Flexible working patterns are still a pipe dream in Malaysia’s legal sector
Grace Yeoh was Shearn Delamore’s first female managing partner in the firm’s 100-year history. She has watched Malaysia’s legal profession evolve over three decades while climbing the ranks and raising five children.
Law was a male-dominated profession when Yeoh began her career. “There were not many women at the top, especially senior partners,” she says. “There was an unconscious bias against women, but merely because most of the senior lawyers were men. We had around 20 partners at the time and only one was a woman. Now we have more female than male partners. So it’s been a gradual journey. It hasn’t happened overnight.”
Today, women no longer face such bias and in fact make up the majority of junior lawyers entering the profession. “Even when I go to meetings with clients, a lot of the clients’ representatives are female. Many more women have gone on to tertiary education and joined the professions.”
Yeoh stepped down from her position as managing partner in January, and also left her role on the managing committee, a position she held for 17 years. Becoming managing partner, she says, was significant “because it broke the mould and changed perceptions of who someone in that position should be. I don’t think what I did as managing partner had anything to do with gender. It was more about trying to modernize the profession and the way we do things, perhaps with a more corporate approach to running the business.”
While women lawyers enjoy more opportunities today, retention continues to be a challenge. “It’s the same issue worldwide. A lot of women fall by the wayside after having kids, not because of ability, but because of a difficulty in managing time and all their obligations. That is always a problem in a woman’s career and it extends beyond the legal profession.”
Yeoh is in favour of tailoring careers for women in a different way to men, but says that current options have failed to take off in Malaysia. “A lot of women have tried it, but it hasn’t worked out and there are various reasons why. Firstly, we don’t have law firms that are big enough to allow people to take time off and have others jumping in to fill the vacuum.
“Secondly, clients here are unused to people working part-time or being unavailable during office hours. So there needs to be a little bit of education there, and organizations also have to develop to a size that can accommodate flexible working patterns.”
Yeoh was lucky to have a lot of family support when raising her own children but acknowledges the struggle many new mothers face. “There were a lot of logistics involved! I didn’t sleep very much for many years. I wanted to make sure I was there for my kids, otherwise, why bother having them? My weekends were completely full, taking the kids to classes and activities.
“The way I saw it, I worked seven days a week; two full-time days for the family, and five full-time days for work. It’s quite fulfilling, but it’s tough. So I completely understand when people say they can’t manage and they want to give up work. But I think what’s important is whether they are given the opportunity to come back when they are ready.”
Managing expectations is critical at this juncture. “Taking lawyers back is not a problem. It’s also about whether lawyers are able to pick up where they’ve left off. And the recognition that if you’re out of the work system for a few years, you can’t expect to come back and be slotted into the same position, or be promoted at the same time as your peers who stayed on in your absence. Some women do return but they don’t stay very long and find they are unable to readjust.
“I’m quite lucky, I never burned out. It wasn’t a question of sitting down, moaning and groaning. I knew what I wanted, how I’d make it work, and ensured I did it to the best of my ability.”
Senior women lawyers across Asia share personal stories of successes, struggles and strategies for a more inclusive legal profession. The following mosaic of personal stories identifies some of the nuances that typify women’s experiences in particular Asian jurisdictions, while also drawing on the wealth of shared experiences that bind them.