Success Redefined: Perspective from a Female Partner in an International Law Firm

By: Jacqueline Chan, Partner, Milbank LLP | Tuesday, 2 July 2024

Jacqueline Chan is a partner with international law firm Milbank LLP. Her legal practice focuses on advising clients on international cross border transactions in the debt and equity space across the Asia Pacific region. She resides in Singapore.

In an interactive conversation with Global Woman Leader Magazine, Jacqueline discussed the importance of continued empowerment of women in the workplace and the need to see female representation in leadership.

Can you share your personal experiences of overcoming challenges in the workplace as a woman? How have these experiences shaped your perspective on women empowerment?

Let's begin with some statistics: Over 51% of law graduates globally are women. However, as they progress in their careers—around 15 to 20 years in—the proportion dwindles to only about 20-23% in senior positions within law firms. What accounts for the approximately 30% of women who initiated their careers in law but then elect to exit the field and not complete their working career within a law firm?

It is important to note that there is, and should not be, a universal measure of success for any woman. It is not, and should not be, the pinnacle of choice for anyone to choose to finish their career within a law firm. For sure, everyone is entitled to his or her own choices. We only focus on this question as we try to solve for the age-old dilemma of trying to increase senior female representation within global law firms. So the question must be – what steps should we be taking to achieve this, and how?

The statistics suggest that there are far more senior women in in-house counsels and public service roles. The challenge at hand is retaining women in global international law firms and facilitating their ascent to senior positions. Challenges for female lawyers here mirror those encountered by any lawyer that works on complex matters with high client service demands: tight timelines, unpredictable deadlines, and an ever-expanding workload.

How can we support women so that they can navigate and thrive within this environment? The demanding nature of transactional legal practice often make it challenging to balance personal and family schedules. Flexible working hours and remote work options are often touted as structural solutions to alleviate this tension. However, these may not always be viable in professions like ours, especially in transactional practices where client demands often dictate working hours and locations. From my personal experience, I cannot stress sufficiently the importance of home and other support to help mitigate and balance the needs outside of the office. My family thankfully understood the demands of the job, even on days that I had to miss family events or weekends. I also was hugely supported at home, thus ensuring the children had everything they needed despite the unpredictability of my schedule.

Personally, I learned not to set rigid expectations for myself. While I aimed to be there as much as possible, I found it helpful to find ways to release my mother’s guilt when I couldn't and instead focus on finding alternative ways to make up for it. I believe it is important for women to grant themselves grace in navigating these pathways for themselves, understanding that everyone's journey is unique and there's no singular definition for success.

As such, I believe the road for women to succeed in such workplaces is effectively two-fold: structural support, both at home and in the workplace, is crucial for managing the physical demands of the day, while mental strength, resilience, and adaptability are equally vital to navigating the pathways of life.

As a women leader in law, what strategies do you employ to ensure your team remains diverse and inclusive, both in terms of gender and other factors?

Encouraging diversity in teams is crucial. Research consistently demonstrates its positive impact on decision-making, problem-solving, creativity, innovation, and productivity. At Milbank, we prioritize and actively promote diversity, which I'm proud to say has been successful. Leading by example is paramount. It is important for senior team members to demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion through their actions. This entails modelling inclusive language, actively listening to diverse perspectives, and advocating for equal opportunities for all team members. Additionally, it's vital to establish clear expectations regarding diversity and inclusion within the team. Team members should understand the importance of respecting and valuing differences, with a zero-tolerance policy towards discriminatory behaviour.

Encouraging open dialogue within the team is crucial for addressing any issues that arise. This creates a platform for airing misunderstandings and resolving conflicts effectively. Furthermore, promoting mentorship and sponsorship within teams is essential. Pairing seniors with juniors, ideally from diverse backgrounds, fosters openness, awareness, and mutual investment. This approach helps break down barriers and cultivates a culture where diversity and inclusion become second nature.

In your experience, what are some common misconceptions or stereotypes about women working in international law, and how do you challenge them?

The practice of international law involves incredibly intelligent and driven individuals. I'm constantly impressed and proud of my partners at Milbank for their unparalleled abilities and expertise in their respective fields. I believe that to stand out as a woman in this high-performing and competitive landscape, it is important for women to actively demonstrate their dedication, ambition and willingness to succeed. It is equally important to actively champion and support women within the organization, by showcasing their achievements and highlighting their contributions and successes. And finally, ensuring equal opportunities for women in career advancement, leadership roles, and high-profile assignments is critical. This benefits greatly from leadership commitment to actively provide and advocate for equal opportunities for women.

How can businesses and organizations better support and empower women in the workplace, particularly in fields where they are traditionally underrepresented?

There are a couple of ways—I'll just name a few. Implement diversity and inclusion practices with a focus on ensuring equal opportunities for women and other diverse candidates in recruitment, promotion, and leadership positions. It's crucial to celebrate achievements and provide support for women in enhancing their profile and activities.

To ensure women's continued success and mitigate unintended biases or discrimination, it's important to include them in leadership positionsand decision-making roles. This promotes diverse perspectives and offers role models for generational change within the workplace. Moreover, a focus on ongoing evaluation and improvement is essential in this endeavour, requiring consistent effort from everyone in the workplace, not solely women.

Unlocking the full potential of women in the workplace benefits the organization as a whole, not just women. Continuous evaluation and improvement are necessary for creating a supportive and empowering environment for all. This involves a constant focus on fostering inclusivity. Additionally, establishing support networks where individuals can feel mentored, seen, and championed is crucial.

Message to Readers: Supporting the continued growth of women in the workplace has significant positive impact on society as a whole. It involves increasing their representation, participation, and profile.”