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Diversity as a way of life

While women make up more than 50 per cent of law students and graduate lawyers, they are underrepresented at partner level and in other senior legal roles. For many years, King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) has been committed to changing this.

Gender equality and achieving gender balance across the firm is one of KWM’s core strategic priorities. The firm is focused on empowering women from the very beginning of their careers by removing barriers and biases, and having structures in place that allow women to progress at the same rate as their male peers.

As a firm, KWM has a target of 35 per cent female partners in Australia by 2022 and 40 per cent by 2025. Currently, 31 per cent of its Australian partners are women – an improvement on where the firm was historically, but with more work to be done. Within its DCM team in Australia, 60 per cent are women, as are two of the six DCM partners. Three of KWM’s female DCM lawyers (see box) share their views.

Angela Chung is a special counsel in KWM’s Sydney office. She also specialises in debt capital markets transactions with a particular focus on Kangaroo bonds and has worked on virtually every Kangaroo bond transaction over more than 10 years.

Jo Dodd is a partner in KWM’s Sydney office. She specialises in debt capital markets transactions, with a particular focus on hybrids and regulatory capital, and works closely with the mutual sector. She has more than 20 years’ experience in international and domestic capital markets, having worked in the DCM team of a magic-circle firm in London for several years and supported the National Australia Bank treasury team in Melbourne for a couple of years.

Anne-Marie Neagle is a partner in KWM’s Melbourne office, specialising in securitisation, derivatives, hybrids, convertibles and structured capital markets, and finance transactions. Aside from a brief period working in structured finance with a magic-circle firm in London, she has been with KWM for more than 20 years.

What has been a career highlight for each of you?

CHUNG For me, it was a transaction that brought together all of my experience and skills – QBE Insurance Group’s issue of gender-equality bonds in additional-tier-one capital format in 2017.

The rarity of a social bond at that time was appealing to a growing investor base. There was the added complexity of working with the regulator and a client with a tight timeframe while delivering a specific request for seamless execution. It was challenging – and not just from a legal perspective. There was also the issue of coordinating and collaborating with colleagues in Sydney, Melbourne, London and Singapore, which meant relying on the strong relationships I had built over many years.

It was an extremely successful deal for the client and it was a rewarding achievement to ensure everyone’s needs were met.

I place a strong focus on developing young lawyers. This means working collaboratively to motivate, challenge and stimulate, and leading by example to be a good role model – particularly as an Asian female – to strive for diversity and inclusion. I am proud of the fact that my team continues to grow and is resourced with talented individuals. 

It was a positive experience to have my team celebrate my nomination for the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards because it was a recognition of what is important to me personally, aligning with what I do professionally.

DODD My career highlight would have to be making partner in 2016. I was the first female DCM partner in our Sydney office, after Anne-Marie in Melbourne. I was one of two female banking and finance partners to come through from my cohort, out of the three banking and finance partners who came through that year. It was a big year for women and a highlight for me, as coming back from in-house to private practice a little later in my career meant I had to run hard to get to partnership.

NEAGLE I would like to call out my recent involvement, on behalf of the Australian Securitisation Forum (ASF), in leading the structuring and documentation for the Forbearance Special Purpose Vehicle facility.

The facility enables the federal government, through the Australian Office of Financial Management (AOFM), to provide liquidity to Australian nonbank financial institutions and their securitisation structures. It required me to lead a project to bring all the industry participants together in search of a common solution and then help them bank that solution with the AOFM. It was very bespoke from a structuring and documentation perspective and the physical backdrop was one of lockdown – working from home and home schooling.

I am proud of this transaction because it allowed me to support our clients in the nonbank space as well as broader outcomes of keeping capital and credit available in the system and for underlying borrowers during this difficult time.

The way we executed this transaction stands as concrete evidence that doing things differently and flexibly from home, while home-schooling or otherwise, does not mean doing them unsuccessfully.

"The most challenging issue facing the legal profession, pre-and post-health crisis, is finding ways to provide flexibility in our working arrangements while striving for an engaging and fulfilling career and providing our clients with world-class service that meets their needs." 

What is your take on diversity more generally in DCM in Australia?

NEAGLE Greater progress seems to have been made in the securitisation sector. A large part of this is due to the ASF’s Women in Securitisation initiative, which includes mentoring, networking, collaboration and shared experiences.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done in securitisation and in debt markets more broadly. A lot of women are coming up through the ranks and performing increasingly senior roles, but how many truly exceptional, top-of-their-game women role models do we recognise?

Collectively, as an industry, we need to ensure we have more exceptional women of note and that we stand behind them.

DODD I have seen a change during the last five years, particularly in treasury teams. We need to encourage women in the early stages of their careers so they gain the confidence to progress through the ranks at the same rate as men.

CHUNG As legal advisers, diversity of perspective and insight is appreciated. We bring a different perspective to the table, and often our insight and ability to highlight pressure points and issues is invaluable to the client.

"It may be harder for younger lawyers because they often learn by osmosis in the office. We try to be very organised for them and make a conscious effort to be in touch regularly both on the phone and on Webex or Zoom."

"What we have now is a big opportunity to use the difficulty we are experiencing as momentum for important structural change. If I reflect on my time and my career as a woman in law, particularly as a ‘mother in law’, some of the structural barriers we face as women lawyers can be impediments to success."

In what ways is diversity in corporate life likely to change following the current health crisis and what is the role of the legal profession in supporting these changes?

CHUNG The most challenging issue facing the legal profession, pre-and post-health crisis, is finding ways to provide flexibility in our working arrangements while striving for an engaging and fulfilling career and providing our clients with world-class service that meets their needs. We have been able to continue to do so while adapting to working from home, and the flexibility this offers is here to stay. 

We will continue to build from here to support social interaction and professionalism. As much as our business is focused on providing legal services, it is also fundamental to build relationships – whether with our colleagues or our clients.

I am personally looking forward to the added flexibility as I am about to embark on the journey of motherhood.

DODD Working from home is now much more widely accepted and I am hoping it will prevail, as it is hard to see how we will be returning to a pre-COVID-19 normal any time soon. Some face-to-face working will return at some point, but this lockdown experience has demonstrated that everyone can work effectively from home.

It may be harder for younger lawyers because they often learn by osmosis in the office. We try to be very organised for them and make a conscious effort to be in touch regularly both on the phone and on Webex or Zoom. It can be harder for senior lawyers too, who rely on having a team around them.

NEAGLE There is a gap in incidental social interaction and mentoring. We must be deliberate about filling this and we need to focus our efforts on the junior ranks.

At the same time, I think there is some liberation in interacting via VC as we can gain more focused and deliberate interaction this way.

I have mentees in different states. I have spent a lot of time travelling in my career, but I can catch up with my mentees much more frequently now. We still need to find the right balance, but I think we can learn a lot from what we have been able to uncover during the working-from-home experience.

What we have now is a big opportunity to use the difficulty we are experiencing as momentum for important structural change. If I reflect on my time and my career as a woman in law, particularly as a ‘mother in law’, some of the structural barriers we face as women lawyers can be impediments to success.

Although firms have adopted great flexibility policies in recent years, COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to demonstrate these policies in practice in such a way that we can make them part of our life, not just something we talk about.

It is very important that we harness this opportunity for structural change and reflect in a considered fashion on what works well and what doesn’t. But, above all, we must not lose the opportunity the crisis presents. 

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