Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Clearing the path to partnership for female lawyers


A recent initiative spearheaded by City law firm Norton Rose - which has recently merged with Deacons - is once again shining the limelight on whether or not a glass ceiling exists for female lawyers.

The firm recently announced that it had overhauled its diversity committee and was preparing to introduce a program to boost partnership opportunities for female lawyers. The committee - due to meet in November - will discuss potential initiatives and a series of measures to improve partnership prospects for female associates, including one-on-one discussions to review next steps in career progression for female lawyers, learning and development programmes, and a potential review of the firm's lateral hiring process.

Yan Lan, partner and chief representative at Gide Loyrette Nouel Beijing)

The fact that a firm has so publicly acknowledged the need to focus on boosting opportunities for female lawyers to reach partnership, in itself suggests that there is still work to be done for partnership paths to be on par for both sexes.

According to Yan Lan, partner and chief representative at Gide Loyrette Nouel (Beijing), there is definitely evidences of a glass ceiling for female lawyers in Asia - despite the fact that females account for more than 50% of students in law schools.

"I don't think this is a problem exclusive to law firms as there are less women in the upper levels of many professions. But unfortunately, the career advancement of women in law, regardless of their education and experience, is often impeded by informal barriers," she said.

"These informal barriers, or glass ceilings, are not limited by geography. Many female law students often prefer to go into administration or in-house counsel positions rather than law firms. This is because they think that there are few opportunities for progression to partnership as there are so few females in those positions. In addition, I have been told that in certain remote areas in China, male clients do not like to deal with female lawyers due to traditional attitudes. So, the combination of traditional prejudices and a lack of motivation amongst women lawyers makes for a discouraging situation."

Janet Hui, a partner at Jun He agrees that traditional views in Asia are one of the barriers making women's path to partnership more difficult.

"I think one of the reasons for the smaller number of women partners is definitely tradition," she said.

"In Chinese law firms it is still easier for men to climb up the ladder. This could be due to the fact that in the past and now in business circles, senior management is usually male, so it is easier for the male partners to get business. Also traditionally in China and in the Western world as well, there is a concept that the male is usually the senior, more competent one. However, I think things are changing lately and people are starting to recognise that for work that does not involve manual labour, the capability of the female is not less than the male."

However, Hui adds that the disparity between the numbers of female partners compared to male can also be attributed to the biological nature of things and the crossroads at which women lawyers must make a choice. This is incidentally also one of the biggest challenges that they face on the path to partnership.

"In my view, the major challenge for female lawyers is how to balance family and work. The legal industry is very demanding - you have to work very long hours and if you work on overseas deals, the time difference means you have to work around the clock and often travel a lot for work. Mothers traditionally are still expected to pick the kids up from school, organise around school holidays and also attend to their [children's] daily needs. At the same time the legal industry is a tough one, so this is difficult and it is a big challenge," she said.

"Also, normally when you reach around seven years' experience there is a possible partnership check, but for female lawyers, often that's also right about the time to get married and have children. And whilst you can rely on your parents, spouse and family, you still have to spend time with your child, so it is quite hard to find a balance."

However, it is possible to have both, as evidenced by her career progression. Hui worked as an in-house lawyer for six years while her children were very young but then joined Jun He in 2004, where she is a partner and telecommunication specialist, also practicing in foreign direct investment, M&A, overseas listing, infrastructure, internet, IP and general corporate commercial practice.

Whatever the reality - glass ceiling or not - successful female partners such as Hui and Yan Lan are proof that partnership for female associates is attainable if they make that goal their priority and are determined enough to overcome the obstacles that may arise along their path to partnership.

"When I joined GLN in 1991, which was then a very traditional French law firm, there were no women partners. I was very surprised by this and I went directly to talk to the managing partner at that time and asked him why there were no women partners. His answer was that, generally speaking, women lawyers were excellent and competent but after their marriage, they needed (and wanted) to take time out from their careers to care for their families," she said.

"My response was a Chinese saying - that "women hold half the sky" - and my education had shown me that if women can demonstrate they are as competent as men, then they should be given equal opportunities to be promoted. Fortunately the managing partner told me that he was ready to change his mind and after seven years, I became the first foreign female worldwide partner in Paris."

She adds that the major challenge for many women is the fear and feelings of inadequacy, but she says that this is something women with their eyes on partnership must overcome and conquer.

"I think that your biggest enemy is yourself. Many women underestimate themselves but with confidence in yourself and devotion to your work anything is possible. Of course, you also have to organise things efficiently between your work life and your private life; but do not think that you cannot be a partner because you are a woman. Develop confidence in dealing with your work, your clients and your colleagues and develop your legal skills."

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