China’s legal system is unique, as are the women who practise within it. Alice Gartland raises gender issues with the nation’s top female professionals

While the gender equality dialogue is increasingly audible in corridors and management committees of law firms in the UK and US, the legal profession in China is only just “on the cusp of discussing diversity issues”, says Beth Bunnell, managing director at Asia Legal Resources in Hong Kong.

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One reason for that is that for many women, gender hasn’t really been an issue. If anything, “being a woman is a good thing”, says Jeanette Chan, head of Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison’s China practice. She believes the prevalence of women in senior executive positions in China means “you get a lot of respect and you are given the same opportunities [as men]”. Similarly, Wang Jihong, a managing partner at V&T Law Firm, says: “The impact of gender [on her career] has been generally positive.”

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The recent appointment of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer‘s China chairman Teresa Ko as a non-executive director of Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) is demonstrative of the strength of female lawyers in the region. Ko and Chan, along with Elaine Lo, Asia chair and senior partner of Mayer Brown JSM, are part of an expanding group of female lawyers dominating foreign law practices in China.

It’s impressive stuff, and sets a strong example for the profession globally. “Women are proven to be as equally capable as men. Most people have recognised that,” says Audry Li, a senior partner at Zhong Lun Law Firm in Shanghai. Things are “pretty good compared to other countries”, says Donna Li, senior partner at Allbright Law Offices.

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It’s tempting to conclude that women walk a straightforward career path in the Chinese legal profession. But in reality, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Where Chinese women lawyers are able to thrive in China law practice when working for Western firms, the Chinese and Western mix is “a very powerful combination”, says Amy Sommers, a partner at K&L Gates in Shanghai. However, not everyone can meet that challenge, and walking “the cultural tightrope can be exhausting”. As a result, both male and female Chinese lawyers may end up abandoning Western firms and prefer working in a Chinese firm context.

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The divide

Sommers and Bunnell’s survey found that litigation was singled out as the most challenging practice area for female lawyers. This is because litigation can be an aggressive environment that can at times involve threats of physical harm.

Often litigators are also expected to engage in socialising in a way that most women would find distasteful, with members of the prosecutorial and judicial apparatus.

This view was echoed in the opinions of a number of the lawyers, and one female judge, that China Business Law Journal spoke to who felt the emphasis on drinking and male-focused entertainment was a barrier for women.

One commercial lawyer who previously worked in litigation explained: “Litigation is not a comfortable environment for a woman. The importance of guanxi and entertainment reduces the time one can spend with the family.”

Amy Sommers, co-author of a survey exploring gender issues.
Amy Sommers, co-author of a survey exploring gender issues.

And it’s not just work-life balance that feels the impact. As another lawyer explained, “matters are not always judged on the parties’ evidence and capabilities, but may be influenced by guanxi”.

Women are also the minority when it comes to senior positions in the judiciary, and perhaps one explanation for that is the wider context in which the judicial apparatus operates.

As one female judge working in an intermediate people’s court describes: “We do need to socialise and drink sometimes, but I refuse to do that if I do not feel comfortable. I insist on my way of working, which is not always helpful to my career. That is one of the reasons why I have not been promoted in the last eight years.”

Reflecting on these comments one is reminded that the Chinese legal profession spans a range of practice areas and contexts, which perhaps make general assessments of the role of women unfair, and, as many of the lawyers we spoke to chose to do, taking a more compartmentalised approach to the issue is helpful. The world of international and corporate law is a very different context, yet at the same time it is not quite so distant as perhaps many would like to think.

It is also wrong to ignore the success and skills that women bring to litigation and the judicial apparatus. Times are changing. “More and more women are joining the team nowadays,” the judge says. “Why? First, passing the examination is easier for girls [they perform better in exams]. Second, although the career [of a judge] is not well paid, it is stable and decent. It is not a good choice for men who may need to take on a greater [financial] burden for the whole family. Third, women are more patient and tolerant with their clients and more careful with their judgments. For those reasons I think the job is more suitable for women.”