No ‘bamboo ceiling’ in New Zealand

by Hannah Norton20 Apr 2015
While new figures reveal a ‘bamboo ceiling’ over the ditch, the HR director of one of New Zealand’s biggest firms says there’s no such thing in New Zealand, where Asian lawyers are highly sought after and are also being quickly poached by international firms in places such as Hong Kong.

A recent report produced by the Asian Australian Lawyers Association highlighted that while Asian Australians make up 9.6 percent of Australia’s population, but they account for only 3.1 percent of partners in law firms – a disparity that the report termed the ‘bamboo ceiling’.

But Simpson Grierson HR director Jo Copeland does not believe it is a trend that has translated across the Tasman.

"I don't think there is a bamboo ceiling in New Zealand at all,” Copeland told NZLawyer.

“There is a huge demand for Chinese speaking lawyers at all levels.

“The big issue we have faced is losing good people to overseas firms, particularly to Hong Kong where they pay so much more money and the tax rate is so low.  It is pretty attractive proposition for young lawyers. "

More and more native speaking Asian lawyers are coming through New Zealand law schools, she said.

“The language skills are absolutely critical.

"And while being able to speak Cantonese or Mandarin is one thing, it is quite another to find people who can write it and translate legal texts, so we're finding that even people who've grown up speaking Cantonese at home may not have the written skills – so that’s a bit of a challenge.”

The increase in graduates coming through with a strong command of various languages means it will only be a matter of time before we see more multilingual partners in law firms in New Zealand, Copeland said.

“We are seeing huge diversity of language skills in our graduates, and there has been a definite increase in the Asian language skills in the past four years.”

“This matches the growing Asian population, particularly in Auckland.”

The Ministry of Health last week published its latest annual report on maternity, which showed the Asian birth rate reached 62 per 1000 women aged 15 to 44 in 2012, ahead of the ‘European and other group’ on 57.

Copeland anticipated seeing an increase in the number of Asian lawyers moving up the ranks to partner roles and also becoming judges.   “But it is early days yet,” she said.

“We would love more Asian partners, how fantastic would that be. It would be brilliant. I think they’d be a huge selling point."

In speaking with her Australian counterparts last month, Copeland said: “It was interesting hearing King Wood Mallesons saying they’ve deliberately made a strategic choice to partner with a Hong Kong firm to try and get more work flowing from China back into Australia, and they can do that where they’ve got more scale.   Others were saying that they had tried to set up satellite offices in China, but that it hadn't really worked and they were now pulling back out of those locations.”


  • by C. 30/04/2015 7:14:54 p.m.

    Your article seems to imply that one of the key reasons an "Asian" gets hired to be a lawyer is primarily because they speak Cantonese/Mandarin. Completely discards the fact that there are many other people of Asian ethnicity studying law who will speak neither because (plot twist!) they could be from another 'Asian' country. Also seems to ignore that an 'asian' lawyer could have strong grades, work experience and extra curriculars which make them employable or that maybe an employer might be willing to look past one's Asian appearance/background. I'm not saying speaking another language is not an asset because it clearly is in today's market but this could almost be interpreted as racist. ethnicity and nationality, though they sit side by side, are also two different things. You can grow up in NZ and identify as both kiwi and insert-name-of-nationality here and when rubbish like this comes out sweeping every person of Asian descent and ethnicity under one category it's just plain sad and discriminatory.

  • by E 5/05/2015 8:48:13 p.m.

    Completely agree with C.

    Demand for Chinese/Mandarin skills is obviously high - but it is harmful to suggest that Chinese/Mandarin is your only track to partnership if you are culturally different. There are excellent lawyers in NZ of Asian descent who contribute to the value of a firm in many ways, including as a result of their cultural difference (NOT being limited to Chinese language skills).

    Clearly, the "bamboo ceiling" would be meaningless if it was only a reference to demand for Asian language skills. We have a serious problem if that's the only benefit that NZ law firms see in Asian lawyers.

  • by A 4/06/2015 3:32:28 p.m.

    Agree with C and E
    This article gives the impression that NZ, at least the legal profession, uses the term “Asian” interchangeably with “Chinese”. That, I believe, is a bigger problem than Bamboo Ceiling. How can you comment on issues/challenges faced by a particular (minority) group when you are unaware of the group’s background? It’s racist to arbitrarily refer to Asians as Chinese or vice versa. Just to break it down, all Chinese could be referred to as Asians but all not all Asians are Chinese.
    If “Asians” are sought after in NZ legal profession solely on whether or not they are savvy in Cantonese/Mandarin, that right there is what I call bamboo ceiling. There are many Asians who have outstanding record apt to succeed as a partner but no knowledge of these two languages. They could be, you know, Malaysians.
    There will be bamboo ceiling as long as there is racial bias, as long as the partnership selection standards are different for a Pakeha New Zealander from an Asian New Zealander. And it seems there is.