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The Bamboo Ceiling in the Legal Profession

10 August 2016, Headlines | Comments disabled

Sometimes, it's difficult being from a non Anglo-Saxon background in the legal profession. However, conditions are improving, and the bamboo ceiling may finally crack in the coming years.


Over the weekend, a friend who works at an international law firm asked me about the so-called “Bamboo Ceiling” in Australia. For those who do not know, the term was first coined by an American Korean executive coach, Jane Hyun, in her book entitled “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians”. Exhausted and jaded, my friend said that his Partners were all Anglo-Saxon, and that he was the only Asian Australian in his team. In one word, he said that he felt “unenthusiastic” about the long term opportunities available to him.

I can understand where my friend was coming from. I am a first generation Australian and my first language was Chinese Cantonese, not English.

In the most recent Australian Census, the Bureau of Statistics reported that approximately  one quarter of Australians come from non-English speaking backgrounds. So, among the large commercial law firms in Australia, is there adequate representation of culturally diverse backgrounds?

I had a look around the websites of a few commercial law firms in Australia. At one firm, approximately 3% of its partners appeared to be from an Asian background. At another firm, it was approximately 3.5%. At a handful of firms, it was zero. If I was a junior lawyer looking to develop my career in the profession, it would appear at first glance, that if I am not Anglo-Saxon, I have little hope of developing my career – who am I to look up to;  who has shared a similar background of being a minority in Australia? This is how my friend felt. In my role, I have come across many Asian Australian lawyers who have expressed similar sentiments.

This is disappointing.

This is not limited to the legal profession. In fact, as Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Minister, has alluded to time and time again, this is a problem in Corporate Australia.[i] The loser in this problem is not just ambitious Asian Australian lawyers, but also law firms that want to develop their practices with quality talent. Many law firms spruik that they offer great opportunities for lawyers to develop their careers. Are these “great opportunities” present for all lawyers, regardless of culture?  

Another friend said that a few years ago when she was sorting through her summer clerkship offers, she chose the firm which had the greatest number of Asian Australian partners. Her rationale was that she wanted to have the greatest opportunity available whilst having someone she could look up to – someone who had shared a similar life experience. In another instance, a lawyer I recently worked with through my role at Mahlab said that she had excluded a number of potential employers because there were too few Asian Australian partners. Her rationale was that the excluded firms might have a preconceived bias preventing her from reaching her greatest potential.

Partners of law firms with an unconscious bias against Asian Australian lawyers are overlooking great talent.  A monocultural workforce limits opportunity for innovation and it creates a potential lack of understanding of the greater society we are part of – that is, where their clients are from. Remember, some international clients only require a medium-haul flight to reach our shores. Recently, it has been reported that some law firms have introduced a “blind CV” process for their respective Summer Clerkship recruitment campaigns. The concept behind this is that the process will eliminate the potential for unconscious bias towards certain cultural, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is great to see that some firms are recognising unconscious bias exists, and are actively working towards addressing this.

I have worked with some law firms that do actively recruit Asian Australian lawyers for a host of reasons. Cultural diversity is one factor, but also because of the language skills, work ethic and cultural understanding Asian Australian lawyers bring. As we become a more interconnected society where international commerce is increasing exponentially, international and domestic clients are looking for lawyers who understand their business culture and the clients and customers they service. We have all seen examples of Asian Australian lawyers at some firms being promoted internally to Senior Associate, Special Counsel and Partner. It is great to see a number of firms promoting the view that their workforces need to reflect their clients’ values and the changing fabric of society.  However, this is just the beginning, and it would be great to see a larger number of firms recognising and adopting change and celebrating diversity.

I envisage greater cultural diversity in firms that have started recognising its importance. When the White Australia Policy was abolished, Australia began welcoming migrants from nearby countries. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s, Australia welcomed migrants from Vietnam fleeing the Communist Government. In the early 1990’s, Australia widened its doors for Chinese migrants following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Today, in 2016, the children of Asian migrants who arrived in Australia in the latter part of last century are maturing, becoming educated, and continuing the values and traditions of their families and cultures. Some of these children are now lawyers in large commercial law firms.

In the next decade, another generation of partners of commercial law firms will begin retiring. It will be interesting to see what the next generation of law firm partners will bring. Hopefully, there will be greater evidence of diversity.

For current Asian Australian lawyers, if your firm does not offer you the opportunity for growth, another firm will. I am sure of this because I have seen new and greater opportunities being presented to the lawyers I have worked with.

It is a shame that there is a lack of cultural diversity in some firms. Firms readily speak about equalising the number of females in senior leadership positions, yet there is an equal and less spoken issue concerning cultural diversity. A long term goal for some firms may be to look at increasing the number of culturally diverse members in senior leadership teams. Lawyers from culturally diverse backgrounds will notice this, appreciating the concepts of opportunity and genuine career progression without the need to read common catchphrases often found on careers webpages. The face of the firm will speak for itself. 


Andy Yang is a Consultant at Mahlab. He provides strategic consulting services to law firms and corporations within Australia and abroad on the sourcing and selection of lawyers.



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