Women in Practice (#WIP) – A Work in Progress
The Law Society has formed a taskforce to examine women-in-the-workplace issues in a move to address inequities still present in the legal industry. Equality, after all, underpins the rule of law.
The taskforce comprises Felicia Tan (Director, Incisive Law LLC), Simran Toor (Partner, WongPartnership LLP), Debby Lim (Partner, Shook Lin & Bok LLP), Shobna Chandran (Partner, Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP), Dierdre Grace Morgan (Senior Associate, Drew & Napier LLC) and Delphine Loo Tan (Chief Executive Officer, The Law Society of Singapore).
In conjunction with International Women’s Day, the taskforce organised a special event on 7 March at the Arts House with a line-up of panellists who shared their experiences and views on how we can create a more equal, diverse and inclusive profession. We were honoured to have Ms Indranee Rajah SC, Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance deliver the keynote address, with welcome remarks by President Gregory Vijayendran. We received an overwhelming response from members (largely female and a few males) to attend the event.
The panellists comprised Thio Shen Yi SC (Joint Managing Partner, TSMP Law Corporation), Rachel Eng (Deputy Chairman, WongPartnership LLP), Christine Low (Director, Peter Low & Choo LLC) and Delphine Loo Tan (CEO, Law Society). Kuah Boon Theng SC (Director, Legal Clinic LLC) moderated the session which was marked by frank and open sharing and anecdotes peppered with lively debate.
We also invited Marina Chin (Joint Managing Partner, Tan Kok Quan Partnership) to speak on the topic “Women in Legal Practice – A Practitioner’s Perspective” and we reproduce her candid but moving speech below where she talks about staying true to one self, and to find a career and purpose that suits your DNA.
We hope to organise a few more sessions this year with different themes relevant to women in the law. Lastly, we thank the following companies for sponsorship of the event: Bizibody, CrimsonLogic and Legal Labs.
Speech by Marina Chin, Joint Managing Partner, Tan Kok Quan Partnership
“Women in Legal Practice – A Practitioner’s Perspective”
Good evening ladies and the sprinkling of a few gentlemen (brave and enlightened, no doubt). I was invited to share my personal experience and perspectives at this event – an event for women, about women, and about time. There must have been two criteria I fulfilled that led to this invitation – being female, and being on the wrong side of 50. In exactly seven days, I would have been in practice for 28 years. Some of you here today may not even have been born when I started the journey. I cannot confess to having had a five year or 10 year plan, let alone a 28 year plan, but here I am. So how did this journey begin?
Like in any journey, there are crossroads. The first crossroad was whether to go into academia or private practice. As enticing as academia was, there was something exciting about private practice. Having gone through six months of (what was then known as) pupillage, I found it exciting to deal with the real and tangible. It was satisfying to help the client achieve a purpose or solve a problem, and particularly satisfying to help achieve justice in court.
The next crossroad came soon enough – deciding which area of law to practice in. It was clear to me that what suited my DNA best was litigation work. The recruitment partner said it was apparent to some that I was not particularly interested in non-contentious work. I said to myself “To think I had tried so hard to be interested and to look interested! Acting is obviously not my forte – I had better stick to my day job!” So stick to that day job I have for some 28 years and counting.
One key factor was that it suited my DNA. I cannot overstate the importance of finding what suits you best. Without suitability, you cannot have sustainability.
Suitability is not just about the area of work, be it in private practice or in-house – the environment must also suit you. Remember: you can change your environment, but not your DNA.
Well-meaning old relatives questioned my choice, and there was even concern about marriage prospects for a female litigator. Whether you marry and who you marry are personal choices. And precisely because it is personal, you have to ask what defines you as a person. Are you to be defined solely by virtue of your roles as daughter, sister, wife or mother?
And so I made the personal choice of playing multiple roles, including that of being a female litigator.
When I first started practice, there would be clients who questioned whether I was too young to argue the application on their behalf. I did wonder whether it was a question in disguise – was the real query whether a “female” could be an effective litigator? The male partners believed in me and convinced the client I was the right (wo)man for the job.
At the end of the day, be who you are – do not try to be one of the guys. A client who cannot accept you for what you are and appreciate your worth is a client not worth having.
Focus on your strengths. A woman’s intuition can sometimes help read a situation or read persons better. Women are also generally more adept at multi-tasking, something even more invaluable in today’s context. Being female can sometimes come with unexpected advantages. I once had to cross-examine a witness whom I was told did not like being questioned by a woman. Suffice to say, I put him through a few days of cross-examination: he may not have enjoyed it, but I certainly did!
Women sometimes underestimate what they can do. There are also those who do not sufficiently promote themselves or make it clear how they have contributed. Another aspect that women should watch out for is that inasmuch as they can be bosom buddies, there are also those with claws. Such in-fighting does not help. We should work together and support each other.
As I took on the additional roles of wife and mother, there were more balls to juggle. Admittedly, there will be times when some balls fall or you fumble. What you must have is a conversation, a continuing one, with your spouse. A child is a shared responsibility – there are roles the father can and must play. Even if he is not adept at changing diapers three children later, there are other responsibilities he can shoulder.
For myself, I chose to run less hard at work when the children were young but I could not give up work entirely – it was work I enjoyed. In fact, towards the end of maternity leave, I was raring to return to work. Misunderstand me not: I love my children dearly, and I love babies – some refer to me as a “baby snatcher”. But I needed some level of work to make me whole, not to mention that it is no easy task being a stay-at- home mum. I do take my hat off to all the ladies who have made the supreme sacrifice to be homemakers, what I consider to be one of the hardest jobs in the world.
If you choose, as I have, to have a role in the working world, then what is important is to spend quality time with your family. There are mothers who are physically present for their children but lack a bond with those children.
If what defines you includes being a lawyer, but balancing that with responsibilities at home becomes challenging, then have a discussion with your superiors. If you bring value to the table, suitable work arrangements can be worked out. If at the end of the day, you decide to give up practice, at least you have tried – it shouldn’t be because of a “sticky floor” or a “glass ceiling”. I would also share with you what a senior retired practitioner once said to me: “Nothing wrong in being a homemaker, but make sure the most important decision you have to make in the day is not just ‘What shall I have for lunch?’ ”
When the going gets tough, do not take it out on those around you. If you must, pound the treadmill and the bread dough you are kneading. The persons around you, especially your family and friends, are part of an important support network that you need, and should not become your bashing board.
Where I am today is not the story I had written for myself. Somehow, the story unfolded itself over 28 years. If I had to sit down today and write the story, would it be the same one? The answer is “yes”. Some sub-plots may change but the main plot remains the same: I must be who I want to be.
There are still some vestiges of chauvinism, but even if there is a glass ceiling, it doesn’t mean you give up trying. Women are better educated today and in greater numbers, but inadequately represented in upper management. Why? We are not here to spark a revolution or seek affirmative action – all we ask is for reason and rationality to prevail to give women a fair chance. Much has already been done but more can be done.
We have come a long way – that we are even having this conversation today is significant. But there is more to be achieved, and you can make that difference. Do it not because I or anyone else has asked you to, but because you want to.