Whether you look to Heads of State or to Fortune 500 companies, voices are coming together to advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment in all spheres of public and private life. This month the Hong Kong Lawyer joins the gender equality discussions by sitting down with Ula Cartwright-Finch (Herbert Smith Freehills), Laura Cooper (Harney Westwood & Riegels), Jennifer Maughan (Harney Westwood & Riegels) and Eleanor Vance (Herbert Smith Freehills), founding members of LILA (Ladies in Litigation and Arbitration), to discuss LILA and its recent panel event, which focused on gender issues affecting Hong Kong’s legal disputes community.
Whilst progress has been made and women have attained key positions in both the public and private sectors, they still remain significantly under-represented amongst senior positions in the field of dispute resolution. In Hong Kong, less than a quarter of High Court judges are women, and there are none in the Court of Final Appeal. Similarly, only seven percent of arbitrators on the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre’s (“HKIAC”) Panel are female. These sorts of ratios can be tracked across partnership numbers in law firms in Hong Kong (Harney Westwood & Riegels, Press Release October 2013).
These figures make clear that the gender gap remains wide, with much still to be done. Ula Cartwright-Finch (Associate at Herbert Smith Freehills), Laura Cooper (Associate at Harney Westwood & Riegels), Jennifer Maughan (Chairperson of LILA and Associate at Harney Westwood & Riegels) and Eleanor Vance (Senior Associate at Herbert Smith Freehills), founding members of LILA (Ladies in Litigation and Arbitration), have rolled up their sleeves with their fellow LILA committee members and have set to work.
What motivated you to launch LILA?
COOPER: About a year ago, Jennifer and I saw a gap in terms of what support or networking opportunities were available to women in Hong Kong. We were aware that other female networking opportunities existed, but none that specifically targeted our own practice area. We had been to events before that really resonated with us, so we wanted to create a forum where we could replicate events with the same spirit. It took us over six months of planning to get to the launch event last October because there was a lot of upfront thinking about what we wanted LILA to become and what we wanted to achieve through it.
VANCE: Yes. It began very organically, by contacting women we knew at other firms and asking if they would like to become involved. It just grew from there.
What did you want LILA to be and achieve?
VANCE: Our initial focus was really on creating a common meeting ground for women working in the area of dispute resolution. We wanted to create a forum for people to come together to promote, support and encourage women in this practice area. We particularly wanted to provide a support network for people at the more junior end of the profession by putting them in touch with people who could be role models or mentors and help them achieve their career aspirations.
MAUGHAN: It was natural that when discussing issues facing female dispute resolution lawyers that gender disparity would become a talking point. One of our goals was to open a dialogue about these types of issues. And providing mentoring opportunities, as Eleanor mentioned, was a key aim. A lot of firms have their own internal mentoring programmes, but we thought it would be useful to connect junior lawyers with mentors from different firms – lawyers who may do things slightly differently or who may offer a different perspective or experience. In this way, we hoped LILA would bring together lawyers from firms across Hong Kong.
VANCE: Drawing from my experience for example, back in my home jurisdiction, I naturally had a network of contacts at other law firms because I went to law school with people that ended up working at different firms. That’s not something you naturally have when you move to a different jurisdiction. So for me as a UK lawyer practising in Hong Kong, LILA has proved to be a useful way to meet new people and establish a wider network.
In what ways is LILA’s focus on engaging junior lawyers valuable?
MAUGHAN: We are targeting people across the board, but when we started LILA, we hadn’t seen an initiative spearheaded by people of a more junior level. It is almost always partners in firms that launch these initiatives, and rightly so, because they have already worked their way to the top. But I think it’s important for people at a more junior level to show that we are interested in these issues too. Also, some junior female lawyers may not have access to senior female role models. Being able to interact with these more senior women and talk with them one-on-one is an incredible opportunity and invaluable experience.
CARTWRIGHT-FINCH: The value of hearing from senior women and the personal experiences they’ve had during their careers is really important as well. At both of the events we’ve held so far, there was a real sense that just listening to women standing up and saying out loud “I found that really hard” or “This continues to be a challenge” is hugely helpful. Recognising, acknowledging and sharing experiences are invaluable and something LILA can contribute.
Does anyone have a strong female role model?
CARTWRIGHT-FINCH: I think I’m very lucky on this front because Herbert Smith Freehills has some very impressive and formidable female leaders at the top, especially in dispute resolution. Sonya Leydecker was our global head of disputes for almost nine years before being recently elected joint-CEO, and we have Paula Hodges QC – who’s just taken silk – leading our global international arbitration practice.
MAUGHAN: I have seen some amazing women at the top. The only sadness I have is that there aren’t more of them.
VANCE: I have also had the opportunity to work with some very impressive senior women, but I don’t think that role models should be constrained by gender. I wouldn’t say that I have one particular role model or mentor, female or male. Rather, I have drawn inspiration from a variety of people. For me, personally, I look at different people and think, “Well, this person does this thing or that thing really excellently, and I would like to model myself on that aspect of that person.” Equally, you see traits in some people, both men and women, that you don’t aspire to emulate. For me, it’s about finding the right combination that best suits you.
Is LILA involving men in its efforts?
COOPER: Absolutely. We think men’s involvement is key. These are not just issues that affect women. These are issues that affect everybody. You are not going to achieve real change without the involvement of men. It’s really important that they are part of the discussion.
CARTWRIGHT-FINCH: I agree. Gender inequality is a massively complex issue and it’s going to involve change across many levels of society to confront it effectively.
VANCE: Actually, some of the biggest supporters of LILA from Herbert Smith Freehills have been the male partners, like Justin D’Agostino, our new global head of disputes. There are definitely men engaged with the organisation and the issues we have been discussing, but we certainly need more.
MAUGHAN: It’s the same at Harneys. Our boss, Ian Mann, Head of Litigation and Restructuring in Hong Kong, has been behind us 100 percent. Without his support and the support of other partners at our firm, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
LILA hosted its launch event last October at the China Club, where Chiann Bao, Secretary-General of the HKIAC, gave the keynote address. What were some of the highlights?
COOPER: We thought that Chiann was the perfect example of a young and impressive female role model and we were really honoured to have her speak at the event. She gave a very heartfelt and honest speech, taking us through her career to how she ended up being the Secretary-General of the HKIAC. The entire audience was moved when she spoke of her family and the support they offered – which she said was key in allowing her to do what she does – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house! Afterwards Chiann told us how excited she was with the entrepreneurial spirit behind LILA and her hope that we would continue to embody the quality of being ‘doers’.
Were there any challenges you faced leading up to the launch?
CARTWRIGHT-FINCH: Planning it was actually quite a challenge – simply because we had no idea how much interest there would be or how many people would show up on the night. But when the day came, so many people came along that they packed out the room! It really was a great success, and beyond anything we dared dream. Since the launch, the organisation has gathered pace as people hear about it and want to get on board. It’s been incredible to see so much support from both women and men.
COOPER: Yes, the response has been overwhelming. We started talking about LILA as a concept about a year ago, and at our launch just less than nine months ago, we had about 100 members, today we have almost 300 members. Unfortunately, still not enough male members but we’re aiming high!
CLAYTOR: LILA also hosted a panel discussion this March on the topic of Taking a Seat at the Table, which was inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s ideas in her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Donna Wacker (Partner at Clifford Chance) led the discussion as the event’s panel facilitator and was joined by some of Hong Kong’s top litigators – Ann Cheng-Echevarria (Legal Counsel at UBS AG), Roxanne Ismail SC (Temple Chambers), Angus Ross (Partner at Ashurst) and Caroline McNally (Partner at Gall).
How was LILA’s second event? Were there any interesting points discussed by the panelists?
MAUGHAN: The panel discussion was an enormous success. We are very grateful that Clifford Chance agreed to sponsor the event and that our two Committee Members from Clifford Chance, Rebecca Lachno and Janet Irvine, did an amazing job organising it.
CARTWRIGHT-FINCH: One of the issues the panel discussed was the way women often underplay their achievements or attribute their successes to external factors, like being “lucky”. I found it ironic that every one of the female panelists did exactly that at some point during the evening. They played down or made light of their successes, whether in their career or in their personal life. It was interesting to see these biases in action – particularly given the forum, which was intended to be a celebration of successful women!
COOPER: That was one of the things that really resonated with the audience. Everyone identified with the stories the panelists told, especially those surrounding internal barriers to success. Particularly issues such as “imposter syndrome” – the feeling that you’re a fraud and don’t deserve the successes you have – and “fear of success” syndrome, which are more prevalent in women. These are things that people generally don’t talk about and raising awareness of them is what LILA is all about. Being aware of such issues can be a first step to overcoming them.
CARTWRIGHT-FINCH: Another important point raised by all of the women on the panel was that they had a supportive partner at home. Each of them acknowledged that they couldn’t do what they do, or wouldn’t have reached the level they have, without someone else taking the majority (or a good share) of the childcare and other responsibilities at home.
Did any of the panelists give examples of times they leant in but didn’t necessarily want to?
VANCE: One message that came across quite clearly at the panel was that sometimes “leaning in” involves having to do things that perhaps you don’t necessarily enjoy or want to do. But that isn’t necessarily a challenge that just women face!
COOPER: When people question whether they could or would lean in, a lot of it seemed to come down to confidence. Again, more internal issues than any external barriers.
MAUGHAN: A lot of what came out of the panel was the message – go beyond your comfort zone and fake it ‘til you make it. It was also interesting to see that all of the panelists are such successful people, and are very humble about their success even though they aimed high and made it.
Can you tell us a bit more?
CARTWRIGHT-FINCH: There was a discussion around the view that women have to demonstrate “masculine” traits to get to the top. The panel thought that this was really an outdated concept, and I agree. I think there’s a widespread recognition these days that different styles of leadership are critical to a firm’s success, and that women (or those with qualities that people tend to consider as typically “feminine”) bring something really valuable to the table. Diversity is a strength.
MAUGHAN: One of the things that was discussed at the panel was that certain issues that are perceived as gender issues don’t just apply to women. Work-life balance, flexibility and good working environments are important to everyone. I read an article recently by Ann-Marie Slaughter “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” that referenced various studies which found that in jobs offering greater flexibility and family friendly policies, there is better job satisfaction, employee retention, health and productivity, which can all lead to more profitable and productive firms and companies. The world is changing every day and the way that we used to do things might not necessarily be the way that we need to continue doing them. If change is to happen, it should benefit everyone.
CARTWRIGHT-FINCH: I have spoken to quite a few male colleagues about gender issues like these, and they also express interest in wanting to achieve a sustainable work-life balance. There’s an assumption that men are perfectly content to work 24 hours a day and to miss out on seeing their children as a result, but that’s just not true for many men. Policies that promote gender equality can help everyone.
What’s next for LILA?
MAUGHAN: LILA has two more events planned for later in the year – an educational seminar and a networking event. Another project we are working on is connecting with local charities. We are still a small organisation, but we are growing. We have a lot of ideas and things that we want to do – watch this space!
LILA is just starting out but hopes to offer a wide spectrum of activities, ranging from social functions to educational seminars, career guidance and mentoring opportunities. LILA’s committee is made up of female associates from Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Gall, Harney Westwood & Riegels, Herbert Smith Freehills, Linklaters and Walkers Global.
For more information on LILA and its upcoming events, please visit
Founding members of LILA with Chiann Bao, Secretary-General of HKIAC (third from left) at LILA’s Launch Event at the China Club last October.