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'Keep doorway open' to diverse lawyers: AALA

'Keep doorway open' to diverse lawyers: AALA

Diversity will become a coherent reality in law when we understand the "push-pull" nature of change, the NSW branch president of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association has said.

A major priority for the Australian Asian Lawyers Association's (AALA's) NSW branch president Kingsley Liu is to ensure that the cultural reality lawyers experience on a daily basis accurately reflects the profession’s many faces.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Mr Liu said the catalyst for cultural change is not elusive. He pointed to a wider conversation happening across industries and market sectors that, when aired with efforts to level the playing field, will make a difference.

"In very simple terms, it’s sort of a ‘push-pull’ solution to ensure that the gateway to further advancement and career opportunity is kept open as much as possible. The focus is to keep the doorway open and ensure the door frame is kept wide.

"On the other hand, it's about encouraging and enlightening those that are outside the doorway to come to the doorway and to progress forward and have that support," Mr Liu said.

According to Mr Liu, the sweet spot for action on diversity is the space between talk and results.

"Diversity has become a popular conversation and there is a zone where a lot of things need to happen before we start to get outcomes. We’re concentrating on the zone in between," Mr Liu said.

"I think how diversity should be reflected – in all industries, not just law – is an interesting debate, and that leads us to solutions for [the problem]. It’s a dialogue that will be tested as we go through those conversations," he said.

The reality of the ‘bamboo ceiling’ is personal for the fourth-generation Chinese-Australian, whose forefathers immigrated to Bendigo following the Victorian gold rush in the 19th century. Speaking of his childhood in Melbourne and growing up during the time of the White Australia Policy, the investment banker-turned theme park consultant-turned lawyer understands the many iterations of discrimination better than most.  

"About 25 years ago the stock market had collapsed during the great crash of 1987 and I saw that there were opportunities to acquire a stockbroking firm, but I obviously needed some backers," Mr Liu explained.

"The pivotal moment for me was after a series of submissions to the Australian Stock Exchange – a completely mainstream, Anglo-Saxon financial community – and their general concerns for dealing with an unknown factor, which was the spectre of an Asian firm lobbying to the Australian Stock Exchange," he said.

Mr Liu recalls a memorable encounter with the late Rene Rivkin, an infamous and flamboyant Australian stockbroker, when he succeeded in establishing the first ASX Asian stockbroking firm in 1988.

"On the very first day of trading, the king of the chalkboards, a gentleman called Rene Rivkin, came up and shook my hand and said 'I’m thoroughly glad that you did it'.

"It made me feel that I was somehow on top of the bamboo ceiling, at least for my community and for myself," Mr Liu said.

After breaking into the exclusive ASX circle, Mr Liu was not done with the so-called bamboo ceiling. Having spent more than a decade working in Asia, Canada and the UK, he is now focused on sharing his views on how to realise a fairer, more representative Australia.

"During the days when diversity was not really a concept, the Anglo-Australian expatriate was exporting his presence, where Western companies would foray into Asia to make fame and fortune. I experienced that when I worked in Hong Kong and Taiwan and Singapore, and it has given me an insight into what a more flat and level community could be like.

"Diversity operates at a number of levels and that’s one thing that I was actually able to experience in my work while living in Asia," Mr Liu said.

Last year the AALA released a report that provided a snapshot of cultural diversity in the Australian legal profession. By examining the cultural background of law firm partners, barristers and judges, the report found six large law firms in Australia have no partners with Asian backgrounds and only 0.8 per cent of the judiciary have Asian heritage. The Asian-Australian demographic makes up 9.6 per cent of the nation’s population.

Mr Liu has been a vocal advocate for change on the subject, in both his capacity as the AALA NSW branch president and as the Australian Greens candidate for Lindsay in the recent federal election. He believes that his role to engage the diversity conversation today is critical for future generations.

"The most effective way to integrate diverse parts of society is to ensure that we have equal opportunity and a better playing field career-wise and community-wise," Mr Liu said.

"As we get older, there’s a sense that we need to return something back to the community, particularly young people and people that probably don’t have a voice – the voice of diversity," he added.

Mr Liu is also the director of Penrith-based litigation firm The People’s Solicitors.

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