Young Asian barristers series

This is the first of a four part series of interviews between CommBar and some of the Asia Practice Section’s up-and-coming members who explain something about their backgrounds and how life at the Bar for a person of Asian heritage throws up challenges.

Interview with Angela Lee

Authors: Dr Josh Wilson QC and Angela Lee

CommBar:       Tell us about your career to date.

Angela:           I worked at PwC and then Minter Ellison for about 10 years prior to coming to the Bar. I also spent a year as a solicitor advocate for the Victorian Government. Since coming to the Bar, I’ve worked mostly in tax and commercial law, mainly as junior counsel. It has been a privilege to work with eminent senior counsel and top instructors on really interesting and complex matters.

CommBar:      Tell us of your cultural heritage, given that this is the Asia Practice Section of CommBar.

Angela:           I was born in Hong Kong and my family moved to Australia when I was eight years old. We have extended family both here and in Hong Kong. My family is not particularly traditional but we celebrate Chinese festivals as well as Australian ones – the best of both worlds!

CommBar:      Some people use the expression “bamboo ceiling” in reference to a range of issues that may prevent Asian practitioners from achieving the same success as their counterparts from non-Asian backgrounds. Do you have a comment?

Angela:           Firstly, I’d like to say how inspiring it is to have senior, highly regarded practitioners like Reynah Tang and William Lye as role models for Asian lawyers. To the extent that there are specific challenges and barriers to success for Asian practitioners, the solution will require a cultural shift and may take some time. Generally speaking, self-promotion is not a strong trait in the Asian culture. For Asian practitioners, strong achievements might not result in the same level of recognition and awareness. Young Asian practitioners should be encouraged to develop their professional networks and seek mentors at work who are willing to develop their skills and “go into bat” for them.

CommBar:      What do you see as the single biggest obstacle for a barrister of Asian heritage?

Angela:           Despite our multicultural and multi-ethnic society, I believe that the biggest obstacle for a barrister of Asian heritage is still one of perception. The traditional image of a barrister in Australia is not of someone of Asian heritage. The challenge is to break through the stereotype and encourage instructors and clients to brief the best person for the job, irrespective of their background.

CommBar:      You are now three years at the Victorian Bar. In view of your experiences, what advice would you give to a person intending to come to the Bar?

Angela:           Even before applying to join the Bar, I would advise potential barristers to start building up a solid professional network of solicitors who brief, and barristers who refer work. And on a personal level, try to meet members of the Bar. There is a very supportive community here and I recommend tapping into that. It will certainly make the transition to the Bar much more enjoyable!

Potential barristers also should consider putting aside some savings because starting out can be financially challenging. There could be a long drought between starting the readers’ course and receiving one’s first fees as a barrister. I would recommend saving enough to last at least six months, as well as the money to set up a new practice.

Having said the above, I have found the Bar to be a fantastic place to work – it can be challenging but is immensely rewarding. I would strongly encourage lawyers to consider the Bar as an option.

CommBar:      CommBar has been working hard to ensure women at the Bar enjoy the same professional opportunities at the Bar as do their male counterparts. What more can CommBar do to improve professional opportunities for women at the Bar?

Angela:           I am a strong believer in a meritocracy, and women at the bar just need the chance to prove and promote ourselves. I think CommBar’s efforts to put women forward for the best opportunities and celebrate our achievements will continue to be of great assistance. Having strong role models like Jennifer Batrouney QC is very inspiring too!

CommBar:      Is there anything in particular CommBar can do to promote members of Asian heritage beyond what CommBar presently does?

Angela:           CommBar has been very active in promoting its members of Asian heritage. The tireless work of senior members like Dr Josh Wilson QC make a huge difference in terms of raising awareness and providing opportunities.

Providing a forum for Asian practitioners to meet has also been very useful. I didn’t know any other Asian barristers until I was introduced to the Asia Practice Section. Since then, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with other barristers of Asian heritage, as well as being introduced to the Australian Asian Lawyers Association, which promotes Asian practitioners in the wider legal community.

CommBar:      Achieving a work-life balance is always difficult at the Bar, especially when the pressures of a large or long trial start biting. What do you do to achieve a sustainable work-life balance?

Angela:           I’ve learnt that when it’s “on” at work, it’s really on, and so I try not to beat myself up too much about work-life balance on a day-to-day basis. Instead, I take time off and travel when I can. Much to my delight, I’ve discovered that January and July are quiet times and many barristers take holidays then. I’ve been happily going with the flow in this regard, workload permitting of course. My husband and I both enjoy travel and photography – it’s a great combo.

CommBar:      In your opinion, should CommBar Asia Practice Section engage socially or in CPD sessions with solicitors of an Asian background?

Angela:           The Asia Practice Section should finely balance its activities to promote networking among Asian practitioners but at the same time ensure that we are not creating a silo. I think we should focus on widening the circle and encouraging diversity rather than creating an exclusively Asian network. The non-Asian legal community will benefit from knowing and learning of the talent that exists among barristers of Asian heritage, and we will go so much further with an inclusive approach. This would help ensure the best work for practitioners and the best outcomes for clients.

CommBar:      Planning for the future, what should Asia Practice Section of CommBar do to adequately cater for future generations of barristers of Asian heritage coming to the Bar?

Angela:            We could start by encouraging more Asian practitioners and students of Asian heritage to consider the Bar as an option. To this end, I understand that the Asia Practice Section is working with Vic Bar’s Student Engagement Committee to have barristers of Asian heritage speak at schools and universities. Once at the Bar, I think the Asia Practice Section provides a great forum for practitioners to connect and that this should be continued and developed. A mentoring program may also help new Asian barristers.  

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