© Cat O’Neil

More than ever, the individuals profiled in the 2018 Financial Times report on legal innovation in the Asia-Pacific region highlight the importance of encouraging diversity in gender, age and skills.

One of the most striking features is the number of women. For the first time the list of Top 10 innovative individuals for the region is evenly balanced between men and women. When compiling the list of innovators and leaders in the Australia section, 10 women stood out.

This level of gender diversity is noticeably different from the FT’s Innovative Lawyers annual reports for Europe and North America.

Generally, gender parity at senior level in UK and US law firms, considered the most successful globally, is still a distant goal. The industry average for female partners in a UK or US law firm, for instance, is only 20 per cent.

However, if submissions to the FT’s Innovative Lawyers awards and report are a guide, Asia-Pacific law firms are bucking the trend. In a survey of 52 of the local and international law firms that made submissions for the report, the ratio of male to female partners was 65 to 35, which is higher than the UK and US averages.


Ratio of male to female partners in RSG survey of Asia-Pacific law firms, which is higher than the UK and US averages

In Singapore, an important hub for legal services in the region, many local and international law firms have charismatic female leaders. The winner of last year’s innovative individual award was Sophie Mathur, partner and global co-head of innovation at Linklaters for Asia-Pacific. This year another Singaporean, Rachel Eng, deputy chair of WongPartnership, is among the top 10 individuals. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer last year appointed Georgia Dawson to head its Asia business out of Singapore and Hong Kong, its first female leader of the firm in a decade. The deputy managing partner of Rajah & Tann, which ranks strongly in the report this year, is corporate lawyer Rebecca Chew.

These women are just some of a band of senior female lawyers in Singapore pushing to change attitudes to diversity and to improve work-life balance, both in their own law firms and in business more broadly.

Ms Eng puts at least some of the prominence of female lawyers in Singapore down to extended family networks and childcare policies set by the government over the past 20 years, including encouraging child and infant care centres. “I believe that once the children are in good hands, the female executives and professionals are then able to concentrate on building their career,” says Ms Eng. She does, however, acknowledge that career progression is enjoyed by far more women in professional services than in companies.

Ms Eng’s firm, WongPartnership, which has 62 women in management, compared with 46 men, retains staff by offering varied career pathways and flexible working practices.

It is not only Singapore that bucks the UK and US trend on gender statistics. More than half — 54 per cent — of the management team at Zico Law, an Asean-wide firm, are women. In India, Anand and Anand has a ratio of male to female partners of 55 to 45.

The picture in Australia is more complicated. While the gender split at partner level in firms is less balanced than in some Asian jurisdictions, female lawyers are making their presence felt.

Sue Kench, global chief executive of King & Wood Mallesons, says that until 2005 the firm paid maternity leave for only two children, which in effect put women who wanted more children while working at a disadvantage. Ms Kench also points out that starting a family later than usual — after 40 — meant she was able to carve out a valuable real estate practice in her 30s, a critical decade for lawyers to make progress in their careers.

Despite the presence of so many female legal innovators in this FT report, a direct correlation between appointing more women and a firm’s levels of innovation is not clear.

In fact, there are several factors at work as the overall winners of this year’s Asia-Pacific awards for law firms show (see Ashurst and Yulchon in tables).

Ashurst, the product of a merger between Australian firm Blake Dawson and international firm Ashurst, has a global gender ratio of male to female partners of 76 to 24. However, it had a significant change in leadership two years ago. Paul Jenkins was only 43 when he was appointed to the post of global managing partner, which is young compared with UK and US counterparts.

He felt that waiting for change to happen in the firm was not an option: “We need to disrupt ourselves,” he says. “By regularly talking about innovation at a leadership level, people listen and start to do things differently.” Increasing diversity is one of his goals.

“Having more women, and diversity generally, at all levels in the firm does drive innovation, you have a better balance and sharing of ideas,” he says.

Similarly, the rise of South Korea’s Yulchon shows how an inclusive approach to talent can also drive innovation in law firms. Carl Im, who is highlighted in the top 10 individuals list, is a former theoretical physicist. His work to digitise Yulchon is helping it to create and maintain a competitive advantage.

Overall, the 2018 Asia-Pacific winners show that as law firms become more diverse, innovation becomes more attainable.

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