More women than ever are choosing a career in law – over the past 15 years Hong Kong’s legal profession has seen an increase in female lawyers entering the profession and they now constitute around 50 percent of Hong Kong’s legal professionals. However, the numbers at the most senior end of the career spectrum in law firms – partners, particularly equity partners – paints another picture. Even though women no longer face the same challenges they encountered 30 years ago, conservative social attitudes still play an element in shaping the female narrative.
Conventional wisdom suggests that it is only a matter of time before women climb the ranks to partnership. However, this rationale does not stack up when applied to the legal profession that has employed a critical mass of women for many years. As competition for legal talent increases (and with women making up a significant amount of the talent pool at the entry level), retaining and advancing women’s careers is essential for law firms seeking to attain a competitive advantage. This article outlines career management ideas for women that can have an important impact on career satisfaction, success and longevity.
Be Smart About Managing Your Career
The beginning of your career is the time to start taking a long term view on your professional goals and to have a plan for the next three to five years. You are free to change it as time passes, but it is important to have a professional development plan. Hard work alone does not necessarily guarantee the career you want or are qualified to do: you also need to make the right decisions regarding career direction and the platform that will best support your growth. Failure to do this can see you work in an area designated by your firm rather than one based on your own personal interests, which can be difficult to change due to the firm’s business needs or your own inertia. Therefore, understand how the choices you make at the beginning of your career have a lasting impact and be passionate about the path you choose. Take notice of whether there are female partners and other women in the senior ranks of the practice you have chosen. As you progress, start building your skillset and carving out a niche practice or set of clients that will make you indispensable. Becoming a specialist in a niche area could ensure your skills are always in demand.
As you progress through your career, evaluate if partnership is still what you want. The idea of partnership is very different to the ongoing demands of partnership. If it is your chosen path, take control of your career and actively seek out opportunities that will assist you in achieving it – no-one is more invested in your career than you. Be prepared to work late nights and weekends, develop business and client relationships vigorously and be in a position where you will be able to generate work to be self-sufficient after making partner. Too many of us think that by putting our heads down, we will be given the career progression that we “deserve”, when in actual fact we need to articulate our expectations and be clear on the path to achieving the objective. Ideally you should be in a growth practice area at your current firm and also consider the firm’s overall financial health and growth strategy for the next couple of years. If your firm is losing key partners and not replacing head count at associate level then you may need to consider looking at other firms. Do your due diligence on the firm and the partners that you want to join and research whether the firm has a track record of stifling or nurturing female talent.
The traditional steps to climbing the law firm career ladder require hours spent outside the office at networking events, drinks after work and lunches. Women who are juggling careers and young families are often unable to attend these functions and by doing so miss the valuable opportunities of establishing relationships that will help them advance professionally. Your network represents both clients who would follow you and people who will support you, therefore, it is important to invest time in this and find a way to balance family and work life that is suitable for you. Your network should consist of peers at other law firms (should you ever need to make a move you want to have a strong reputation and connections in the market), clients and most importantly supporters within your own firm.
Find a Mentor
Whilst it is important to build your technical skills it is also important to build your soft skills – for example, learn to please multiple demanding partners and also know when to push back. Find someone who you think has done this well and start to build a relationship with them – take them to lunch – this is a valuable way to build a relationship while gaining information. There is growing support from the legal community in Hong Kong to encourage a larger female presence in the senior ranks of the legal industry. A number of private practice and in-house lawyers have joined forces to launch “Women in Law Hong Kong” ("WILHK"). WILHK was established as a platform to help women in the legal profession connect and collaborate and to assist law firms in retaining female talent. WILHK offers a mentoring programme as a result of feedback from both women and law firms who have identified a significant lack of senior female lawyers compared to their male counterparts. Other specialist female professional groups that have been formed in Hong Kong include LILA (Ladies in Litigation and Arbitration) and IWIRC Hong Kong (International Women’s Insolvency and Restructuring Confederation). The Women’s Foundation also has a host of programmes and resources to assist women with career planning and development.
Should you step into motherhood the focus then becomes balancing family with work obligations. However, this is a priority for both parents and therefore it is important to talk to your partner about both of your respective career and family aspirations. In order for both of you to remain successful at work and home, you will likely have to work as a team. Returning from maternity leave can feel daunting and whether your career aspirations change or remain the same, you need to figure out how to manage your career effectively. It can be difficult to think past the next few months or years, but you will need to in order to keep your options open. Pro-actively restart career conversations and let it be known that you are still looking for progression and are committed to doing what is necessary to achieve it – lead and be in control of the conversation.
Women bring a distinctive way of thinking to the workplace as managers, leaders and peers whose value is increasingly recognised to the people who matter most to law firms: their clients. Women should not need to emulate the behaviour of men around them to be successful – aggressive female attorneys are often labelled “hard” or unpleasant and the quieter individuals as weak or lacking self-confidence – be who you are. Women do, however, need to put thought into what they want their career paths to be. Career management is the individual’s responsibility and you therefore need to consciously choose if partnership (and private practice) is what you want. Do not become so caught up performing your role that you do not have time to keep a perspective on whether achieving partnership is what you are really looking for. Obviously you will need to be conscientious in order to do a good job but this should not be to the exclusion of managing your career as it is not enough to keep your head down and work hard to assure success and security.
Choose your career, do not let it choose you!