Feng Guo

About Feng Guo

Feng Guo is a commercial dispute resolution lawyer practising in a major Australian law firm. She dabbles in art on the side and likes to speak out every now and then on a topic close to her heart.

Lawyers: Adding a female dimension to the legal profession

Wanting to see a greater rate of female participation at the highest levels of the legal profession, Lawyer Feng Guo shares her tips on how to achieve the dream.


The feminist debate has generated much traction and discussion since its inception in the 1970s. This is not an article about feminism, nor does it attempt to whinge about how difficult it is for professional women to “have it all.” This article was written by a young lawyer attempting to add something useful to the debate with a view to helping out her fellow “comrades” in the legal industry. It stems from a desire to strive for the ephemeral standard of “multidimensionalism” – a life enriched by the meaningful dimensions of work, family, civil participation and culture – and suggests that this is attainable if we approach it with the right attitude, together.

For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

At a recent Intelligence Squared debate held by the St James Ethics Centre, “Society Would Flourish Under Female Rule,” the speakers argued whether the world might be a better place if women had real power in shaping its future.

In the pre-debate poll, 65 percent voted for the motion, whereas in the post-debate poll results this figure had dropped to 44 percent. In my view, this was due to a large part on the clever definition offered by negative speaker, philosopher Nicole Vincent, who argued that females did not necessarily want to rule society, but, rather, that we just wanted to have an equal chance. It is indeed by framing the debate in terms of equal opportunity for both genders that enables us to have a logical and constructive discussion about what systemic changes and fundamental paradigm shifts need to take place in order to get there.

Females in law

Prominent British Barrister, Helena Kennedy QC accurately pointed out in Eve was Framed: Women and British Justice that in the legal sphere, law is a product of the male experience. Law deals with the world from a male perspective because it was made by men as judges, as legislators in Parliament and as legal commentators in the academic world. Men are the people who run the law, control it and determine its content. As a result of this, the few women who had trickled into senior legal roles had learned to see the world in the same way as their male tutors.

Since the 1990s there have been great advances: women have entered the law in increasing numbers and occupy senior positions on the Bench. They may eschew the word “feminist”, but equality is in their bloodstream. Men in the profession are also now more sentient to the ways the system discriminates on gender lines.

Looking at the figures, the story gets grimmer. The statistics show that women earn 80 percent of what men earn for the same job, just two women chair an S&P/ASX 200 company, superannuation payouts for women are about half of those of men at retirement, one in three women report experiencing physical violence in their lifetime, and one in five had experienced sexual assault.

However, it is only fair to point out that there has been notable progress in the form of the national paid parental leave scheme, the doubling of women on boards, as well as breakthroughs in the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force. Australia has had its first female Prime Minister, a female head of state, and a female NSW governor, which is an achievement in itself.

Lessons from the leaders

I am constantly blown away by people like my mentor, Judy Tomas, and the two female department heads at my law firm who “have it all.” They have mastered the fine art of attaining multidimensionalism in the legal maze and have the fruits to show for it; a successful career, a loving family and a fulfilling life. Surely it must come at a price, I thought to myself.

Indeed it does. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” illustrates the “Heidi/Howard Syndrome,” or the difficult choice between success and likeability. In 2003, Harvard Business School ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. They chose the case study of Heidi Roizen, a successful real-life entrepreneur. The same story was read by two groups of students, with the one difference being that Heidi’s name was changed to Howard for the second group. Ultimately, both groups found Heidi and Howard equally competent (their accomplishments were identical after all), yet Howard came across as the more appealing colleague whilst Heidi was seen as “selfish” and “not someone you would like to work for.” The cold hard truth, as became glaringly apparent, is that success and likability are negatively correlated for women, but not for men.

So, to what extent can we overcome these deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes, having accepted that they exist, even if on a subconscious level? Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick counsels that it’s not about giving women more mentoring or more training. It’s about changing the fundamentals of the model and redefining what success looks like. In law firms, sadly, there is one model of success and that is the 24/7 ideal worker model. The reality is that there is a significant drop in the amount of women at partner level because they choose to go off and have children, a significant time commitment. I took the chance to speak with Elizabeth Broderick after her keynote address at the 2014 Lucy Mentoring Program Graduation and she reiterated to me the importance of women attaching to the labour market. Part time work is a flexible option if your firm offers it.

Another useful insight was one offered by Dr Meg Jay in her book The Defining Decade where the chapter “The Strength of Weak Ties” highlights the unexpected benefits of networking. By neglecting to cultivate weak ties and relationships that are beyond our immediate close friends, we limit our connections and our potential. Big things happen when we reach out to grab a coffee with someone we barely know. You have nothing to lose in doing so, so why not go for it!

Paving your way to the top

I have learnt that it is never too early to start planning your career path early. I found it difficult to manoeuvre my way around the bulk of information available when I had just started out as a lawyer, but after some digging around I have collated some useful resources that I would like to share.

  • Mentoring

The best place to begin is the NSW Young Lawyers website. You can think about joining a committee, writing a submission and attending the monthly committee meetings. A women’s mentoring program is also held by NSW Young Lawyers, to which you can apply in February 2015. This is a fantastic program that unites lawyers seeking guidance and support with more experienced legal practitioners and is a part of the pioneering Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession Project.

Signing up to the Women Lawyers Association of NSW, the peak professional body representing women lawyers in NSW, is great for personal and professional development since they hold regular talks and social events. Even internally within the firm environment, be proactive and reach out for mentors and people who you trust to help guide you to make the right decisions and teach you how to avoid CLMs (Career-Limiting Moves). By the same token, help out younger players and be a confidante who acts with integrity. Don’t be afraid to switch firms until you find one that is the “right fit” for you, because firm culture is of fundamental importance to your overall wellbeing, as well as your prospects for career advancement.

  • Join a board

It was during a meeting with the CEO of a microfinancing charity that I came to learn of The Observership Program. This program facilitates the involvement of young, talented and energetic individuals in a structured experience on non-profit boards. Participants experience first-hand exposure to the role of the board, its decision-making and operations, and inherit targeted training and mentorship designed to foster important boardroom skills. Applications open in September 2015 and you can apply for a placement through the Australian Institute of Company Directors homepage.

Moreover, Ruth Medd runs Women on Boards, an association specifically targeted to aid women on their path to directorship. Not only is it a fantastic way of gaining an overall understanding of the organisation as a whole, but you can use your expertise to make a real change in the direction that the organisation moves. Subscribing to Women on Boards will give you access to weekly email alerts for board vacancies and invitations to training sessions and networking events.

  • Networking

I was once told by a Senior Associate that “you can never give away too many business cards – that is what they are for!” Indeed, in order to reach the elusive goal of partnership, it is important to start early and think about where your clients are going to come from. The only steps that can be taken as a Junior Lawyer are to refine your technical skills and establish connections with business that may or may not result in future legal work down the track. Keeping abreast of news and current affairs, ground-breaking case law and attending charity balls, fundraising walks, and other such client events is a great way of actively broadening your knowledge and experience base.

It became apparent quite early on that commercially savvy lawyers are not just focused on their billable hours, they are working their networks both online and offline, writing articles and constantly thinking about business development opportunities. Writing e-alerts during quiet times is a great way of making your name as a “thought leader” who is known for a particular area of law within the firm. I have also found that pro-bono work is a good opportunity to cut your teeth in new areas and develop your face to face client skills.

  • Your Wellbeing

It is crucial to maintain meaningful relationships and friendships with people who support you and who will lift you up when you are feeling down. Being a part of a book club that reads books that range from Lean In to Not That Kind Of Girl is a great form of escapism that will take your mind off work. Try doing some yoga during your lunch break at work to relax and refresh your mindset.

There are a plethora of talks held throughout Sydney over the year, such as the Intelligence Squared debate series and the All About Women Festival held at the Opera House in March 2015. These are wonderful ways of reminding yourself that there is a wider community out there, of people who share the same concerns and have the same ideals as yourself.

Finally, Arianna Huffington, the chair, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post and author of “Thrive, The Third Metric Of Success,” reminds us that while there will be plenty of signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of who you are, to take care of yourself along the way, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. As Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”

Share via