Ljubica Vodanovic is an expert in financial regulation and a founding partner of Vodanovic Legal, a legal boutique specialised in financial regulation. Banks and financial institutions, as well as local and international non-regulated companies, go to her for legal advice on financial services in Peru. Ljubica developed her expertise in the eleven years she spent working as the Legal Coordinator in the Superintendency of Banking and Insurance and Pension Funds Association of Peru and, later on, as a consultant in Philippi, Prietocarrizosa & Uría for three years. In this interview, she shares her experience of starting and launching her own firm earlier this year with Chambers Diversity.
Do you feel gender diversity and equality is a core objective for law firms and companies in Peru?
The National Institute of Statistics and Information (INEI) indicates that, over the past 15 years, gender inequality in Peru, regarding their access to education, healthcare and work has been reduced from 0.526 in 2000 to 0.420 in 2015. Leading companies in Peru are gradually seeing inequality as an issue they have to tackle, and are therefore adapting their internal policies to promote inclusion and diversity in the workplace. This has slowly begun to have an effect on law firms who have now started to take proactive steps towards offering equal opportunities to their members. However, in Peru, we are still a long way off parity.
What are the main obstacles women face throughout their careers?
For women, professional development is not a straight-forward process, especially for those who plan on having children. Most law firms consider hiring men to be less risky than hiring women, as female employees may go through a pregnancy and require more flexible timetables. Unfortunately, even today, the best option for a female lawyer with small children working in a firm in Peru is a flexitime contract, which can negatively affect her salary and, in some cases, reduce her chances of becoming a partner in the future. The Peruvian culture is part of the problem. Men are typically expected to work from the office until late, whilst women are supposed to return earlier to the family home. This has direct implications for career progression, since male lawyers receive more recognition than female lawyers, even though both work roughly the same amount of time.
How do you think diversity policies could positively influence the legal sector in Peru?
Women make a valuable contribution to the legal profession. Diversity is a great advantage for a firm because lawyers can learn from colleagues with different attitudes and working styles. At the same time, when a diverse work force is involved in the decision making process, a synergistic work environment becomes the norm and a variety of matters can be considered with a greater plurality and diversity of opinions. Multicultural and diverse work places that wholly embrace differences and understand that it is diversity and difference that makes us stronger, cultivate mutual respect among employees.
You specialise in Banking and Finance law, an area where there are not many other female lawyers. Has this ever presented a challenge?
One of the biggest challenges in the legal profession is attracting clients to provide them with a good service. In an industry mostly dominated by men this is a big challenge, especially when networking is generally done through appealing to a social strategy, such as inviting clients to dinner or to play golf.
Our priority, instead, is to highlight the firm’s professionalism and specialized legal knowledge. We prefer to keep our clients informed about what’s happening on the market and of any changes in regulation, rather than inviting them over for dinner. We participate in congresses and specialised events, which we think are a good way of giving visibility to our firm and our level of expertise. This year in May we have been in the Lima Fintech Forum and I have also participated in July in the International Congress of Digital Payments organised by the Asociación de Bancos del Perú. In September I will also assist the Latin American Congress of Banking Regulation.
While it is true that the world of Banking & Finance law is one that is dominated by men, I think that both men and women can carry out the work in an identical way, regardless of their gender. I was lucky, I was able to establish myself in the market as clients, irrespective of their gender, appreciate my work as a professional. My clients value the fact that I am an expert in what I do, with a long-standing experience in the sector and my communication skills add value to their business.
In fact, I believe that my identity, influenced by my feminine perspective and ethics, are part of the service I provide. I don’t reject it, is part of who I am. Yes, I am a woman working in a male dominated sector, but ultimately what matters is that I offer a good service to my clients.
Why did you decide to start your own firm?
Having worked in the regulatory body of the Peruvian financial system, I decided to return to the private sector by joining a large firm in Peru. After developing the financial regulatory practice there, I started to notice limitations in both my department and my professional development. However, this situation, which could have been a setback, actually ended up helping me form what today is my own team and firm.
In January 2017, after assessing potential gaps in the market, I launched Vodanovic Legal, with the aim of providing a great service and helping develop a more inclusive financial system. We believe that with the synergy of technology, and the cooperation of the main players in the market, we can advance to a more accessible financial market. Regulation plays a fundamental role in the development of a new and inclusive financial services in Peru, where more people has access to the benefits of it.
We started the firm with the key people and the basic requirements to begin the project. Very quickly, customers valued our ideas and came to us through word of mouth. The feedback from my clients proved to me that I had made the right decision, and today I feel very satisfied with the path I chose. I have learnt that when you do a good job and work hard, with passion and a vision, clients will go to you, no matter what firm you work for.
What advice would you give to lawyers who are facing setbacks in their careers?
I enjoy a lot spending time with my children, it fills me with energy. I value my free time, which I like to spend with them when possible. Thanks to the technology we have available nowadays, I can work hard and provide my clients with a good service, whilst also spending time with my family.
We have to change the culture of law firms. Having a more flexible schedule shouldn’t mean having to sacrifice pay or career prospects. To make the most of female employees and avoid losing talented lawyers, firms should ask themselves what type of career they are offering to women. Better inclusion policies are essential.
My advice would be, if you feel restricted in your career and want to progress, look for a change of scenery. Don’t resign yourself to a job where you feel limited in your professional development and be proactive. It’s important not to give up until you find a place where you feel happy with your development and comfortable as a woman in your profession.