This Law360 Q&A was published on December 5, 2014.
Donny Ching is legal director of energy company Royal Dutch Shell PLC and the first Asian member of its eight-strong executive committee. His role is central to delivering the strategy of one of the world’s largest companies with revenue of $451.2 billion in 2013.
Based in The Hague, the Netherlands, Ching leads an in-house team of 1,000 legal and other professionals of which almost a quarter are based in the U.S. They support Shell businesses in around 70 countries on issues ranging from acquisitions, divestments and litigation to project construction, sales and marketing, intellectual property and ethics and compliance.
A Malaysian national, Ching was admitted as a barrister in the U.K. before launching his career at Shell in Australia 26 years ago. Since then, he has held positions in Hong Kong, London and Singapore. Most recently, Ching was general counsel for the Projects and Technology business, which drives Shell’s research and manages major projects including deep-water oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and liquefied natural gas export projects in North America.
As a participant in Law360's Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series, Ching shared his perspective on five questions:
How did you break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?
I broke the glass ceiling by believing that being different is a strength instead of a weakness. That belief originated from my parents. They never had the opportunity to go to university or live outside Malaysia but they wanted to expose me to different cultures. So when I was 14 years old, my parents sent me from my hometown of Klang to boarding school in the U.K. It was my first trip overseas. I spoke Chinese and Malay but my English was quite poor. Then I had to learn French and German as part of the curriculum.
I was the only Malaysian there and that was a very instructive and life-changing experience. I quickly realized that people are suspicious of difference, but that if I could deliver as well as anyone else, I would be accepted.
After school, I graduated from Southampton University in the U.K. and passed my bar exams in London. But then my parents decided to uproot the family and move to Melbourne, Australia. This again reflected their belief that difference and new experiences were key to success in a globalizing world.
I followed my family and their values proved right. I landed my first job at Shell in Melbourne precisely because I was different. I was Malaysian, I had been admitted as a U.K. barrister and was requalifying as a lawyer in Australia. I think my manager realized that having someone with a totally different mindset and life experience could be positive on the team.
Feeling at home in both the East and the West and being able to transition between the two cultures has certainly helped my career, especially in a company whose activities span so many countries.
What are the challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level?
It’s both a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility. If you fail, that failure will be amplified many times because you are more visible. If things go wrong, I could reinforce negative myths about Asians in the working world. Sometimes, I have to take a deep breath and hope I don’t let everyone down.
When I was appointed legal director of Shell at the beginning of 2014, I received many notes of congratulations from the Asian community. People said they were pleased to see an Asian sitting up there as one of Shell’s business leaders. A Nigerian lawyer then told me, "Donny, you give us hope because you are the first non-white member of the executive committee." I realized then that I am many things to many people, and that I have a responsibility as a role model to a much broader group than I had initially thought.
At the same time, however, I clearly have a responsibility to develop talent of all nationalities and ethnicities. I have to focus on developing that talent while ensuring a level playing field for all based on merit, with a lens that is sensitive to both explicit and implicit biases that can negatively impact certain groups.
I’ve always wanted to be sure I have advanced in my career because I am good at my job and not because of my ethnicity and some internal requirement to fill a diversity quota. There have been a couple of times when I’ve been offered a role and I have said to my line manager, "Just to make it very clear, I want you to tell me that I got this job on merit." I have a real aversion to being viewed as a statistic rather than on merit.
Describe a time you encountered discrimination in your career and tell us how you handled it?
I recall a time when I was a junior lawyer with Shell in Australia, working on the acquisition of several coal mines worth the equivalent of around a billion dollars today. I had just started the job and the lead lawyer on the deal had to take on a bigger transaction. So I was thrown in at the deep end to negotiate, close and complete the deal.
There I was, a fresh-faced 25-year-old with the wrong accent (English rather than Australian), negotiating with general counsels and law firm partners many years my senior. They were pretty dismissive of me initially, perhaps because I was young or perhaps because of my ethnicity, maybe both. But I made it clear that I had the authority to close the deal and that I knew what I was doing. I am always 120 percent prepared.
When I experience any racial bias, my first reaction is to try to understand where it’s coming from. Are people worried about whether I have enough experience? Do they understand my authority? Bias is usually informed by experience and handling discrimination is about changing people’s belief systems by giving them a different experience. We all have the power do to this.
What advice would you give to a lawyer of color?
Nothing can replace hard work and commitment. But it’s not enough to be the best legal mind. You need the full package of great interpersonal skills, resilience and initiative. In-house lawyers in particular have to deliver pragmatic and creative solutions, nobody wants to hear about the best legal research they have done.
It's also important to be open and really try to understand different cultures. Be curious — not only is it enriching personally but you will gain different perspectives and more balanced views. It will also help you adapt to different situations to achieve a better outcome.
Finally, lawyers of color have a unique opportunity to carry a torch and light the way for others to follow. We should embrace the opportunity. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to carry the torch. That means identifying barriers and addressing them by influencing the people who make the decisions.
What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase diversity in its partner ranks?
Get the right cultural lenses. For example, you may be interviewing someone who appears quiet and unassertive, or loud and demonstrative, but you should think about their background. There may be cultural reasons for their behavior.
It's hard to see things through the right lens unless you have lived in that culture, whether it’s Ghanaian, Chinese, Brazilian or Italian. So I recommend recruiters have someone in the interview room with the right cultural lens, with an understanding or experience of that particular culture.
It's also important to recognize that people of color often have to overcome challenges or hurdles in their lives and have developed strengths as a result. These include clarity of purpose, resilience, determination and quick-wittedness, all qualities that I want to see in my team.
Firms need clear role models that people can aspire to and that's especially true for people of color. When I get feedback on my lawyers, I pay much more attention to the opinion of the people who are below them on the career ladder, pushing them up, rather than to the opinion of the one person who is above them, trying to pull them up.
I tell my lawyers not to keep trying to impress their bosses and advance their careers. It's much more powerful and gratifying to look down and become a role model to the many people seeking leadership and guidance. These are the best leaders and role models for firms.