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.”