Leading by example
Ashurst’s predominantly female capital-markets practice is testament to the firm’s strategy of increasing its number of female partners and leaders, and building its female talent pipeline. Three Ashurst partners, Caroline Smart and Jennifer Schlosser in Sydney and Jini Lee in Hong Kong, share their experiences.
Can you give a sense of your career journeys and some highlights?
SMART I initially wanted to be a publisher, as I have always loved history and journalism along with politics, economics and current affairs. I moved to London to work for a publishing house after I finished university, but it wasn’t for me and I quickly switched to law. Chiefly, this gave me the opportunity to work directly with a wide range of industries and people and develop a strong interest in finance.
My first career highlight was receiving a training contract at a magic-circle firm in London and being part of the talented, diverse debt capital markets team there for almost a decade. The experience I gained was first rate, including secondments to Hong Kong and Barclays Capital, and it was a lot of fun.
As I happened to qualify at the start of the global financial crisis in September 2008, I learned to take nothing for granted either legally or career-wise.
My next career highlight was joining Ashurst in Sydney, in 2015, to work alongside our now global managing partner. My crowning highlight would be making partner at Ashurst in 2018.
LEE I wanted to study mass communications as I always enjoyed working with people and thought I would work in public relations, media or journalism. My legal journey started shortly after the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, when there was a lot of job insecurity and I pivoted to law as I thought it also involved a lot of writing and I enjoyed the analytical nature of the work.
After reading law at Nottingham University in the UK, I went to Singapore to qualify as a corporate solicitor at a local firm. Then I figured London would be a great place for a young solicitor to work so I applied for, and received, a training contract at a magic-circle firm.
After seven fantastic years living and working in London, I went to Hong Kong and was fortunate to see the opening up of the capital markets here, especially the tremendous growth of the Chinese and Asian capital markets.
My career highlight would be making partner at Ashurst as well as being asked by the global managing partner to take over as head of region for Asia from May 2020.
SCHLOSSER I focused on structured finance and securitisation from the beginning of my career, moving from Canada to Frankfurt and then to London. I spent the bulk of my early career with an international firm in Frankfurt and London before relocating to Sydney where I have continued my focus on structured finance and securitisation, joining Ashurst as a partner in 2014.
As you have progressed through the ranks in the legal profession, what assisted you as women to reach the level you have?
LEE What was so important to me as a junior and mid-ranking lawyer was to see role models in the firm and that it was possible to have a successful career and family life. There were so many like me during this important juncture, feeling their way through the organisations we worked for to figure out a way to the top – a jungle gym rather than a straight ladder.
I was fortunate to have female and male mentors and sponsors in my career path. Ultimately it is a path and a journey you need to navigate for yourself. Everybody wants different outcomes, has a different timeline and is willing to make different sacrifices. Talking to others definitely helped, though.
SMART For me it was also seeing women in the ranks above me who were managing career and families. You need those role models to see that it can be done. Some were more able to achieve success and balance than others, and observing this helped me to see what works and what doesn’t, and what practical and support structures need to exist for all working parents to be able to fulfil both roles meaningfully.
A positive and important experience has been having two male sponsors. They are very driven but are also prepared to see things through my eyes as a finance lawyer and mother of small children, and give me a chance by promoting me and supporting my path in a way that accommodated both.
Ashurst has a predominantly female capital-markets practice at partner level. What made it possible to reach this point?
SCHLOSSER The firm’s strategy in this respect has been apparent to me since I joined Ashurst in 2014 and is very much led from the top. Our global managing partner and executive committee back the advancement of female partners and leaders, as well as diversity generally.
SMART It was not a specific objective to have a nearly all-female capital-markets practice. We are fortunate to have so many talented female lawyers who have risen to partnership.
The firm has a clear strategy to increase the number of female partners and leaders, and build our female talent pipeline. Ashurst has introduced a number of programmes and initiatives to support this – such as our RISE forum for women, the “committed to change” network of male and female partners, mentoring programmes, and specific gender targets.
LEE The tone is very much set from the top and we have senior sponsorship by our global managing partner and our executive committee to support women leaders through the ranks. It is also one of the stated goals for the firm. This tone is crucial in ensuring diversity and inclusion is part of our DNA.
We need to have targets with a firm strategy on how to achieve them, backed by senior sponsorship and support. Where we tend to lose female talent is at the crucial senior associate level, when people consider starting families at the same time as they are facing incredible amounts of pressure with their workload and managerial responsibilities. This is when they tend to think about flexible working as something that will help them achieve a life outside the firm.
Despite sponsorship from the top, the direct manager has an immediate impact on individuals considering whether to stay or to go. It is therefore important to continue to train partners and managers to ensure they support the ambitions of senior associates who are building their careers.
SMART Retaining female talent at the senior associate level when young families are involved means encouraging flexible working hours and continuing to show women at this stage they are valued and their career aims are supported.
Keeping a strong relationship is critical, as is open communication and building trust that flexible working and career development are not mutually exclusive. There needs to be a focus on career development with achievable milestones on a practicable timeline.
What is the state of diversity within your own individual areas of practice and across the industry in Australia and Asia?
LEE Asia is a very pragmatic place to do business. People do not think explicitly about diversity or gender targets when choosing counsels – it is very much the best person for the job. In seminars and roundtables, though, there is growing awareness that fielding an all-male panel is unacceptable. In this sense, there is some conscious balance of gender representation.
In places like Hong Kong and Singapore, there is a much greater expectation that women can continue to work after having children – due to availability of childcare and communities where grandparents are often carers of grandchildren. My sense is that this makes it easier to balance family life.
SMART There is a more pronounced emphasis on diversity in the Australian market now than there was five years ago. After coming from London, where a lot of women work in capital markets and are in senior positions, I was surprised to see less diversity here. This has been changing quickly, though.
However, as in London and Asia, I think law firms’ clients will always choose who they think is best for the job. The emphasis should therefore be on training talent internally and ensuring there is diversity in the pool of talent, so firms can present a highly trained, talented workforce that is also diverse.
How might corporate life change, with a diversity lens, after the current health crisis?
SCHLOSSER Our experience at Ashurst during the COVID-19 situation has been that we were able seamlessly to maintain our client services because we were already set up to work flexibly.
I think the outcome of this experience is that teams at Ashurst will continue to embrace flexible and hybrid working arrangements, while maintaining client and internal connections and opportunities to network.
LEE I agree with this. The best firms will come out of the pandemic having calibrated their workforce to work flexibly and to be resilient to future shocks in the system. One of the lessons from leadership is that change is constant, and as leaders we all need to fortify our businesses to ensure we are prepared for the next big change or event – whether it is technology and automation or another health event.
WOMEN IN CAPITAL MARKETS Yearbook 2020
KangaNews's first-ever yearbook amplifying female voices in the Australian capital market.