Rita Ku is a partner at Withers, a renowned international law firm offering first class famiily and matrimonial dispute services in Hong Kong. She is recognised as a Litigation Star and one of Asia-Pacific's Top 100 Women in Litigation in 2021.
Ku speaks to Benchmark Litigation about her practice history, memorable cases, and gender diversity in the legal industry.
In your opinion how does the firm differ from its competitors?
At Withers, awareness about diversity and inclusion are deeply embedded in our culture and enjoying a diverse workforce at all levels within the firm has long been an essential guiding principle for us. We are a worldwide firm and so we especially value diversity in perspectives individuals of different gender, race, age, national origin, sexual orientation, culture, education, as well as professional and life experience can offer. Over the last 20 years, Withers has been topping the tables for the proportion of women. We are proud that 46% of our global partnership are female and half of our partnership board is made up of women. Notably, we are one of a few international law firms where our two most senior positions (Chairperson and CEO) are both held by women.
What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?
What’s most satisfying to me is being able to bring light to one's life. Most of my clients come to me during their most vulnerable time. They are in despair, and I help them to find solutions for a better future for themselves and for their children. I help to protect children through the law. Children are usually the innocent bystanders in family cases yet often times in family cases, they are the most affected. It is most rewarding to know that the children will be safe and well taken care of.
When it comes to the most challenging part, I would definitely say that it is when emotions run high in certain family members. Seeing them go through the difficult time is difficult for me but as their lawyer, I often have to pivot to the rational side of things and look out for their needs in an objective manner.
What has been your most memorable case to date?
There are a lot memorable cases after 18 years of practice. The most memorable one is the ML v YL case that I did in 2010. After the long battle, we won in the First of Final Appeal and as a result of the loophole found in this case, the relevant law in Hong Kong was changed. What is best is that despite the acrimonious proceedings, the parties became friends soon afterwards and they worked together for the best interests of their children, who were badly affected during the Proceedings.
What is the employment outlook like within the legal field? How much demand is there for people, specifically women, in your particular practice areas? Are you finding that fewer women are entering these sectors (regulatory defence/internal investigation/consumer finance/etc.)?
I will say that the legal field will remain more or less stable. Employment rates may have slowed down due to the pandemic but companies that have been quick to adapt and capitalise on the new opportunities are already bouncing back.
Even though most management may largely make up of men, this is not the case in our Hong Kong office. Also, women are more prominent in the family practice area. Out of our five partners in the family team, four of us are women. However, choosing a family lawyer is a very personal decision and should not be dictated by gender. One should be guided by someone they trust and comfortable speaking with.
What obstacles do you believe women [in this profession] face that could potentially hinder their profitability or growth?
An obstacle women in the legal profession may face is getting her voice heard, especially in practice areas traditionally helmed by men. When you are the minority, your voice can be overlooked, especially if you have a differing view. My advice to this is to be doubly hardworking, confident and resilient. Show, not tell, why you should be heard and your opinion valued.
For working mums or mums-to-be, the legal profession sometimes demands long working hours. To be able to remain committed to both work and family, it would be best to find a working environment that offers flexible working hours and provides support to mothers. I truly believe women can do it all and are equally committed if given the right support.
Do you find that women encounter different expectations with respect to personality and demeanour than male counterparts by clients, the courts, and other professionals across the industry?
I believe the general perception of women being demure, gentler and more emotional does not hold so true anymore. Globally, people are recognising that women can be strong, opinionated and well-educated. Standing on the shoulders of the many women before me who have paved the way, I can proudly say that I am able to be who I am without any gender stereotypes placed on me in the court and industry.
Have you found the legal industry to have addressed the disparity in expectations?
While it may not have been a conscious effort from the legal industry, disparity in expectations of men and women has been addressed to a large extent.
What do you think the legal profession needs to do in order to improve opportunities for women (in-house or private practice) litigators?
It would be best if legal management teams can see female representation as an asset, especially since they are the decision makers of the companies. It will take time and resources to convince them but once it is achieved and on the agenda, it will be useful in improving opportunities for women litigators.
One of the practical ways can also be to support mums and mums-to-be with flexible working arrangements and inclusive progression plans. This will help champion women in the legal field while giving them space to tend to family needs. Of course, in a family, it takes both hands to clap. Men should also be given ample support and paternity leave to look after their children so that women will be able to pursue their career aspirations too.
How important is mentorship in this profession and what advice, if any, would you give women who are just starting their legal careers?
Mentorship is very important in the legal profession. My mentors have shaped the way I practice with invaluable insights, habits and wisdoms. For women starting their legal careers, it is important to have female mentors you look up to and can rely on. When the going gets tough, she will be the one who can inspire you to press on through the challenges. Think “if she can do it, I can do it”. Many people overlook the importance of a mentor and get consumed in climbing the corporate ladder but it is really not what you follow that matters, it is who you follow that does.
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Please click here to view Ms. Ku's professional biography