In 1992, when Chun Wei started out as an associate in the Hong Kong office of Sullivan & Cromwell, the demographics of the legal profession reflected the British colony that Hong Kong was at the time: lots of white, British male lawyers and very few female Asian ones.* In order to feel less isolated in the male-dominated culture, the handful of women at different firms—all of whom were associates—sought each other out. Wei’s circle included rising associates Teresa Ko at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Celia Lam at Linklaters, and Benita Yu at Slaughter and May.

Fast-forward two decades. Wei now heads the Hong Kong and Beijing offices of her New York–based firm. Ko is head of the China practice for Freshfields. Lam leads a Hong Kong practice for Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and Yu is one of Slaughters’ top partners.

Female lawyers are no longer a small minority at Hong Kong firms. And they’re no longer just populating the lower ranks. The largest law firm in town, Mayer Brown JSM, is led by a woman, Elaine Lo. So are the Hong Kong offices of Baker & McKenzie (Poh Lee Tan) and Weil, Gotshal & Manges (Akiko Mikumo), as well as Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison‘s China practice (Jeanette Chan).

Women are also among the top partners in the local offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (Z. Julie Gao); Sidley Austin (Constance Choy); Davis Polk & Wardwell (Bonnie Chan); Clifford Chance (Amy Lo); Herbert Smith (Anna Howell); and others.

“It’s really a reflection that there isn’t much of a glass ceiling here,” says Weil Asia managing partner Mikumo, who moved to Hong Kong from New York in 2007 to establish her firm’s local office. Women also make up a larger proportion of the legal profession in Hong Kong than in many other jurisdictions. According to The Law Society of Hong Kong, some 46 percent of the territory’s 10,000 lawyers are women, who also constitute 24 percent of local law firm partners. By comparison, according to the American Bar Association, fewer than a third of U.S. lawyers and only 19 percent of law firm partners are women. (In other Asian countries, things are worse; only 18 percent of Japanese lawyers are women, according to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.)

Why are more women reaching the top in Hong Kong? Changing social mores are frequently cited, as are China’s socialist legacy and the diversity efforts of Western multinationals. Women in Hong Kong are also rising on the backs of other women—the armies of inexpensive domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia who do the cooking, cleaning, dog-walking, and child-minding for a large swath of Hong Kong’s professional classes. If the lack of affordable and reliable child care is the most frequently cited obstacle to professional women’s progress in the West, that obstacle simply doesn’t exist in Hong Kong.

It doesn’t hurt that plenty of clients are women. A recent study by U.S. accounting firm Grant Thornton found that 35 percent of senior management roles in Hong Kong were held by women, compared to 23 percent in the United Kingdom and 15 percent in the United States. In China, the focus of most Hong Kong practices these days, some 19 percent of chief executive officers are women, while only 5 percent are in North America. None of the women interviewed for this story said that they had encountered gender discrimination in their careers. “I don’t think people would make a distinction as to whether you are male or female,” Lo says.

Paul Weiss’s Chan sees the number of woman executives as a legacy of the Communist government’s one-child policy. Ambitious parents who might have favored sons instead pushed daughters to succeed. As a result, she believes that there is very little workplace discrimination, and women hold senior positions at many large Chinese companies. A senior vice president and executive director at state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited, the world’s largest bank, is female, Wang Lili. So is Zhang Xin, the billionaire entrepreneur behind Beijing-based property group SOHO China Limited.

“If you are dealing with China-related work, people are used to dealing with women,” says Chan. “China is a socialist country, so you see a lot of senior female leaders. Females are given opportunities, and it’s really not such a big deal.”

The rise of China has certainly turbocharged the careers of Hong Kong’s female rainmakers. In the 1990s, when Chinese state-owned companies began looking to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange, they lacked long-standing relationships with lawyers in the market. The Asian women were able to seize an opportunity many of the white men couldn’t.

Freshfields’s Ko started out doing aircraft financing deals. But in 1993, while still an associate, she advised Shanghai Petrochemical Company Ltd. on a $343 million dual-listing, the world’s very first Hong Kong–New York listing. That was her big break. “At that time, I thought to myself, doing one of these seems a bit like an accident—but doing two would make it a bit of a track record,” she says. Ko approached her senior partners with the idea of pitching for another similar transaction. “I got the support I needed to go get more [of the deals],” says Ko. A few years later, in 1997, Ko advised telecommunications service provider China Mobile Limited on a $4.2 billion dual listing in Hong Kong and New York. “That steered my career to a more corporate-focused practice,” says Ko. She now heads her firm’s capital markets group.

Baker & McKenzie’s Tan, a native Malaysian who has lived in Hong Kong for 27 years, also rose on the China wave. “Being in Hong Kong allowed me to participate in the growth of China—the opportunities are intricately intertwined,” says Tan. Admitted to practice in the U.K., Hong Kong, Australia, and Singapore, Tan says her Asian background and language skills helped boost her career at Baker & McKenzie, as her initial focus on technology-related work evolved into advising on major M&A and private equity deals in the media and technology sectors.

For Paul Weiss’s Chan, a Hong Kong native who received her legal education in Canada and the U.S., being posted to Hong Kong and China in the late 1980s jump-started her career. Starting in 1987, she headed the firm’s fledgling Shanghai office for two years—as an associate. “I was very junior at the time, but was given a lot of responsibility to run the Shanghai office,” Chan says. “China was already a very important market to the firm.”

All those trips to Beijing and Shanghai are somewhat easier when someone else is there to tend the home fires. The 300,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines, account for approximately 4 percent of Hong Kong’s population. Minimum wage for live-in foreign maids in Hong Kong is $480 per month, though most who work for upper-income households earn around $700 a month. That’s far less than the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or about $1,200 per month; experienced child care workers in places like New York generally earn upward of $1,000 per week.

Hong Kong women also tend to feel less guilt about using child care. “I think in Western jurisdictions, there might be a stigma attached to getting house help,” says Chan. “Lawyers in the West may think that, since they weren’t brought up by nannies, they should also weigh up to that responsibility. But it’s different over here. People here don’t think it’s a big deal because most have been brought up by nannies themselves.” Yu, who has an 8-year-old son, employs a domestic helper. “It really makes a difference,” she says. “I remember how hard it was for my female colleagues in London to cope without help at home. A lot of them have been forced to drop out of work after they get married because it is just physically impossible to look after a family with work.”

“[The] majority of my time goes to work, but I love what I’m doing, and I cannot imagine being a stay-home mom and not working,” echoes Skadden capital markets partner Gao, who has a 10-year-old son and a domestic helper. “No one at home is complaining, and until someone does, my life is not going to change.”

Chan notes that hiring a nanny allowed her own mother to go into the family garment business. “I aspired to be just like her,” Chan says, “in that I would have my own career and stand on my own two feet.”

Senior women lawyers,however, broadly agree that the increase in the number of female lawyers has not augured a kinder, gentler profession. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Things started to change in the late 1990s, when it began to become a very ruthless environment to work in,” says Lo. After the millennium, the rise of China also made clients more assertive and demanding, she adds. Today, says Ko, “there is a huge expectation on all quarters for people to get deals done and compete for windows in the market.” Deals are being closed at a faster than ever pace. The lawyers—men or women—who can step up to it will excel.

How well do traditionally female styles of leadership play in a tougher market? The women rainmakers interviewed take slightly different stances. “The women who have risen through the ranks are certainly more assertive than those who have not,” says Tan. “They are confident about the value that they can bring to the table. The thing is . . .I’m not sure we consciously think of ourselves as women sometimes.” Wei says it’s necessary to play both “good cop, bad cop,” and if prioritizing certain work means to put off someone else’s request abruptly, she will not hesitate. “I can appear to be direct and harsh, but I’ve learned over the years that that is how I can get things done rather than keep on owing a debt of promises,” says Wei.

Slaughters’s Yu, however, highlights the “soft skills” women bring to bear in the work setting, like attentiveness and empathy. “That ability to develop an interpersonal relationship is very important, because everyone starts off with a basic knowledge and competence, but then beyond that is all soft skills,” she says—such as the ability to listen to what clients really want. “I like to watch for body language and sort of read in between the lines,” she says.

Many top women partners say they take a different approach to client relations than their male partners in one other important respect: forgoing the camaraderie of a boozy night out. Most of the women interviewed for this article said they did not drink and almost never went out with clients, though some may send male lawyers to pinch-drink. On one occasion, Tan recalls, some Korean clients insisted on testing the drinking abilities of her team.

“They don’t pressure women as much as they pressure men, so I told them I do not drink and was let go,” she says. “But my poor colleagues had to drink my fair share.”

Some women partners have made high-profile lateral moves of late. Last year Lam left Linklaters after 18 years to help launch a Hong Kong law practice for Simpson Thacher ["Locally Sourced," The American Lawyer , February]. But in general, senior female partners say they are generally more loyal to their firms than their male counterparts, who have shown more willingness to chase bigger paydays by switching firms or leaving the profession altogether. Sullivan & Cromwell’s Wei; Freshfields’s Ko; Weil’s Mikumo; Baker & McKenzie’s Hong Kong managing partner, Tan; and Paul Weiss’s China practice head, Chan, have all spent more than two decades in their respective firms. “In Hong Kong, it is very important to be senior and highly experienced, so longevity in one firm does count,” says Ko. “Male lawyers in Hong Kong tend to want to go and try other things like investment banking, where they are the ones being served instead of the ones serving.”

But then Hong Kong’s top women partners know they have a good thing going already. No wonder they’re more willing to stay put. “Comparing my career here to what it could have been in London, I would say that my career here is more satisfying and sustainable,” says Tan. “After all, having a lot of women in business in general is not always the case in other parts of the world.”


*Correction 6/4/12: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Chun Wei started as an associate in Sullivan & Cromwell’s Hong Kong office in 1989, not 1992. The first paragraph of the article has been revised to correct the mistake. We regret the error.