Law firm leadership – is it alright to be all white?

"There is big cultural change blowing through. If we persist in a fortress-Australia approach, we’ll be left behind"

Following Johnson Partners’ successful co-convening of the 2021 40 under 40 Most Influential Asian Australian Awards, we sat down with one of the judges, Katrina Rathie[1], to discuss cultural diversity – or the lack of it – in the leadership of Australia’s law firms. While Katrina’s comments relate to the legal profession, her insights resonate across broader industry.

In her very successful 30+ year career in law, Katrina shattered both the glass and bamboo ceilings, rising to the role of Partner in Charge, Sydney at top-tier law firm King & Wood Mallesons (KWM). Her trail-blazing achievements are remarkable not least for the lack of emulation. Looking across the faces of today’s law firm leaders, the picture is monochromatic. While several faces are female, all are white. It seems the leadership of law firms in Australia has shown improvement in gender diversity but is nowhere on cultural diversity.

We asked Katrina whether it matters, why it is so, and what is needed to shift the dial.

Leadership of law firms in Australia evidences no cultural diversity – all are white. Do you think it matters, and if so, why?

Research shows that law is the whitest profession. The whiteness of law firm leadership in Australia has been same-same for the past 100 years or more.  The same can be said of our judiciary which has only recently admitted to the Supreme Court of NSW its first judge of colour, The Honourable Hament Dhanji SC.

It’s pleasing that this year Sonja Stewart became CEO of the NSW Law Society, the first Indigenous woman to hold this position. I was the first person with an Asian cultural background to be admitted to the KWM partnership in 1994, and it took me another 20 years to become its first Asian Australian law firm leader. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no one since. I don’t want to be the last!

Cultural diversity in law matters because the community, our clients, our employees, and our stakeholders in the justice system expect the legal profession and our legal institutions to be places where fairness, equality, diversity and inclusion can flourish. Around 47% of Australia’s population were themselves, or have a parent, born overseas yet they do not see themselves reflected in the higher echelons of our legal system, and they often experience a lack of understanding of their culture.

Ideally, the leadership of law firms – like all professional services firms and ASX companies – should reflect the diversity of the community and client base they serve, whether measured in terms of gender or colour. Clients and employees are judging organisations based on metrics including D&I measures. In a global world, cultural intelligence and cognitive diversity will build stronger and more innovative organisations.

There is big cultural change blowing through. If we persist in a fortress-Australia approach, with only Western style leadership, we’ll be left behind.

Solving a problem, it helps to first understand the root cause. Given no shortage of culturally diverse graduates from our law schools and among young practitioners, to what do you attribute today’s lack of cultural diversity – particularly Asian – in the leadership of law firms?

There is no lack of cultural diversity in law firm leadership if you look to China, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, India or the United States, but leadership is still blindingly white in Australia. The root cause is not easy to diagnose.

Simplistically, it’s about pipeline, and stereotypical Western models of leadership working against Asian cultural norms.

There is also conscious and unconscious bias, especially affinity bias. I’m on boards with other Asian Australians like Bubs Australia (ASX:BUB), whose main markets are in Asia. They don’t notice my difference.

Law in Australia is a very conservative profession. There is a respect for the way things have always been done around here, and an entrenched hierarchical structure which tends to favour people who have been there for a very long time – meaning a strong bias to white men and women who have climbed the long ladder to partnership and become very senior.

At KWM, we have used blind recruitment for almost a decade to ensure there is no unconscious bias in the selection process and this has ensured the most meritorious candidates are brought into the pipeline. In 2017, a survey done by the 10 leading law firms in Sydney showed that at the big end of town, between 15 – 20% of lawyers are culturally diverse, which is great, but this tends to thin down at partner level to between 5 – 8%.

I do think that culturally diverse people possess strong intellectual ability and have a reputation as being hardworking, diligent, and conscientious.  But there is a stereotype that works against selecting them as partners or leaders.  There is an Asian cultural bias towards modesty, having your work speak for you, not boasting or tooting your own horn – because in Asian cultures, the loudest duck gets shot.  In contrast, the Western style of leadership requires that you embrace self-promotion, make yourself visible, step forward and speak up so that you are not overlooked.  And it helps if you like to schmooze with clients, drink at the footy, and have the private school network.

Of course, once you get through the elusive barrier to partnership, you need to climb the ranks and earn the respect of your partners before a Board – conservative and usually all white – will select you to a formal leadership position.   Law firm leadership requires a relatively rare combination of skills – strategic vision, gravitas, an ability to keep your finger on the pulse and to consult, communicate and influence; personality, loads of resilience, stamina, and a thick skin. It’s not enough to be good at law!

You achieved considerable success at KWM, smashing through the glass and bamboo ceilings! Tell us about your experience – what key factors contributed to your success?

Growing up in the time of the White Australia Policy I was sometimes discriminated against and excluded. At times, professionally, I faced racism, bias, and the structural barriers inherent in law firms designed for men with full time stay-at-home wives.  Against that background, several factors contributed to my success, but foremost is mindset.

My grandfather was an early feminist who instilled in me from an early age a mindset that girls can do anything. He would say “stand on your own 2 feet, like your great-grandmothers [whose feet were bound] could not”. I developed a competitive mindset to be the best that I could be, professionally and personally, and a strong worth ethic with an abundance of energy.

That was enhanced by lessons learned from my formative years working in New York – to take control of your own destiny; to aim high; to be positive, optimistic, confident and can-do; to speak up, step forward, hustle and never regret what you can’t control or change.

I’m remembered at KWM for attending my summer-clerk interview wearing a leopard skin dress!

I created opportunities, knocked down doors – literally – and put myself forward, unafraid of rejection. My 30 years as Revlon’s lawyer in Australia began with me turning up, unannounced and uninvited, at the New York office of their General Counsel (whose daughter happened to share the same name as me)!

I built a very strong client following and loyalty; learned the value of my personal brand; and actively sought objective validation of my success through law and business awards. I built broad networks including outside of the law.

My personal values of authenticity, trust, integrity, bravery and courage were important factors in my success. I always treated others like I wanted to be treated and tried to give more than I received.

What tools and approach would you encourage law firms to adopt to advance cultural diversity in their leadership?

Diversity needs to be embedded in all areas of the business and led from the top (board, CEO, exec leadership team) not just a function of HR.

Prioritise it – don’t do gender first and culture next.  It needs to be done at the same time. Plug intersectional diversity.

Embed it in KPI’s so its tied directly to performance: 40 – 40 – 20.

Look at the structures, systems and policies in the firm that might help or hinder diversity – challenge the things that perpetuate inequality and unfairness (yes, there will be some that do). Interrupt and disrupt the way that things have always been done around here.

Have the uncomfortable conversations and raise consciousness.  Call out bias, stereotypes, bad behaviour and talk about racism and racial inequality.  Ask, where are our blind spots?  Audit communication materials.  Consider who is representing the firm at recruitment events. When recruiting laterally, ask where are the culturally diverse candidates? Put them on the lists.

Showcase diversity role models; appoint cultural diversity champions, mentors and sponsors. Unearth your culturally diverse talent; proactively support them and shine a light on them.

What tips would you give to culturally diverse lawyers coming through the ranks and with aspirations of leadership?

Get involved, find your voice, and speak up. Say yes to opportunities. Don’t wait to be chosen: proactively put yourself forward, even if it means rejection – everything will be a learning experience and will demonstrate that you are interested.

Seek out mentors and sponsors.

Have a bias to action: don’t just talk about it – what can you do now to make a difference and help move things forward? Don’t wait to be appointed as a leader, act like a leader now.

Deliberately focus on and cultivate your personal brand  – your story, your skills, your values and strengths, your differences.

Participate thoughtfully in social media, speak on panels and attend networking events – e.g., Asian Leadership Project, Culturally Diverse Women, AALA.

Volunteer internally and externally – e.g., NSW Law Society, AALA committees, RACs. Find other allies, champions and like-minded people to help amplify the minority voices.

Enter the Legal category of the 40 under 40 Most Influential Asian Australian Awards[2] – they will shine a spotlight on you and give you an amazing platform to elevate your CV!

[1] Katrina is a Non-Executive Director, Chair and Public Speaker. She was overall winner of the Board & Management category in the 2019 AFR 💯Women of Influence Awards for her contributions to law, business, gender, and cultural diversity.  She recently stepped down as Partner in Charge, King & Wood Mallesons, Sydney after 26 years as a partner.

Katrina is NSW Patron for the Asian Australian Lawyers Association and was a Judge in the 2021 40 under 40 Most Influential Asian Australian Awards.  She has deep experience in Asian/Australian business, intellectual property, media, and consumer brands. She is inducted into the IP Hall of Fame and recognised as Woman Lawyer of the Year (Private Practice) by NSW Women Lawyers Association, Intellectual Property Partner of the Year and Best in IP Litigation. She also has a deep understanding of corporate governance, culture, compliance, and risk.


[2] The 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australian Awards were founded in 2019 and are co-convened by Johnson Partners, Asialink, ANU’s Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership and PWC Australia. They help to shine the light on the pipeline of Asian Australian talent across all areas of society to ensure greater diversity on boards and leadership teams of Australia’s most important organisations.

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