Career Advice Working Women

Parenthood suits family lawyer

Rita Ku’s exuberance is infectious. It’s the morning after a celebratory party at the China Club and she breezes into the room talking about the night before. The cause for celebration was her appointment as a partner of Withers Worldwide, which has made her the English law firm’s first Chinese partner and only the seventh partner in Asia.

The appointment is her second milestone for the global firm. In 2010 she worked on the landmark divorce case ML v YJ, the first matrimonial case in Hong Kong to invoke international comity in relation to a judgment made in mainland China, The case went to the Court of Final Appeal, where the ruling in favour of her client pressured the Legislative Council to expedite legislation equivalent to Part III of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 and make important changes to the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Ordinance.

The party for Ku was well attended by colleagues, clients and her own family, including her young son and daughter. But Despite her high spirits, Ku stresses the fact that her work as a family-law specialist is centred on acrimonious marital relationships concerning divorce, child custody and ancillary relief. Divorce is distressing and sad, she says.

The divorce cases she handles involve wealthy couples negotiating substantial divorce settlements. Her position requires the ability to offer the best professional advice and to deal with the emotional aspects of each family’s welfare, especially the children. These are skills Ku has developed over a decade of practice.

The first client meeting can be tearful. “The clients, whether women or men, often cry,” she says. “It’s a very stressful time. The men may think: ‘She is obstructing access to my children. I am just an ATM machine, nothing more.’ And the women may think: ‘Oh, he is not paying me enough.’ As a lawyer, you have to digest everything and explain the impact to the client.

“Not all cases end up in court and a lawyer has to find a way to strike a balance because we are talking about family, not business, and children may be involved. The client, caught up in the heat of the moment, may find it hard to understand, but with hindsight, they will recognise that it is in their best interest.”

Family law was not Ku’s first choice when she graduated with an LLB from Hong Kong University in 2000. At that time she chose the hard grind. She joined a local practice for her two-year apprenticeship which exposed her to a wide gamut of litigation work, including conveyancing, commercial law, intellectual property and trademarks, cross-border cases, and family law.

The experience took her to places current trainees would refuse to tread, she says. She once spent an entire day with a filing clerk in a train station with a photograph of a defendant in hand, scanning the crowds for the person so she could serve them with a divorce petition.

She was admitted to the Hong Kong Law Society in 2002 and joined the Hong Kong Family Law Association a few years later. She briefly worked in commercial law before joining an international law firm, where she was assigned to work with Sharon Ser, a noted family lawyer who is now her senior partner at Withers. The firm was looking for a lawyer with Chinese language skills and Ku, fluent in Cantonese, Putonghua and English, fit the bill.

She has made two big decisions since then: to specialise in family law, and to get married and become a mother.

She discovered the latter gave her an advantage in her career. “With a husband and children, you begin to understand the difficulties that clients face. Some clients may say you don’t understand them because you are not married and have no kids. But that’s not true with me.”

Ku learned how to navigate the differences between male and female communication styles. To deal with these differences, she read books such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

“Our male-to-female client ratio is 50:50. You need different skill sets for the two genders. Men want to have quick, constructive responses, but with the women, it’s a slower, collaborative process. You have to adapt. These are skills I developed over the years,” she says.

Her first such big-money divorce case, 10 years ago, involved a settlement of HK$20 million – an inconsequential sum today, she says, considering the divorce settlement of HK$1.2 billion awarded in Hong Kong to a woman in December last year. Such cases include the complexities of cross-border “forum shopping” – the choice of country in which to make a financial claim beneficial to a given spouse. These are options for clients who divide their time between countries or who have multiple nationalities.

Cross-border divorce cases in Hong Kong are complicated because they involve mainland assets and businesses, which are difficult to authenticate and value. “We treat such elements as ‘suspect’,” Ku says. For this reason, matrimonial lawyers need a broad understanding of areas such as taxation and international trusts.

MJ v YL was a difficult fight as it crossed jurisdictions in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The judgment in the Court of Final Appeal attracted a lot of media attention. At that time, counsel pointed out that there was something wrong with the law in the Hong Kong jurisdiction. The territory had not yet followed the English rule, which had been in effect since 1984, which protected one party from an unfair judgment against them in another jurisdiction. Ku is currently working on a similar case involving the Beijing and Hong Kong jurisdictions.

While MJ v YL was successful, when one considers the children, there is no winner, she says. Sometimes you feel sad because of the fighting. “Then you can speak from your heart to the client, and ask why they need to fight,” she says.

Less acrimonious alternatives such as mediation and collaborative practice are available. Collaborative practice, still new in Hong Kong, has long been practised in the West. In London, the success rate is about 80 per cent, Ku says. It puts the divorcing couple together with experts such as accountants, psychologists and counsel, and avoids the courts. “It can be expensive but it is useful,” she says.

Mediation is the less expensive option. Ku herself applied for meditation training in November and hopes to have the qualification under her belt by next year. Also on the cards for her is a Notary Public examination next year.

A new role she will soon take on is that of conference speaker. In October Ku will give a presentation on “Marital Rights in Different Regimes” at the Dubai International Bar Association Conference. Next March she will speak about “Different Treatments of Children’s Issues Between Hong Kong and the PRC’’ at the 6th World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights in Sydney.

Ku joined Withers Hong Kong in 2010 through its associated Hong Kong law firm Facey & Co, which officially merged with Withers in January 2011. On being made a partner of the firm, she says: “I think my efforts in the past paid for this promotion.”

Meanwhile, she is enjoying playing mummy, waking up early to see her children off to school before heading for work at 8am. As the first one to arrive in the office, she enjoys an hour of quiet time before others get in. She leaves for home at around six. Weekends are usually reserved for family, with there also being the possibility for hiking or a spot of karaoke.