Dr. Nguyen Thi Lang, the first chairwoman in Vietnam of a global law firm, is also one of the first two J.D. graduates from HCMC University of Law and is therefore an ideal role model to discuss this year’s International Women’s Day theme, Breaking the Bias. In this interview with Sam Kenworthy, Dr. Lang Nguyen shared her career experience and tips for breaking the glass ceiling.
Dr Lang Nguyen: Dr Nguyen Thi Lang, Chairwoman of Duane Morris Vietnam
Sam: Sam Kenworthy, Director – Head of Private Practice, Hughes-Castell
Sam: What made you pursue a career in law?
Dr Lang Nguyen: First of all, law is actually one popular academic degree in higher-level education. It requires a tremendous amount of study and continuous learning to stay updated on new laws, policies, changes and trends in the legal environment.
Being a logical person with strong critical thinking and an active mind, I found law very interesting with many knowledge facets for various fields including business, constitutional, criminal, environmental, health care, intellectual property, etc. Law governs almost everything in our life.
I started pursuing the career in law at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law and obtained my bachelor law degree in 1999. Coincidentally, my mother-in-law was, and still is, one of the most famous lawyers in the country, with a good reputation and known for her charisma. She inspired me to follow the legal career path, and strongly encouraged me to enhance my studies by going forward with the Master’s and Doctorate degrees in law.
After following the legal path for over two decades, I continue to recognize that law is still really interesting to me. There is no case the same as other cases, the matters are always new, varied, challenging and the problems you have to handle are constantly changing. You have to adapt, develop your mind, embrace new knowledge, handle new experiences and hear other perspectives all the time. To sum up, those have been my inspirations, my motivations and the basis of the pursuit of my career in law.
Sam: What specific challenges have you experienced as a woman in law during your career?
Dr Lang Nguyen: A female lawyer has to face many challenges during her career path, not just in Vietnam but in every nation, all over the world.
First, I have to deal with the challenge of balancing between my great responsibilities with my job and my family life, especially my role as a child-bearer. As you may know, a legal career can be very stressful. I have to be both fast and accurate under high-pressure while the matters are diverse and involve a wide range of areas, from banking & finance, real estate, complex M&A transactions, large scale investment, power supply and infrastructure, etc. to give just some examples. The clients are from many nationalities, with different cultures, characters, demands, etc. Accordingly, I have to be very hardworking and sharp.
But the moment I go back home, I again have to be a wife, a mother, to build a loving family life with my husband and take care of the kids. Luckily, my mother-in-law and my husband are very understanding and supportive to me in my work and the family duties.
On the other hand, I would need to mention about gender discrimination which occurs everywhere, not just in the legal field. You may see that nowadays it is no longer a small number of women who are lawyers and associates at law firms, but still very few are partners, especially in international/global law firms. Hence, I have always worked hard, not just hard enough, in trying to express my talents and prove that I am also strong, brave and not afraid of any challenges, and attempting to network with business partners and clients so that I now proudly stand at this position today, the first Vietnamese Chairwoman of a global law firm in Vietnam.
Sam: Would you share any outstanding accomplishment(s) that have shaped your career? Have there been any make-or-break moments?
Dr Lang Nguyen: There have been various milestones in my professional life which have shaped my career path. After graduating as one of the first two doctors in law from Ho Chi Minh City Law University, I also became one of the first two Vietnamese lawyers who was appointed as an international counsel of a magic circle law firm in Vietnam. I then became a partner of one of the first foreign law companies in Vietnam at the age of 35. At that time there were only comparatively few female partners in the international law firms, especially in Vietnam. Subsequently, I have been nominated as a Chairwomen of the Duane Morris offices in Vietnam, which makes me very proud of myself, being one of the first Vietnamese lawyers who became the Chair of a global law firm in Vietnam.
Sam: What are the most important attributes which have led to your progression to a global law firm’s executive role?
Dr Lang Nguyen: From my perspective, what has contributed the most to my progression to an executive role in a global law firm is firstly my character. I am very adaptable, open-minded and not afraid of changing and improving my experiences and my knowledge every single day.
Secondly, I must mention my background at various large international law firms such as PwC Legal, Freshfields, Frasers, and Duane Morris. I have accumulated deep knowledge and experience from many years of hard work in legal practice, at very different firms.
This variety has brought me an in-depth understanding of the global legal working lifestyle, culture and people. Last but not least, a value which brought me to the position of a female partner and also a chairperson in a global law firm is my professional and interpersonal skills. I can manage to handle professional tasks, cultivate a strong relationship between clients and the firms, and display good management skills over my colleagues working in the firm.
Sam: Can you highlight any mentor who has inspired you and why?
Dr Lang Nguyen: I must say that my first, longest-standing and the most important mentor of my legal life is my mother-in-law. She has almost 40 years of experience working as a leading lawyer specializing in real estate, commercial and corporate, researching and teaching at Hanoi Law University and Ho Chi Minh City University of Law, and she also holds a significant role in the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association. As I mentioned earlier, she was the one who inspired me to keep learning and chasing my dream of being a lawyer. From the early days of my career, she oriented and instructed me a lot so that I could choose an appropriate road to follow my legal career for more than 20 years.
Sam: You are one of the first two Doctors of Law from HCMC University of Law; have you always been academically driven?
Dr Lang Nguyen: To be honest, I love learning new things, and accumulating both academic and practical knowledge. That is why I had constantly been studying from my Bachelor’s law degree to my Master’s degree up to my doctorate. It was a long journey which took me almost 12 years with significant encouragement and support from my family. At present, my academically driven path varies a little bit from studying to delivering knowledge to law students and young lawyers. Actually, this is also another way of learning. At this point of my life, I want to transmit my knowledge, experience which I have achieved for years to the next generation by being a lecturer of the master and doctor degrees for legal professionals held by Tra Vinh University, Ho Chi Minh City University of Law, University of Law and Economics.
Sam: As a leader, you must have a lot on your plate. How do you balance your work and personal life?
Dr Lang Nguyen: Being a chairwoman in a global law firm means you have to deal a lot with both professional and management responsibilities, which could cost a lot of time. I, of course, have many instances of working overnight or working through weekends. However, I always try to spend time with my family, especially my husband and my kids. Attempting to have dinner with family every day is a real challenge in this position, but that’s what I want to do.
I want my kids to know they still have me beside them during their childhood and their lives later on. I am also very pleased that despite many challenges in my work and personal life which have been observed by my children, my daughter has also been inspired by my work and she has made up her mind to follow the law career path leading her to currently study law at Monash University. In addition, I still keep in touch with my high school and university friends. So sometimes after work or after any long period of being involved in high-pressure deals/matters, I can still spend my time hanging out with them, talking and sharing with them many other aspects outside of my working life.
Sam: Is there a single piece of advice you’d give to any aspiring junior female lawyers?
Dr Lang Nguyen: I would encourage them not to fear taking on challenges in work and their personal life, and they should have the passion to learn new things and enrich their knowledge every single day. To keep learning from all other people you interact with, schools, lecturers, peers, co-workers, colleagues, clients and from all matters in which you are involved during their working life is very important and fulfilling.
The world keeps changing every day, as does legal practice. Therefore, in the early stages of their careers, junior lawyers must learn to be adaptive and be flexible, and to keep challenging their minds, seeking relevant methods of approaching different issues if so required by the job. Do not forget to make and maintain friendships and practice networking skills, making business development easier in the future. And most of all, think outside of the box, prepare to take on the global stage and never stop learning.
Thank you very much.