A new report by the Asian Australian Lawyers Association (AALA) has found that a ‘bamboo ceiling’ may be preventing lawyers with Asian heritage from rising to senior levels in the profession.
The study found that six large law firms in Australia have no partners with Asian backgrounds and that only 0.8 per cent of the judiciary have Asian heritage.
“[Our] main findings were that there is a level of under-representation in the legal profession, which increases as one looks at the more senior levels,” president of AALA Reynah Tang (pictured) told Lawyers Weekly.
Mr Tang would not disclose the names of the large firms (greater than 40 partners) with no Asian Australian partners but said that the numbers overall were “promising”, with an average of 3.2 per cent of large law firm partners having Asian cultural backgrounds.
The proportion of Asian Australians at the partner level in medium-sized law firms (10-40 partners) was slightly lower at 2.7 per cent, with 44 firms having no partners with Asian heritage.
Lavan Legal came in first out of the medium firms with 20 per cent of partners having Asian backgrounds. Johnson Winter Slattery scored the best out of large law firms, with Asian partners comprising 8.2 per cent of senior lawyers.
According to the Diversity Council of Australia, Asian Australians account for 9.6 per cent of Australia’s population, but only 1.6 per cent of barristers.
The AALA report, The Australian Legal Profession: A snapshot of Asian Australian diversity in 2015, is the first of its kind and was based on publicly available information such as names and photographs of lawyers and judges on websites.
“We actually haven’t had any information about the level of Asian Australian participation in the legal profession before,” said Mr Tang.
“There could be error margins around whether someone was Asian Australian or not so it is not a perfectly accurate study at this stage. I’d like to do a proper survey of the legal profession [in the future].”
Mr Tang said there was limited information about the proportion of law students and lawyers with Asian heritage but that statistics from the Law Society of NSW indicate that more than 10 per cent of solicitors in NSW were born in Asia.
“So I imagine that the number [of lawyers] with Asian cultural origins is actually even higher than that,” said Mr Tang.
Studies of the business sector more generally show that the barriers to progress for Asian Australians include cultural biases, stereotyping, Westernised leadership models and a lack of relationship capital, he continued.
“I would expect that similar barriers could apply in the legal profession and, in fact, may actually be exacerbated because the legal profession is quite conservative in nature,” said Mr Tang.
Mr Tang said law firms had a lot to gain from recruiting lawyers with Asian cultural experience and language skills.
“If we really are serious as a legal profession about engaging with Asia then we need to make sure when we do so we don’t present with a largely monocultural face," he said.
“If this is the Asian century as many believe, it is obvious that having people with … Asian experience is going to help us engage with Asia.
“I think also that when one looks at the courts the benefits are that you will have different perspectives being brought to bear on issues before the courts rather than a system that is driven by one cultural mindset.”