Asian Australian lawyers face ‘bamboo ceiling’

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The Australian legal profession is lacking in Asian cultural diversity, a new report has highlighted.

Produced by the Asian Australian Lawyers Association, The Asian Legal Profession: A snapshot of Asian Australian diversity in 2015 surveyed the cultural backgrounds of law firm partners, barristers and judges.

The report found that 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’.

With Asian Australians making up 8.2 percent of its partnership, Johnson Winter & Slattery came out on top for firms with more than 40 partners. Lavan Legal topped the mid-sized firms with 20 percent of its partners having Asian heritage.

The report also found that six large firms and 44 mid-sized firms had no Asian Australian partners.

This narrative is repeated at the Bar where Asian Australians account for only 94 out of 6,160 barristers. The lack of cultural diversity at the bar has had flow-on effects for the judiciary, where Asian Australians make up a mere 0.8 percent of judges.

“At the launch of the Association [in 2013], I observed that while the number of Asian Australians coming through our law schools has been increasing for some time, this did not appear to be reflected in the senior echelons of the legal profession in terms of partners of law firms, members of the Bar or the judiciary,” said the Association’s president, Reynah Tang.

By providing data to support the anecdotal evidence, Tang hopes that the report will start a constructive dialogue around cultural diversity in the Australian legal profession.

The reasons for the under-representation of Asian Australians in the legal profession are not explored by the report, but based on research conducted in the business sector, Tang said that Westernised leadership models, cultural bias and stereotyping could be among the barriers.

“If anything, these issues are likely to be exacerbated in the legal profession which tends to be more conservative and lag behind developments in other sectors,” he said.