IWD 2021: Celebrating Women in Law Firms’ Leadership

In these troubled times of pandemic and market turmoil, we have striven to look for positive news. In one example, last year saw more female lawyers take on leadership roles for top international firms in Asia. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer made history by appointing Georgia Dawson as their first female Senior Partner in September, and Morrison & Foerster made Marcia Ellis Global Chair of the Private Equity Group and elevated her to a Member of the Board of Directors.  In addition, Ashurst, Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith Freehills, and Kobre & Kim appointed women into regional leadership roles in 2020.

  • In 2020, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer elected a woman, Georgia Dawson, to Senior Partner for the first time in its 277-year-history, also becoming the first Magic Circle firm to do so. Dawson began her legal career at Freehills in Sydney in 1999, spent time in Hanoi on a law reform project and moved to UK to study for a Masters in International Relations at Cambridge, joining Freshfields as an Associate in 2004. Since 2012, Dawson has been a Freshfields partner in the Hong Kong office, becoming regional Managing Partner in Asia in 2017. She splits her time between Singapore and Hong Kong, where her main practice is internal and regulatory investigations, complex multi-jurisdictional litigation, and compliance counseling. Dawson took over from former Senior Partner, Edward Braham, in January 2021.
  • Morrison & Foerster promoted Marcia Ellis to Global Chair of the Private Equity Group and Member of the Board of Directors last October. Ellis, a Morrison & Foerster stalwart, rejoined the firm as a Corporate Partner in 2013, having initially left in 2008 to become the Chief Legal Officer for Asia at D.E.Shaw, in charge of all its investments in Asia on both public and private sides, before a two year stint at Ropes & Gray.
  • Recently awarded Woman Lawyer of the Year (Law Firm) at the 2020 ALB Hong Kong Awards, Jini Lee was also named Ashurst’s new regional head of Asia last year, the second woman to lead their Asia practice. Lee took over the role from predecessor Patrick Phua. Lee takes the role only five years after joining the firm as a partner from Linklaters.
  • Clifford Chance promoted capital markets specialist Connie Heng to Asia-Pacific Regional Managing Partner, taking over the role from Geraint Hughes last November. The NUS law graduate has been at the firm’s Hong Kong office for more than 20 years and has been regional head of its capital markets practice in Asia since 2015, and a member of the firm’s Global Wider Leadership Group since 2018.
  • Herbert Smith Freehills has appointed May Tai, former Managing Partner China to lead the Asia-Pacific region as Managing Partner, following a global leadership restructure at the firm. After graduating from Oxford, Tai joined HSF as a trainee in 2001 and became a Partner in 2010 and Managing Partner China in 2017. She has practiced in cross-border Asian disputes in the firm’s Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo offices during her career at the firm, making the appointment to her new regional remit all the more appropriate. Ms Tai, was keen to share her thoughts with us on #ChooseToChallenge, the IWD 2021 campaign theme.

May“The pandemic has disrupted women’s progress in many areas, from education to the workplace.

A disproportionate number of women have lost jobs, left the workforce completely, or shouldered an enormous burden of family support while working.

We have much ground to make up as the world slowly returns to normal.

We all have much to do, and can’t delay. We need to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world. We all have a responsibility to make this happen.

  • In February, former Global General Counsel of Honeywell Technology Solutions, Lian Lian, joined cross-border disputes and investigations specialists Kobre & Kim as Managing Director Asia Pacific. For the last decade, Lian has earned a strong reputation as a leading in-house lawyer in the Chinese legal community, but to move directly from a senior in-house role to a regional management position at an international law firm speaks volumes about the esteem the firm holds her in, and the trust they have placed in her. Read more about Lian’s career here (https://blog.hughes-castell.com/2021/01/26/leaders-in-law-interview-with-lian-lian/).

These appointments are welcome, progressive moves. The presence of role models and mentors is a crucial ingredient of a successful diversity program. Despite the fact that female law firm leadership ranks are growing, they are still relatively rare in Big Law. Women still face a challenging route to the top of the legal industry, as demonstrated in the UK, where fewer than 25% of partners among Magic Circle firms are female.

Though the glass ceiling has cracks, it still remains an impermeable barrier to many women, and inequality and prejudice remain very much part of the industry. Hopefully these recent leadership appointments will encourage more of the same in the years to come.

Published by Hughes Castell

Asia's Premier Firm for Global Legal, Compliance, Risk and Regulatory Executive Search

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