Sidley Austin executive committee member and joint head of funds and derivatives, Effie Vasilopoulos, discusses challenges women and mothers in the legal profession have faced through the majority of her career, improvements in the last five years and how clients can play a role in improving diversity at law firms


What obstacles have you had to contend with during your legal career that related to your gender?

There are a range of challenges that women in the legal profession face, and I have not been immune to any of these. Achieving a work life balance with young children is very difficult. I had two children under the age of five when I started out as a partner. The profession, especially in the nineties when I commenced practice in Australia, often reflected policies which did not factor or adequately cater for the particular needs or challenges that women lawyers with children faced. Maternity leave policies were often inadequate, and structures and attitudes toward women lawyers who worked were rigid and regressive across the entire profession at that time. Those women who remained at work frequently received little encouragement or support - and a good deal of active and direct discouragement on a fairly consistent basis. At the commencement of my working life as a young lawyer in Australia, there remained a clear stigma associated with having children. Commitment and reliability were openly questioned. This, in turn, acted as a dynamic to exert even greater pressure to extend above and beyond the call of duty in order to address these misconceptions and stereotypes. There was also additional pressure to perform because all of the women partners understood that this might adversely affect the prospects of other women being elevated to the partnership. There was a great sense of collective responsibility to other women in the ranks. These challenges and obstacles, and many others, drove women out of the profession in droves in the nineties.

I was very fortunate to have found great sponsors and mentors at Sidley on both sides of the gender spectrum during my career with the firm. There was never a single designated mentor as such, but there were many colleagues that frequently made a real effort to make a positive difference to my working environment, to offer support when needed and to champion real change. Good leaders recognise that diverse teams significantly outperform those that are homogenous. Ultimately, not having balanced representation in leadership does hurt an organisation.


From the perspective of gender equality how does the environment which you work in now compare to the one you began your career in?

The environment for women in private practice is very different today than it was when I commenced practice. When I became a partner I was still practising in Australia in a large commercial firm. I had not yet moved to Hong Kong. Back then, private practice was overwhelmingly male dominated. There were 95 partners in the Sydney office where I practiced. I was the fourth woman partner. Women were not evaluated or paid equally, credited for their achievements equally or promoted to senior positions equally. Diversity was not a concept that was widely embraced. Change was not widely embraced as this related to women, except among the ranks of women themselves. This made balancing work and family extraordinarily difficult for most women. At one point, I remember looking around in the profession and wondering where all the women aged between 30 and 50 had gone. Making a choice to have a family often coincided with the very difficult decision for many to leave the work force entirely. The work environment was very largely inflexible, rigid and simply unfair as this related to practising lawyers that were women.

The last five years have seen more change in our profession than the prior twenty combined. As more women entered the profession at the graduate level and rose in seniority through the ranks in the period since 2000, including in client ranks, change accelerated and was more widely embraced. By 2003, I had moved to Hong Kong and had joined Sidley Austin. I still remember what an impact it had to attend my first annual partners’ meeting and hear our Chairman speak of the drive for greater diversity among our ranks as our most important and urgent priority. To this date, that speech has been one of the most impactful because it was the first time that I had heard the idea of diversity expressed as a positive dynamic. In the years since, women have moved to decisively shatter glass ceilings in the profession and elsewhere. As more women have moved into senior roles and become decision makers, the profession has become more flexible and inclusive. There is wide spread recognition and acceptance of the fact that diversity creates a stronger and more well-rounded firm by allowing different backgrounds and experiences to inform a wider range of solutions to the issues at hand. Ultimately, there is also greater recognition of the fact that there is great strength and positivity in inclusivity, and the reverse also holds true. Notwithstanding these positive developments, the wider profession has not yet fully levelled the playing field. An imbalance in the representation of women in senior roles continues to permeate all segments of the legal profession.


In general do you feel the legal profession within the country where you are based treats women and men equally?

In general, Hong Kong is a progressive society as this relates to practising women in the law. There are good and accessible childcare options for working women and this informs a greater choice for working women in general. As a result, when I moved to Hong Kong with my husband and two toddlers, the first thing that I noticed was the greater abundance of working women who also had children and who were able to achieve a healthier work life balance. While inequities persist in the profession at large, those differences continue to narrow each year, and at an accelerating rate. It remains true that there is room for improvement in most institutions for a greater and more balanced representation of women to exist at the most senior levels of management.


Are there any initiatives to promote gender equality in the legal profession in your jurisdiction?

In October 2018, the Hong Kong Law Society announced an initiative to conduct surveys and gather data designed to aid the development of a set of diversity and inclusion standards that will be useful to help set the benchmarks for firms to measure how their practices, policies and procedures are positioned. In furtherance of this objective, the Law Society undertook a survey of its membership in May 2019. The data that has been collected is being processed in collaboration with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. While the final diversity and inclusion standards remain pending, it is nevertheless very important that the tone for real change in our profession in Hong Kong continues to sound from the highest levels.

The Law Society has pointed out publicly that while more than half of the new entrants to the profession are female, only one quarter at the senior level are female. It has been very welcome to see the Law Society publicly challenge the profession to embrace diversity and look inward to examine the unconscious bias that may be embedded in a firm processes of decision making, such as in the areas of work allocation and promotion, and the impact this may have on the attrition of women talent at senior levels of the profession. It is also important to see our key governance structures being led by women. Both the current Law Society President and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive are female. The existence of strong role models at senior levels of our profession and in Government help to underscore that real change is not only possible as an aspiration, but is in evidence as a current reality.


If you could introduce one policy related to gender equality in the legal profession what would it be?

I would like to see clients sharpen their focus on holding their external law firm relationships more accountable in this arena. Enormous strides forward have been achieved when members of the corporate legal community are motivated to become agents of change. For example, when corporations require that women and ethnic minorities account for a higher percentage of law firm teams working on their matters and actively identify and create clear measurable leadership opportunities for women and such minority groups, they become powerful agents of change.

While such initiatives have gained momentum in other jurisdictions, there is considerable room for the development of such corporate policies in Hong Kong and Asia more generally. By taking a proactive stance and holding their outside law firms to account, such an approach creates focus and that in turn encourages and actually drives positive change. The key challenge is not that law firms and others do not recruit women, it lies in creating stronger incentives and alignment in order to better retain, develop and promote women throughout their careers.

Do you feel women are well represented at partner level and in management positions in firms within the country where you are based?

The experience in these areas has clearly improved within the last decade, but it remains patchy in many law firms and within the wider legal profession. For example, there is a growing incidence of law firms within Hong Kong that are led by women managing partners, but progress has been slow in this arena. Similarly, there is a growing representation of women in the partnership ranks of many law firms in Hong Kong. At approximately one quarter across our profession, as reported by the Law Society, there remains significant room for improvement.

One of the most powerful tools that corporations and the government sector have in the effort to increase law firm diversity is their ability to demand who gets mandated on and leads their legal matters. These segments of our profession can continue to be an important catalyst for further positive change by insisting that they hold their external law firms accountable for the teams that they field in relation to their legal matters. Experience has shown that corporate diversity programmes are most effective when they demand specific accountability, including clear benchmarking and regular feedback.


What initiatives do you have in place at your firm to promote gender equality?

Sidley has established a Committee on Retention and Promotion of Women (CRPW) that focuses enormous resource across all offices of the firm to ensure that our women lawyers continue to thrive at the firm. Led by firm wide chairs and local office chairs that are women, the Committee’s goals are three-fold: to increase the firm’s success in retaining and developing talented women associates; to promote a greater number of women associates to partnership; and to promote a greater number of women partners to leadership positions within the firm.
In addition, key components of the firm’s gender diversity initiative included comprehensive support that includes mentoring programmes, business development support, introductions to global practice focused networking organisations, access to work-life balance and related resources as well as specific guidance and mentorship related to career development and leadership training. The Committee meets regularly with the objective of developing and promoting these programs and ensuring that the firm collects data designed to ensure that the firms objectives are achieving measurable improvements in the representation of women at all levels of the firm’s structure and hierarchy. Our executive committee also reviews and champions these initiatives on a regular basis in order to ensure that there is effective implementation and that we continue to develop our policies and support women in the firm on a best in class basis.


Do you think your firm compares well to others in your market when considering gender equality?

One of the areas where the firm excels well beyond the average in Hong Kong is in the area of gender diversity. Our managing partner is female and women currently represent approximately 60% of the partnership in Hong Kong, over double the reported profession wide average in our jurisdiction.

In addition, Sidley consistently ranks among the top law firms for the quality and impact of its diversity and inclusion initiatives. The firm was one of the first law firms to win the prestigious Catalyst Award in 2005, presented by the leading research and advisory organisation dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business. Working Mother has designated Sidley as one of the ‘Best Law Firm’s for Women’ for a total of 11 years. This honour recognises the firm’s longstanding, innovative and intentional programs to support women lawyers from the time they join the firm through their promotion to partnership and movement into firm leadership. Sidley has also received its ninth Gold Standard Certification from the Women in Law Empowerment Forum, a prestigious public acknowledgment of those law firms that have demonstrated success in advancing women to positions of leadership and influence.

The fact that women are so well represented in the most senior levels of the firm’s management hierarchy, as outlined below, is a testimony to the firm’s active commitment to gender equality.

Women in firm leadership data. Current as of 2/29/2020; data for women in leadership is firmwide (includes both US and non-US). 

  • Partners: 25%
  • Executive committee: 25%
  • Management committee: 43%
  • Women partners chairing committees: 35%


What advice would you give to women in junior positions to encourage them to work towards attaining senior positions?

The profession has evolved and continues to evolve at an accelerated rate beyond recognition. It remains very important to work hard and become technically proficient in the law, but it is equally if not more important to have a long term vision, to clearly define and develop it and to be consistent and resilient in pursuing it. It’s very important to develop a personal brand that is differentiated and takes account of your own original and personal strengths. Women should prioritise building their network and relationships early. Success is typically proportionate to the number of people that support your goals and are invested in your success. Those women who are strategic and entrepreneurial in their mindset, and who cultivate business development and relationship networking skills at an early stage in their career, invariably tend to reap outsized returns in relation to this important investment in later years.


What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for women in your country joining the legal profession now?

There remain enormously high hurdles to entering the profession in Hong Kong. Only a limited number are able to access the courses that permit practical qualification and entry into the profession. Those that complete this difficult hurdle find that they must compete for a limited number of positions within law firms in order to complete a traineeship and full qualify as a practising lawyer. Long hours and challenging work conditions during those early years across the entire legal profession can create a disproportionately difficult burden on women, especially those with a young family. While it is clearly the case that law firms need to continue to be very flexible, it is dangerous to assume that the work life balance is the only issue that lawyers entering and working in the profession face. The issues that arise are complex and multifaceted and these require an equally multifaceted approach in order to ensure that all female lawyers continue to have an equal access to opportunity and career development.