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In this inaugural ranking, ALB honours leading women lawyers in Asia who have continuously made their mark in the market despite the disruptions by the COVID-19 pandemic. This list highlights 15 women who have consistently delivered high-quality work and set high standards in their respective legal space, while earning accolades from their colleagues, superiors and clients.

 

As firms grow increasingly aware of the compelling benefits of diversity and inclusion programmes, more is being done to retain and support female legal talent. But in order to be truly successful, firms need to go above and beyond and implement deeper change. Lawyers tell ALB that firms can be welcoming places for female lawyers, but hurdles still need to be resolved and removed to ensure female staff members truly thrive.

One of the women who made the inaugural ALB Asia’s Top 15 Female Lawyers list is Marcia Ellis, a Morrison & Foerster partner and global chair of the firm’s private equity group. She says there are a number of practical, easy steps firms can take to ensure they create a supportive environment for female staff members.

“The easiest way to make a law firm into a supportive and welcoming environment for female lawyers and trainee solicitors is to hire lots of women partners and senior associates and give them opportunities,” Ellis notes.

“I think the most important thing is to make sure they are being staffed on the best deals, given opportunities to develop their business development skills, and provided with training to allow them to overcome challenges. Also, as with all associates male or female, you need to be sensitive to how differing domestic obligations may impact how they want to structure their day,” she adds.

Ellis recounts an earlier experience at a different firm where she was criticised for being “insufficiently focused on my relationship with my partners (all male and most single) because I didn’t want to go out drinking with them and preferred to go home to my children and husband at the end of a long day.”

“Lawyers who choose to carve out time to be with their families (or, for that matter, to pursue their interest in a hobby, such as tennis) should not be made to feel guilty because of these choices. Balancing ‘life’ and ‘work’ is not easy, especially for a young, up-and-coming lawyer, but, as partners, we should model ways to ‘balance’ life and work and try our best to not make it harder than it needs to be.”

-Marcia Ellis, Morrison & Foerster

“Lawyers who choose to carve out time to be with their families (or, for that matter, to pursue their interest in a hobby, such as tennis) should not be made to feel guilty because of these choices. Balancing ‘life’ and ‘work’ is not easy, especially for a young, up-and-coming lawyer, but, as partners, we should model ways to ‘balance’ life and work and try our best to not make it harder than it needs to be,” Ellis adds.

IMPLEMENTATION IS KEY

Charandeep Kaur and Kosturi Ghosh, partners at Trilegal, say that organisations need to develop and implement “well-articulated policies and programmes that encourage and support women stay at the workplace.”

“Oftentimes policies are created but are implemented poorly or without the right intention. There is a need to constantly communicate and reinforce these programmes through dialogue and action. It is equally important for firms to measure success by publicly articulating and committing to long term and short-term goals and introspecting on failures. The latter rarely occurs which is why policies fall prey to tokenism,” the lawyers say.

Clara Shirota, a partner at White & Case and another lawyer on this list, agrees that tokenism can be a risk. Therefore, Shirota says, it’s important that firms create a culture where all lawyers “not only women lawyers, can be comfortable expressing their views and be their authentic selves.”

Shirota says at her firm, this starts at the recruiting process, encouraging candid conversation and developing forums for these conversations to take place. “It’s about having an inclusive culture – not just for women (and not just for lawyers) but for all minority groups and all staff members,” she notes.

IMPORTANCE OF MENTORSHIP

Aside from the unique challenges law firms must combat, female lawyers also face general challenges. “To a certain extent, I think that female lawyers have the same challenges as all lawyers have in progressing their careers,” Ellis says.

As an example, Shirota says that lawyers, both female and male, have to deal with the demands of working as a lawyer in addition to personal demands. “One of the biggest challenges all lawyers – and not just women lawyers – face is the lack of work-life balance – indeed, one cannot be equal at work if not equal at home,” Shirota says.

However, there are differences. Ellis suggests female lawyers are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome and doubt about their ability to become qualified to be a partner at a law firm, “whereas, in general, males are socialised to believe they are sufficiently qualified for any job they set their sights on, regardless of their actual skills or experience.”

Leading by example is a critical way to combat this. “The best way for female lawyers to get over this challenge is for them to see female equity partners taking on important roles in their firms and to be mentored and sponsored by those female partners. For me, as a female senior partner, it is sometimes hard to ascertain whether a young lawyer actually wants to be a partner but is unwilling to say so because of those doubting voices that speak to all of us, or whether they truly have chosen a different path,” Ellis says.

“Sometimes I have to remind myself that not everyone wants to be a partner at a law firm. I pride myself on supporting the associates I mentor in whatever route they decide to take,” she adds.

Shirota also feels it’s important to include mentorship as part of a retention strategy.

“We can help advance and retain women talent by having partners sponsor and mentor women lawyers at each stage of their career. This goes beyond ensuring that they gain the experience, knowledge and technical expertise to succeed in the practice of law. It includes involving them in business development and preparing them for senior firm management roles (technical skills as well as soft skills).”

- Clara Shirota, White & Case

“We can help advance and retain women talent by having partners sponsor and mentor women lawyers at each stage of their career. This goes beyond ensuring that they gain the experience, knowledge and technical expertise to succeed in the practice of law. It includes involving them in business development and preparing them for senior firm management roles (technical skills as well as soft skills). As a true partnership, this responsibility lies with all partners and not only those who are women. Having senior women role models goes a long way, and it is also imperative that our male colleagues play their part,” she says.

A SAFE SPACE

Also important, Kaur and Ghosh say, is that firms develop a safe space for female staff members, where concerns are heard and career conversations are welcome.

“Law firms have traditionally been male bastions. Therefore, the first thing that partners and management need to do is be willing to listen and create a safe space for women to have a conversation on their careers while managing their personal lives,” they note.

Additionally, unconscious bias must be actively combated from the top-down, Kaur and Ghosh say, advising that firms support women through mentoring and coaching.

“Recognising male allies who are actively helping women succeed is a very powerful tool in promotion inclusion. Additionally, develop women-friendly flex-policies to support women through their personal situations such as extended flexibility post maternity break, cab facility for late working women, policies on re-entering the workplace for mothers after a long break,” they add.

Understanding, they feel, goes a long way during these challenging times.

“One of the important lessons the pandemic has taught is the expression of empathy and gratitude towards colleagues. For many male colleagues, it has been an eye-opening lesson in dealing with the pressures of the home while juggling client calls and deadlines. Firms seem to be more open to the idea of treating their lawyers as adults where people do not need to show up to office to have a productive day or to stay till the wee hours of the morning just because it is the prevailing culture. Firms ought to take this opportunity to create healthy policies for both male and female lawyers to work flexibly and effectively. Female lawyers especially senior lawyers must reinforce this message within the firm and bring about social acceptance of equal and collaborative culture,” Kaur and Ghosh say.

Shirota feels that while the negative impact of the pandemic “should not be taken lightly, one of the positive effects I have seen in the past 18 months is law firms embracing remote or flexible working.”

“Before the pandemic, it was inconceivable that we would spend such a long period of time away from the office, but our experience shows that we can sign deals and close deals just the same from home as in the office. Having trust in our associates is key and our experience shows that for the most part, our trust is not misplaced,” Shirota says, although she concedes she does miss “the social and collaborative time we have in the office and look forward to seeing how we can create a hybrid model for how we work in the future.”


THE LIST

ALB Asia’s Top 15 Female Lawyers

BIJAL AJINKYA
Khaitan & Co., India

DUYEN HA VO
VILAF, Vietnam

IRA A. EDDYMURTHY
SSEK Legal Consultants, Indonesia

MARCIA ELLIS
Morrison & Foerster, Hong Kong

SAPNA JHANGIANI QC
Attorney-General’s Chambers, Singapore

TO’ PUAN JANET LOOI
Skrine, Malaysia

MIHO NIUNOYA
Atsumi & Sakai, Japan

ONG KEN LOON
Drew & Napier, Singapore

PASSAWAN NAVANITHIKUL
SRPP, Thailand

KEUM NANG PARK
Lee & Ko, Korea

CLARA SHIROTA
White & Case, Tokyo and Hong Kong

PUJA SONDHI
Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, India

NISHA KAUR UBEROI
Trilegal, India

SUSAN WONG
WongPartnership, Singapore

CHEUNG YING (CATHY) YEUNG
Latham & Watkins, Hong Kong

 

 

RANKED LAWYERS:
BREAKDOWN BY COUNTRY

Country

No. of Submissions

Hong Kong

40

Singapore

29

India

29

Indonesia

15

Japan

8

Korea

11

Malaysia

17

Philippines

3

Taiwan

2

Thailand

8

Vietnam

5

TOTAL

167

 

To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com.