As a follow-up to its discussion about women in leadership roles at law firms, ALB speaks to Darani Vachanavuttivong and Tiziana Sucharitkul, the co-managing partners of Thailand-headquartered Tilleke & Gibbins, about what law firms can do to ensure there are more female leaders.
ALB: Are women adequately represented in law firm leadership today, and if not, why not?
Darani: At Tilleke & Gibbins, women are very well represented at the highest levels of leadership. In our headquarters in Bangkok, female leaders head all three of our core legal departments, and six of our eight business services teams are led by women. This trend also carries on internationally; three of our seven offices are headed by women. Although Tilleke definitely has more women in leadership than most, I don't think female leadership is uncommon in Southeast Asian law firms. We have a strong peer group of female managing partners at other firms around the region.
Tiziana: As chair of Lex Mundi (an international law firm network) I spend a lot of time travelling internationally, and it’s always interesting to see how much variation there is in female representation in firm management. We feel fortunate that at Tilleke & Gibbins women are prevalent in management positions. There are also many other law firms that recognize the importance of this issue and are doing wonderful things to ensure gender equality. However, law firm leadership around the world does remain something of an “old boys’ club” and although we're seeing improvements, we aren't there yet. For example, the legal industry press has recently been focusing heavily on pay disparities between male and female senior partners, and it is abundantly clear that there is still a real difference there. Even in-house lawyers face this – an article I was reading this morning cited female in-house attorneys earning 84 cents on the dollar compared to men.
In terms of why not, although it’s not an easy answer to give, family and work-life balance remains one critical factor. Even in today’s world, women remain the lynchpin of the family. The way that people address work-life balance varies from country to country though. One factor in national variation is also the availability and social normality of domestic help from place to place—whether through larger extended family units or through the availability of domestic staff.
ALB: Have improvements been made in this regard? What’s been driving them?
Tiziana: In a place like ours, the work environment is a major factor. You can’t have change without buy-in from the leadership, and, obviously, at Tilleke with a lot of women in leadership it is natural that it comes easily. This is harder in places where the old boys' club still exists, and diversity and inclusion committees have often had to be formed to drive this forward. Naturally, these committees consider the moral arguments when putting forward arguments for inclusion but now there is also recognition of the strong business case to be made for a diverse environment. Diversity in the workplace is shown to increase productivity and efficiency. It improves the bottom line, and if that’s what it takes to convince male leadership, then so be it.
Asia—especially Southeast Asia—is definitely leading the world in this respect. Research shows that Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines each have over 40 percent female representation at the executive level, which is more than double the figure in most Western countries. As the world engages more and more with ASEAN countries, I think the influence of strong female role models will be felt more and more.
Darani: We are already seeing more and more women in senior positions, but the real change is in the younger generation. For example, of the nine new lawyers added to my team in the past 18 months, eight are women. We are seeing far more young women studying and practicing law these days, and many of the strongest performers rising through the ranks of the next generation of lawyers are women.
In part, I think this is down to the division of labour becoming more evenly split over the last few decades. Global culture has changed very rapidly so that women all over the world are now being given more education and more development opportunities.
ALB: What are the challenges women today face in rising up to leadership positions at law firms?
Tiziana: Law firms tend to be conservative places. In what has historically been a male-dominated field, it’s no secret that women in the legal profession still face a glass ceiling in many firms due to implicit bias. There’s a perception that women who have a family will not invest the required effort and/or time to her career, and that perception can only change from the top down. Management has to be on board in leading the change for it to really make a long-lasting impact.
We have been very fortunate to have spent most of our careers at such a forward-looking firm as Tilleke & Gibbins, and we’ve worked hard to instil that position into the next generation of lawyers.
Darani: It’s getting more unusual now, but from time to time we still hear of female lawyers who leave high-level firms because they face too many obstacles in their career progression. This often centres on family commitments. However, in a profession that demands a huge commitment of time and energy, it’s always a struggle to balance work and family, and this is true for men as much as women.
We are seeing much more equality between males and females in terms of family responsibilities. Male and female lawyers are facing similar requirements in their family lives and we support them regardless. This isn’t just a matter of looking after children—an ageing population is making it increasingly common for people to care for their parents as well. If a father or mother has a serious issue—say they get sick—we provide support for an effective period regardless of gender, just as we would if a child had a serious issue.
It’s up to firms to provide an environment where the right balance can be achieved, and most importantly to overcome any misperceptions about how family commitments could disproportionately affect a woman’s job. Doing so is in the firm’s interest as much as the lawyers’. Those who are leaving aren’t leaving the profession—they’re moving to more diverse firms who will actually support their development.
ALB: What more can law firms do to ensure there are more female leaders?
Tiziana: Change the culture of the workplace. Adaptive and flexible work policies are really key here. If a firm wants to make the most of its talent base, it has to treat its employees—men and women—like individuals and adapt to their needs. That means not just giving everyone the bare minimum required by law or setting flat policies that cater to some while leaving others behind. That means paternity leave as well as maternity leave, flexible working hours, part-time hours, remote working, and release to handle family affairs.
Law firms may be reluctant to implement such a family-friendly attitude, but the payoff is immensely powerful for staff development and retention. Happy home lives mean happy people. Happy people mean more productive workers who progress further in their careers.
Darani: Having a family-friendly environment is very important to the ethos of the firm, and something which we take very seriously. Tiziana and I have both raised our children while leading the firm, and we wouldn’t think twice about bringing them to the office if we couldn’t arrange childcare. And that can’t just be special treatment for partners—all employees need to be provided with an environment that lets them thrive. Even with 500 employees, we still feel like a family law firm with a strong sense of community.
Technology also plays an important role in this, due to its effect on work-life balance. There is no need for lawyers to spend long hours at the office when the same amount of work can be undertaken through intelligent use of technology. Intelligent use here doesn’t mean checking emails on your phone while checking on the kids—it means helping lawyers work more efficiently and spend less time on repetitive tasks, freeing up quality time to spend at home and minimizing the need for the excessive hours that legal practice is often known for.
ALB: How can female lawyers get on the leadership track and prepare themselves for leadership roles?
Tiziana: In addition to ability, I think that getting on the leadership track is something that really comes down to support. Having a good support network—at home and at work —is extremely important. If you don't have that, then you risk squandering even the most promising potential. Female lawyers recognize this and are now much savvier when it comes to selecting their workplace. And that is why, if retaining talent is important to a firm, the leadership must provide an environment that nurtures and supports individuals.
Darani: Dedication and persistence are essential, but so is understanding your team’s needs and your role in meeting them. It's important to know that just being smart and talented doesn't mean that you will succeed overnight or that things will be handed to you—you really have to work at it and be driven by your team’s need to succeed as much as your own. Always be improving and moving forward. You have to be innovative and always looking for new opportunities, new initiatives, and new solutions to problems.
Leading is about thinking for the future of your team, setting good targets that build that team’s potential, and working on the necessary assets to achieve it. Female or male is irrelevant in that context. The important thing is the talent of the person and the contribution that they can make to the future of the firm and everyone in it.
ALB: What advice do you have for junior female lawyers?
Darani: Persevere and be patient. Always be striving for self-improvement and seeking to learn new things. Learning is always important—and it gets more important the more you progress.
Tiziana: Hard work is crucial but it’s also important to enjoy what you do and like the people with whom you work. Also, seize on opportunities that are presented to you. When you take on and overcome these challenges, success will follow.
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