Edith Shih of CK Hutchison Holdings believes that family demands influence what areas of law female lawyers opt for and there is more Hong Kong can do to support working women.

International Women’s Day falls on March 8, so Asialaw’s monthly interview series with exceptional female in-house counsel in Asia is launching at a good time. Our first subject is Edith Shih, executive director, head group general counsel and company secretary of CK Hutchison Holdings (CKHH), a Hong Kong group that operates in more than 50 countries. Managing a team of 230 lawyers and 60 company executives in 20 countries, Edith oversees the legal, regulatory, corporate governance and compliance affairs of the group. While this is no easy feat, Edith has gotten to where she is with grace and grit. We learn more about how she has reached this place in her career, what she thinks about the challenges female lawyers face and the importance of continually supporting the next generation of women in the workforce.

Edith Shih

In-house vs private practice

Though she went to university to study music and education, Edith did not follow her original desire to be a music teacher but instead, studied law and qualified as a solicitor in the UK after she was conferred her Master's degrees from Columbia University in New York. Upon her return to Hong Kong, her first job was in private practice, then she went into investment banking for two years and joined the CKHH Group in 1989 and she has never left. In 1989, she was the executive director of CEF Capital, the then investment bank of the Group. In 1991, she joined Hutchinson Whampoa where she was responsible for business development and strategic planning. In 1993, she took on her present role as head group general counsel and in 1997, she took on the role of company secretary as well and she was appointed executive director this January.

Though graduation rates of males and females are fairly equal in Hong Kong, at the partnership level, the ratio of male to female goes to 70:30. Edith says that she is “not sure if women are not given the opportunity, but many choose not to pursue partnership positions”.

The demands of family life often influence what areas of law women go into, she says. “For women working in law firms who need to balance their family obligations, many practise family/divorce law, real estate law or IP law, which are practices that have less cut-throat hours,” says Edith. “People want to spend time with their families and while they may not leave right at 6pm, they can still see their families when they leave at 8pm. Compared to practices such as commercial, corporate, finance and banking, where things have to be done within a short period of time, especially in magic circle firms, they could be much busier.”

“Many people get too tired of going home at 2am and waking up at 6am to carry on the next day, so they choose to go in-house,” says Edith.

“At most major law firms, men and women are not treated differently,” says Edith. “If females have the same ability, they are given the same opportunity, but billing is a big concern and there is pressure to develop business.”

“Females are very detailed and much more focused and many partnership committees actually prefer females because they tend to be more stable and are normally not the breadwinner of the family,” says Edith. “Males tend to be lured away to better packages.”

Balancing family and work

Being in a senior management position, Edith has often come across instances where female colleagues find it awkward to reveal they are pregnant. “Many women are embarrassed when they are pregnant and are concerned that the company doesn’t like it because it creates inconvenience since they are away for months and may not be able to meet 100% of the work demand,” says Edith.

“Relatively speaking, Hong Kong is not as kind to pregnant women compared to the UK or Nordic countries where employees may be away for six months to a year for maternity leave,” adds Edith.

“It is true that the focus and concentration might not be the same for women, especially if they are nursing,” says Edith. “Most want to spend time with their children in their formative years but often have to rely on helpers and relatives to help take care of their children, so something must give.”

Role evolves

In addition to her role as executive director and general counsel, Edith is also a director of a number of companies in the CKHH Group. She does not think mandatory requirements for a minimum percentage of females to sit on boards of directors are feasible. “Women should be put on boards only if they can do the job,” says Edith. “In more and more countries there is mandatory requirement for 30% female composition on boards, but some think it is too rigid. People should be evaluated based on their performance or they get looked upon differently otherwise.”

The times have changed for female lawyers, as Edith recalls that when she first qualified as a lawyer in the 1980s and had a male articled clerk. When the clients introduced themselves at a meeting, they would shake the hand of her assistant, thinking that he was the lawyer. “During those days, there were even more preconceptions about females being lawyers.”

Edith says with a mischievous smile on her face that if she had a choice, she would prefer to be a female because “we can get away with things more easily”.

Edith is aware of female colleagues who bring their babies to work and even on business trips. She tries to accommodate mothers by sending someone else on business if possible, but “if someone is passionate about work, they would want to go”.

“Perhaps allowing for people to work from home for a period is helpful,” says Edith. “If a company has a large enough department, accommodations can be made for certain periods of time.”

With “education in her blood”, Edith is passionate about supporting the next generation, whether they are men or women. She supports her own alma mater, organisations such as the Hong Kong Federation of Women Lawyers and Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries through mentoring activities to help young women looking for guidance in their career paths and personal lives.

Edith’s motto: “You are your own number one, as long as you do better than the day before.”