Why Malaysian Women Lawyers Can and Should Lead

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One word. Mandate.

Did you know half of Malaysia’s top law firms have at least 50% women partners, miles ahead of other industries and international law firms?

I couldn’t believe it myself. I had gotten used to anecdotes of the tough life in law firms. Poor work-life balance, sexism, women leaving the profession in droves to go in-house, stay home or pursue more exciting prospects. Confession – I am one of those, perhaps all three.

I was disturbed by a casual remark by a lawyer recently that a particular firm had no women partners in dispute resolution. That supported my own observation that law firms liked to send senior male partners to pitch for jobs while the women lawyers played the silent supporting role.

Have we regressed?

With time on my hands, I rolled up my sleeves, listed out the larger Malaysian well known firms, hit their websites and counted the number of female partners.

The results were astounding.

And the award goes to….

Albar & Co and Zain & Co top the list with 69% and 67% respectively. Women head the Corporate and Dispute Resolution Departments in Zain & Co – Salwah Shukor and Anita Sockalingam.

The two firms that achieved an exact 50:50 split are led by women. Chooi & Co’s managing partner is Ira Biswas and Shearn Delamore is led by Grace Yeoh.

Hot on the heels of the front runners are Sharizat Rashid & Lee (58%) and Azman Davidson & Co and ZICO, both 57%.

The bottom half of the list are still fairly high with only a quarter of the firms below 40%. LHAG has some catching up to do with only 20%.

Here’s the list of 16 firms. I picked the more well known ones with at least 10 partners. Note: DR stands for Dispute Resolution

My methodology

Purely a website count of well known firms with at least 10 partners. I admit I know the corporate firms better so let me know if I’ve overlooked a sizeable law firm. Quick side bar: All the firms have slick professional websites but Zain & Co stands out with its classy artwork and an attractive photo layout of its welcoming partners.

I focused on the Malaysian offices. Some firms have regional presence or are associated with a larger network. This was not taken into account. I did not distinguish between seniority of partners. On some sites, you can see the more junior partners with a heavily female ratio while men dominate senior positions. As not all firms make the distinction, I could not make a fair comparison. The sites do not distinguish between equity and non equity partners.

In some jurisdictions, Bar associations have conducted surveys to determine female representation. The female partnership ratio is typically lower for equity partnership.

How about other industries?

If we were to consider partnership as top management, the legal profession is way above other industries. PwC and Talentcorp conducted a Diversity in the Workplace 2015 Survey among 130 companies listed on the Bursa (Kuala Lumpur stock exchange). Financial Services and FMCG are the highest with 30% women in top management.

15 out of the 16 top law firms exceed 30%.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world

Law firms elsewhere may still be struggling to shed male domination.

  • The United Kingdom (as at Oct 2016) : 24% in the Top 100 firms. Only 9 firms in the Top 200 are majority women partnerships. The highest, Hodge Jones & Allen has 71%. Most of the big names are quite appalling, typically under 25%. You can feast your eyes here at Legal Cheek.
  • The United States (as at April 2016) : Law360’s Glass Ceiling Report was sobering: an average of 22%.
  • Australia (as at Jan 2017): The Australian Financial Review Law Partnership Survey found 24.9% of women partners. They didn’t round it up in order to make the point that they were still short of a quarter.

Given that the ratio is so encouraging in Malaysia, the Bar Council should consider a comprehensive survey on gender diversity across law firms looking at all levels from pupils up to managing partner and compare with other countries. We might be the world leaders.

What are we doing right? What does the Malaysian legal profession do that international firms and other industries can emulate? Tell us!

But are there enough women on the Battlefield?

I am told there are not enough women in dispute resolution and that in the bigger firms, they don’t get to lead high profile cases. From the statistics above, it does appear there are less women partners in dispute resolution. A way to find out how many women get to be lead counsel is to check the reported cases in recent years.

Among the 16 firms, Zain & Co, Zul Rafique, Chooi, Skrine and Shook Lin appear to stand out when it comes to women partners in dispute resolution.

Do women lawyers get to shape policy for the profession?

The Malaysian Bar Council held its annual elections recently. When someone posted the names of the 4 office bearers, my first question was, “where are the women”?

There are no female office bearers, but out of 37 Bar Council members, 7 are women. 3 are among the 22 state Bar representatives and 4 from the main committee. That’s 18% women representing the profession which is 51% female (A 2014 survey by the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) found that the Malaysian Bar comprises 51% women and that 68% of legal assistants are women).

Of the state committees, two are led by women. Goh Siu Lin is chair for the KL Bar Committee and Rosnah Faisal chairs the Pahang Bar Committee.

Hmmm, then how about shaping policy for their firms?

It is hard to change policy when one is an insignificant minority, but can the women partners influence policy within their own firms?

The AWL study identified the more prominent forms of gender-discriminatory practices within the profession:

a) Bias towards male lawyers. There is a preference for male lawyers to handle cases or being assigned big cases or having more networking opportunities which led to an increase in business.

b) Bias against working mothers. This is relevant where law firm practices require long working hours and being on call, not taking into account that most mothers are primary care givers and need to be 100% present for their families.

c) Being sexually propositioned. By clients, other lawyers or within the firm.

Those firms with more women partners should be able to lead the way and create a work environment that is conducive and safe for women (men need to feel safe too). There is no need for women to feel that there is only one way to run law firms – born during patriarchal times. You have the power – change it!

Imagine if your firm:

  • has flexible working hours that supported both parents (not just mothers) and lawyers who had to support elderly or ill family members.
  • respects work-life balance.
  • has an equal opportunity policy and a strong anti-harassment policy (including sexual harassment) where all your lawyers and employees know how to seek redress.
  • creates safe spaces and supports lawyers who are stressed or have depression. Introduce mindfulness at work!
  • coaches lawyers to reach their potential.
  • provides women circles. After all it’s tough being a lawyer and raising a family without getting completely burnt out. The Lean In Circles are a great model for working women.
  • provides parking for pregnant women, nursing rooms and creches.
  • provides paternity in addition to maternity leave.
  • has an open work culture that is brave enough to reflect on its shortcomings and make positive changes. Where lawyers feel safe to speak up without fear of retaliation.

The irony is that some overseas firms with a lower ratio of women partners do have some of these initiatives in place.

So women partners… what are you waiting for? Start within your own firm.

I know several women lawyers who are fantastic mentors. I’d like to see them step up and begin inspiring young women lawyers from other firms and other countries. Inspire law students.

There is nothing stopping you from creating policies and changing the culture in your firm to benefit both women and men.

One day, you will stand on an international stage and share what you did for women that changed the Malaysian legal profession, the legal profession globally, and possibly organisations across the world. After all, that’s exactly what Ambiga did.

Note: if the data presented for your firm is inaccurate in any way, please let me know and I will correct it. If you feel your firm should be represented, please say so in the comments – indicating the ratio of women partners and women partners in dispute resolution. If your firm is run by a woman, I would be happy to interview you and possibly run a separate feature.

Animah Kosai is an advocate for speaking up in the corporate world and is passionate about women empowerment. If you have any experiences you would like to share on women within the legal profession, please do share here, or e-mail Animah atanimahspeakup@gmail.com

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