I was very grateful to be supported by colleagues at work. I think it is very important to choose a work environment that supports your goals in life.

In Asia, the environment for female attorneys has been improving, but the state of development has not been equal across different countries or industries. I was fortunate to devote most of my career in organizations that support diversity, and I was a beneficiary of equal opportunity.

Asian culture projects women as caregivers and expects women to spend more time at home, driving the success of their spouses or children, rather their own. It would be pretty challenging for female professionals to succeed in a competitive market without full support (and sometimes compromises) from their families. In addition, Asian female professionals are more likely to face social pressure about getting married and having children by a certain age. This expectation could hinder Asian female professionals from advancing their careers in their early 30s.”


Toughing it out

Louise Stoupe – partner, head of litigation department, co-chair commercial litigation and trial practice group, Morrison & Foerster, Tokyo

(WBL Index ranking: 81.9)

Stoupe specializes in high-tech disputes in international arbitration and litigation. In addition, she is a highly experienced trial lawyer, known for representing some of the largest technology companies in the world in their multijurisdictional and complex commercial litigation cases. Admitted to the bar in New Zealand, California, England and Wales, and Japan (Gaikokuho Jimu-Bengoshi), she has received numerous awards for her exceptional legal work.

“I have noticed that women in law have high and diverse expectations about what they want to achieve in life. One of my partners, for example, is a brilliant lawyer, admitted in several jurisdictions, a mother of several young children, and runs marathons on the side. To pull off all of those achievements in one lifetime is challenging. Having a successful career and private life is less about managing a work/life balance and more about identifying priorities. It is possible to do it all, but it’s certainly not easy – regardless of whether you are male or female.

My highest and lowest points came from the same case: Toshiba v Western Digital. I represented Toshiba in the spin-out and sale of its US$18 billion semiconductor business that Western Digital was trying to stop. The case involved three ICC arbitrations, one Tokyo District Court case and three California state court cases, and we were regularly appearing before various courts and tribunals seeking emergency rulings.

The case had many lows where we thought the sale wouldn’t go through. The pressure was immense. But in the end – through an innovative strategy of bifurcating the case before the ICC – we found a path to having the case resolved. The highest point: we won – the US$18 billion sale went through.

Home schooling is so much more difficult than I anticipated! I always had the greatest respect for teachers but that respect has now increased tenfold. The children interrupting my work is certainly a new aspect of pandemic life, but otherwise work continues relatively smoothly. I am fully set up with my home office and, like always, have conference calls with clients all across the world. I am used to working remotely – so in all of this uncertainty – work is actually a relative constant. My solution to the home-schooling issue is to put the kids on a schedule. In these uncertain times I think they actually enjoy the routine.

One of my cases involved the spin-out of a subsidiary that didn’t want to be sold. We had regular meetings with the subsidiary’s management, who had their own agenda and tried to undermine the process. That meant that I was chairing strategic meetings with 25 people in the room, where half of the attendees wanted to undermine the agenda. I was the only woman in the room.

It was tough. I received many challenges, both directly and indirectly, from men looking to undermine my authority to resolve the dispute. I stayed strong and maintained confidence, and the challenges eventually died away. Maintaining confidence is key, especially when you are the only woman in the room.

Attitudes have definitely changed for the better. There are more women in senior legal positions in Asia, and in the business community in general. The persisting challenge is to translate the deep pool of talented junior attorneys that we have into women leaders. To do that we need men and women to identify and develop strong female talent.

At Morrison & Foerster we have groups like the women’s strategy committee, which ensures that the retention and development of women lawyers remains a top priority of the firm. Other organizations need to follow this type of example to ensure ensure junior talent turns into senior leadership.”


First among equals

Priti Suri – founder, managing partner of PSA, New Delhi

(WBL Index ranking: 74.4)

A first-generation lawyer with more than three decades of experience across three continents, Suri started as a litigator and evolved as a business adviser. After working in the US and Europe, she established her base in India by developing a firm that represents international and domestic clients in a full range of cross-border M&A transactions, JVs and restructurings. She initiated the formation of the Society of Women Lawyers – India, the first platform for women lawyers, and is its current president. In April 2017, she became the first Asian to be honoured with the American Bar Association’s prestigious Mayre Rasmussen Award for Advancement of Women in International Law. She also led the Women Business Lawyers’ Committee of the Inter-Pacific Bar Association (IPBA) for four years, and is currently an officer of the IPBA.

“I can think of several high points in my career, but I would say that a couple of them stand out. The first thing I can think of, both a high and the biggest challenge, was to establish an independent practice as a first-generation lawyer and run a law firm at a time when women did not do so. I did not think much, but did what I had to. I took the bull by the horns, even when it seemed those horns were pointing at me. At the time, I had virtually nothing except an ability to believe in the necessity of hard work and grit, and there were challenges in everything.

I learnt pretty early on to juggle numerous things, be it travel for work for either client meetings or pitches to potential clients, executing work, addressing teething troubles of setting up the practice and figuring out how to pay the bills at the end of the month, while keeping the morale of everyone high. And then, progressing to the day when I felt I had managed to do it with the support of an excellent team and the unconditional backing, at every step, of my parents.

I am content with my professional trajectory and while there are ups and downs every day, I seriously cannot think of a career low point.

There is an evolution heading in the right way, in the legal industry, where women are not necessarily relegated to the background. But I suppose I speak from the perspective of a privileged urban upbringing and life. However, despite a lot of progress in the law firm world, women are still at a disadvantage with regard to elevation to equity partner, recognition of their role in business development activities, and equality in pay.

I have tried to summarize below, with four points; legal costs, career progression, pay disparity and sustainabilty of women in the legal profession.

Starting with legal costs. As I have said often, the legal world is different and in the current times, particularly now with the pandemic and a global recession at our doorsteps, there are and will be real pressures on the legal departments to scale down costs further. Budgets will be increasingly limited. So, a paramount issue will remain how to be competitive, provide the service efficiently, remain true to the ethos, and yet ensure profitability. This is going to be true for all, and not just women only.

When it comes to career progression, look at the numbers – with such a vast talent pool of women lawyers, how many of them are sitting judges or senior advocates? The legal profession is changing so rapidly, not only in India, but in the rest of the world, and Indian women need to be equipped to handle the change and how the future is likely to impact their practice – be it of solo practitioners in courts, or within law firms or in-house positions.

With pay disparity, I have no statistics to support my views but I would imagine,for instance, there are inherent perceptions of what a woman lawyer can or cannot do, and such perceptions may determine the remunerations.

The sustainability of women in the legal profession, is also linked with how to build a practice, develop and retain client relationships. Women are very intuitive, but regardless of the commitment to the chosen career, they take time off for marriage and/or children and, like it or not, that does impact. While in India we have the fortune of an extended family support system, coupled with domestic help to assist in the upbringing of small kids, yet, for some reason, many (I would not say all) women make their choices where, invariably, their careers take a back seat. I would not be presumptive enough to comment on choices. But where the choice is to remain, often their roles are relegated to mere execution and somehow they are unable to push the envelope further. Why? Is it because the necessary support is missing?

In my case while I did not take such a break, yet, I had no institutional support to turn to about ‘how to’ do things, what was right, what was acceptable, how could I do business development. While the education system has definitely undergone a change, yet, most prospective lawyers are unprepared for life with the law. This requires more practical courses and skillful use of interns and young associates. And all of us who are experienced at the Bar need to contribute to bring about that transformation. There is a dire need to focus on professional development, which has to be matched by a desire to grow, as well by the women protagonists.

It is really necessary to address the issues from a positive perspective and focus on what women lawyers can/should do to participate in their own success, and the success of the women who follow them. After 34 years in this profession, I feel the legal world needs to be more open to change, and lawyers need to come together in finding solutions at a local, national, and even trans-border level, as time evolves.”


Building a career

Anomi Wanigasekera – senior partner, head of intellectual property, Julius & Creasy, Colombo

(WBL Index ranking: 68.1)

Wanigasekera has extensive experience in a full range of enforcement, management and transactional matters pertaining to IP law, including representing clients before the National Intellectual Property Office, and acting for multinationals as well as Sri Lankan conglomerates. She also overlooks the drafting and reviewing of contracts and advises on regulatory compliance matters.

“I was called to the bar in 1984, thereafter I joined Julius & Creasy, the oldest and the most prestigious legal firm, established in 1879 in Sri Lanka, as a professional associate expecting to learn different facets of law, and as a stepping stone towards moving my career forward.

At Julius & Creasy, I was assigned to work in the IP department, where I had the opportunity to further enhance my knowledge on IP while on the job. Work exposure included attending to all aspects of legal work, from attending courts to drafting documents, IP prosecution, and advising clients.

Despite various opportunities that came my way to join the corporate sector, I continued in the firm as I liked the broad repertoire of work, its maintenance of highest ethical and professional standards, and its resultant high reputation, both locally and internationally.

Over the years I have attended both local and international IP conferences representing both the firm and Sri Lanka. I have published articles in different local as well as international journals. This has helped me to appreciate the global relevance and application of IP law, and has facilitated the building of international bridges of friendship and co-operation.

In 1998, I was appointed as a partner of the firm and thereafter a capital partner in 2004, and I now head the IP department of the firm. My appointment as a capital partner can be taken as one of the high points in my career.

The pandemic situation has affected the global community and has had a drastic impact on the national as well as international trade and economy. While it is mainly focused on health concerns, it also concerns business continuity and economic development. Day-to-day life at home as well as the workplace has drastically changed.

We have adapted to remotely working from home. We do not have full access to our files, however are able to respond to our clients with available information. In relation to IP prosecution work, we ensure that clients’ deadlines are met and the marks, designs and patents are kept in force.

I have never faced gender-related challenges in my career. Compared to other countries in the world, the position of Sri Lankan women is much better.

Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to elect a female head of state, as early as 1960. Recent research has revealed that 64% of the professionals in Sri Lanka are women.

Companies in Sri Lanka prefer female workers, as their attitudes towards work are more positive, and they are ready to take any role with responsibility.

The number of women who graduate from law school has increased with time. However, only a few prefer to practise as lawyers. The court appearances as counsel are male-dominant even today. However, there are several lady judges at all levels of the judiciary and the first lady chief justice was appointed in 2011.

Looking at the society at large, around half the labour force in professional, semi-professional and middle-level employment are women because the education and health services have been their traditional fields of employment. But few women have been able to advance and reach high-level decision-making positions in the public and private sectors.

The majority of women workers in the service sector are at the bottom of the employment structure, and in domestic service or manual labour and are outside the purview of labour legislation. However, despite this, the number of female managers has also increased. Gender quality is fairly well ranked in Sri Lanka.”


‘Now is my lowest point’

Chew Kherk Ying – partner, head of intellectual property and dispute resolution practice groups, Wong & Partners, Kuala Lumpur

(WBL Index ranking: 50.0)

Chew is an award-winning commercial litigation, corporate compliance, information technology and internet regulatory issues specialist.

She has 30 years of experience and handles all aspects of IP. In addition, she is a registered trademark, patent and design agent in Malaysia, and the principal author of the CCH published Intellectual Property Laws of Malaysia. She is among the few selected trainers for an IP valuation course by the Intellectual Property Corp of Malaysia (MyIPO) and is an accredited IP valuer by the World Trade Institute.

“One of the highest points of my career was when I was honoured as Women Lawyer of the Year at both the ALB Malaysia Law Awards and ALB SE Asia Law Awards in 2019. For me, these awards were a culmination of more than 30 years of being a lawyer.

Without question, the lowest point of my career has to be now. The whole world is in a tailspin following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that has thrown up a clutch of problems. My firm and I have to help clients who are going through arguably the worst economic period of their lives; then there is the challenge of keeping our lawyers and firm together, and finally, dealing with the heart wrenching stories of the virus outbreak in Malaysia and elsewhere.

Now that my office is 100% at home, the line or divide between work and home is clearly blurred. I find myself doing more ‘work’. Weekdays and weekends have also merged somehow. The challenge for me is to stop, walk away from the work and take a break. I must confess that I am still struggling to maintain more of my home life, which seems to have been overtaken by work life since working from home 100%.

Managing the work-life balance is particularly challenging for a working mother. Important factors to maintain a successful work-life balance are an understanding and conducive work environment, which allows some flexibility and support to working mothers, a good home support structure, and an understanding spouse.

In the early years of my career, some clients from a more male-dominated culture preferred to deal with male lawyers. This was evident from their body language during meetings, and where they would even choose to speak to a junior male lawyer rather than consult me. But that was then. These days, I have much less gender-related challenges at work.

I believe that attitudes towards women in the legal industry have changed, especially in the legal fraternity in Malaysia. Our chief justice is a woman, and many judges of the appeal courts are women. Similarly, more female lawyers are making their mark in different areas of the law. This situation can only improve because the glass ceiling has been broken, and the fact is that more women are choosing to read law.”


Balancing work, life

Diep Hoang – founding partner, Dilinh Legal, Ho Chi Minh City

(WBL Index ranking: 78.8)

Hoang, a banking and finance expert, has extensive experience in competition, corporate and M&A, labour, and dispute resolution. Of note, in past years she has acted as primary external counsel in Vietnam for the Phu Hung Group and advised HSBC on the establishment of the first wholly foreign-owned bank in Vietnam. Hoang also acted as Vietnam competition counsel for USG in Knauf’s acquisition of USG for US$7 billion, resulting in competition clearance by the Vietnam competition authorities.

Before founding Dilinh, Hoang worked as a banking and finance associate at the Vietnam branch of a top international firm.

“Looking back, the lowest point of my career was in 2012, when the financial crisis hit Vietnam and most ongoing projects were suddenly stopped, most of my clients had cashflow issues, and interest rates rocketed to 24% per annum. I was struggling to survive that bad time by discounting fees to our regular clients, handling work in practice areas that we didn’t usually do, like bad debt recovery and construction disputes. I learned so much by just getting through the financial crisis of 2012. It has shaped the way that I manage Dilinh Legal, that I am very conservative when it comes to costs.

The highest point was in September 2017, when Michael Lee joined me as a partner, bringing with him over 10 years of experience at two international law firms in Vietnam. The partnership with Michael has helped me to raise Dilinh Legal to broader client segments, practice areas and deals.

In Vietnam, law firms are among the few businesses allowed to open during the pandemic. I still go to the office but let all other staff work from home. I have to learn how to handle legal matters and manage staff from a distance. For us, it is important to keep our associates safe but motivated at the same time.

What is more difficult for me is that schools in Vietnam have been closed for more than two months and I have reluctantly become tutor to my 10-year-old daughter. It was very challenging at the beginning, but we have learned now that we need to have a daily routine and stick to it. I have tried my best to maintain mental and physical health, but I can’t wait for this epidemic to end so that life and work will come back to normal.

The most difficult gender-related challenge in my career is to manage the role of being a mother and being a partner in a law firm at the same time. In Vietnam, it is very common for women to do most of the work in raising kids, and I am not an exception. I noticed that my professional development was affected during the first four years I raised my daughter, as I was not able to attend conferences and meetings that required travel. As a consequence, certain business opportunities were missed.

I have learned that I can’t be a perfect 10 for both roles, and it is okay to get help from others to handle the housework and the kid. Certain rules and disciplines are set out to remind me of my role at home, including no work after 8pm, full-time weekend mother, two family holidays per year. I am not saying that being a mother is a challenge to my career. Instead, it helps me to be a more responsible person. However, managing two roles at the same time is not easy, and I am still learning to do it.

Attitudes towards women in the legal industry, and society at large, have changed for sure, but not at the speed and scale that I dream of (50/50). I have seen more and more women taking senior positions in companies. The involvement and participation of women in the boardroom or senior partner positions are still relatively low. In almost all the events and conferences that I have attended, in Vietnam or abroad, there are always more men than women, especially in the legal industry.

The persisting challenges for women, especially Asian women, or Vietnamese women in particular, include: Boys are preferred in general so girls are borne with disadvantages; violence at home is still alarmingly prevalent; sexual harassment in the workplace is still an alarming issue; and women must handle multiple roles.

These challenges are not easy to tackle overnight. They require a lot of effort from the government, corporate and women themselves. I would love to see more women involved in higher positions in society, as these women would be role models and an inspiration for us, and for young girls.”


Battling bias in the profession

Asma Hameed Khan – partner, head of corporate practice, Surridge & Beecheno, Lahore

(WBL Index ranking: 49.4)

Khan is an expert in broad-based business-transactional practice, focusing on complex corporate matters with an emphasis on cross-border transactions. She also specializes in IP law, and has several years of experience in commercial and contentious IP matters, with a particular focus on franchising. She is enrolled as an advocate of High Court and is a member of the Lahore Bar Association, Punjab Bar Association, and High Court Bar Association.

The highest point in my career was when I was elevated as the first female partner of one of the oldest blue-chip law firms, Surridge and Beecheno, in 2016, after eight years of my professional struggle. Currently, I am not only the head of corporate section, supervising all the corporate work of the firm, but also handling a few high-profile arbitrations.

Being a female lawyer, though, it is difficult to manage the balance between professional as well as personal life, particularly in our society, where women are presumed to do household chores. Plus, the law profession is very time-consuming, and it is very hard to maintain balance.

However, in my view, in order to maintain balance, schedule life as per your priorities, and time management is the key for a balanced life. We need to keep professional work separate from personal life. Set preferences, give your maximum to our profession, but also spare some time for your personal recreational stuff in order to live a balanced and healthy life.

Since it’s a male-oriented society, it is always very difficult for a woman to make her own place, especially in the legal profession. I have faced many obstacles in terms of male dominance. I have been treated as a secretary rather than a law associate. During the first few years of my practice, I was discouraged by my seniors. They would send me on errands during a cross-examination, and would tell me that I was getting involved in something not meant for women. Owing to this attitude toward me, once I thought of quitting this profession.

However, the legal profession has been my passion, and I wanted to excel in this profession, and I also wanted to break that stereotype that a career in law is not for women. Further, my father being an educated citizen also encouraged me in that time of despair. All these factors helped me to face all the obstacles, and I took this profession as a challenge by keeping my thoughts positive rather than running away.

I always believe that hard work never goes wasted, and, when it is coupled with sincerity, success is your destiny. Believing in this, I kept moving with a positive approach, faced challenges but never got disappointed or lost hope. I believe the only key to success is persistence and self-motivation. As a result of all that, now I enjoy that senior position, as compared to the male colleagues who pushed me back.

Comparatively, attitudes toward women in the legal fraternity have changed during past decades. A few liberal male lawyers have started accepting female lawyers, and clients have also developed confidence in female lawyers. Now young law students are also inclined toward joining this profession and that’s a positive sign.

However, still there are many obstacles such as male attitudes and a perception that women lawyers need to go further to prove themselves as established professionals. Most female lawyers prefer taking corporate and family cases to avoid facing any kind of harassment by clients or male colleagues, and ‘inappropriate’ questions posed to them during trial.

This is the biggest challenge, we need to create awareness and educate the masses that this profession is not male-oriented and confined to one gender only, and female lawyers can also perform as well as or better than a man can perform.”


My crisis point

Kim Sae Youn – attorney, senior member of international arbitration and cross-border litigation practice, Kim & Chang, Seoul

(WBL Index ranking: 85.0)

Before joining Kim & Chang, Kim served as a judge at various Korean district courts, and practised at other major Korean law firms. She specializes in international litigation and arbitration, with an emphasis on commercial and international law.

Her expertise in international dispute resolution has been recognized by the variety of roles she holds, and held, in various institutions, including but not limited to a commissioner of the Korea Trade Commission, an officer of the litigation and arbitration committees of the International Bar Association, a vice chair of the dispute resolution and arbitration committee of the IPBA, and an alternate member of the ICC Court.

In addition, Kim is a published author and sought-after conference speaker on aspects of Korean law, and a highly acclaimed arbitrator.

“I am an optimist who always thought the highest point of my career was actually every day. I never thought I would face the lowest point of my career when I was at the highest, but it did happen. In the middle of 2018, when I was busy juggling several balls, such as being the leader of a practice team and the chair of a career development committee in a prestigious Korean law firm, as well as coping with various other outside activities in several international institutions, I was diagnosed with an illness that needed immediate and serious surgery.

I was at a point of my life when I had sent away both of my sons ‘safely’ to universities, and thus was devoting my full force and energy to my work. I could not believe that I might have to let go of everything when I finally ‘had it all’. Fortunately, the surgery was very successful and I was able to recover far sooner than everyone expected. I also was able to spend the sick leave to look back at my life, including my family and my career. My loved ones could do the same about me.

Personally, I did not face that much challenge regarding the pandemic because Korea is recovering relatively quickly, and my sons (who have come back home from their universities) are now grown up. Ironically, the pandemic has given me the rare opportunity of spending more time with my grown-up boys, which is an unexpected gift for me. That said, I believe that after these difficult times, the legal community will become generally more receptive to the idea of working from home than we were before. This will no doubt be very helpful for female lawyers during some parts of their careers.

I started my career as a judge and was not fully hit with gender-related challenges when I was on the bench. It was when I joined private practice and directly faced the world, that I was fully hit with the challenges. In the early 2000s, at least in Korea, it was difficult for a female lawyer in her thirties to convince the clients that she was as capable as any male lawyer, if not more. Several senior partners in law firms were not very much used to the idea of working with a female lawyer, and assigned me to only small and less important cases.

There was a great change in the attitudes towards women in the legal industry in the past decade in Korea. We have a far larger number of female lawyers at all levels of the profession compared to 10 years ago. The senior partners in law firms are now used to working with female lawyers, and many of these senior partners are female lawyers themselves. Law firms make efforts to put diversity and inclusion measures in place. Female lawyers have their own association, and it is becoming more and more active every year.

As an example, my current firm is the largest law firm in Korea and it has seen more than a 10% increase in the percentage of female lawyers at the firm since 2010, with almost 40% of the first-year associates being female lawyers now. The firm also has various retention programmes designed for women lawyers going through various stages of their family life and career.

Generally, Korea’s legal community needs more senior women members, including senior partners in law firms and senior in-house lawyers. The public sector, especially the court, is doing far better than its private counterpart in this perspective. We will need to effectively carry out measures to retain women lawyers so that they do not fall out at the challenging points of their career. Once they safely graduate being a mom, they become the most valuable human resources, with a firm layer of wisdom topping their capabilities as excellent lawyers.

My advice is simple – treat both life and work as if it is your last chance. I had used that tip to keep me going throughout my career, and after the surgery I realized that it is not just a tip, but can actually be reality.”


Breaking barriers

Threenuch Bunruangthaworn, executive partner, ZICO Law, Bangkok

(WBL Index ranking: 78.1)

women lawyersThreenuch specializes in banking and finance, commercial matters, competition law, employment and securities law. She has extensive experience in advising Thai and foreign multinational clients in setting up their business operations and advising on relevant laws regarding foreign investment in Thailand.

She has also been involved in a number of transactions concerning cross-border acquisitions and banking facilities between Malaysian commercial banks and Malaysian investors in Thailand. Threenuch strated as a legal intern at Cohen Stimpert & Ford, Los Angeles, (June 2007), and legal officer at the Bureau of Finance and Fiscal, The Comptroller General’s Department in the Ministry of Finance, Bangkok, Thailand (November 2001 to May 2002).

“In 2017, I was promoted as an executive partner of ZICO Law Thailand. I would consider this both the highest and lowest point of my career. The highs and lows were two sides of the same coin, as it were. On the highest point, being recognized by the ZICO Law network management was very rewarding. This was the first time that I was involved and worked in a management role. From this change, I have gained new perspectives on what it takes to operate a law firm.

For the lowest point, having to learn how to manage brought some struggles I had to overcome. The skills needed to manage a law firm are quite different from those needed to provide legal work to clients. Unlike legal issues, you cannot learn how to manage a law firm in any case laws or legal text book. I was fortunate enough to be mentored from senior management of ZICO Law network including Chew Seng Kok, Datuk Nik Norzrul Thani, and Hanim Hamzah. Their advice and guidance helped me to overcome these new challenges.

I am fortunate in that I haven’t felt much disruption in my work/life balance from working from home. My team and I have become more efficient as we work new technology solutions into our workflow. We also save a great deal of time cutting our daily commutes from home to the workplace.

I consider myself lucky that I have not faced any serious gender-related barriers (although I have experienced client bias) in my career as a female lawyer. But I know there are many who face constant barriers based on their gender or sexual identities. When faced with adversity in the workplace, we need to reach out and ask for support. Making these issues known is the first step to overcoming these challenges.

In some practices (i.e., dispute resolution/litigation), there are persistent challenges for female lawyers. There can be a perception that males are more aggressive and can represent and argue a client’s case better than a female can. This is obviously inconsistent with reality, yet the perception is still there. I believe this can be overcome, and we are constantly breaking down these biases.

For corporate practices, I have seen biases first hand from some clients. However, it has been my experience that I can break through by demonstrating my expertise and addressing their issues. Luckily, these encounters are becoming fewer and farther between.

Overall, women in the legal industry have become more widely accepted and are more likely to be put in management roles. The numbers of female partners and general counsel are increasing year on year.”