Coffee with Fong Lishi
In a series of interviews with women lawyers from different backgrounds, the Law Society’s Women in Practice Committee seeks to explore gender equality in the legal profession in Singapore. By sharing these vignettes, we hope to celebrate all of us and to inspire women lawyers of the future. The first of these interviews features Fong Lishi who is the Managing Partner of Harneys Singapore. Lishi describes her own experience in becoming a law firm leader and shares how to support younger women in the legal profession. Committee Member, Debby Lim of BlackOak LLC, who also incidentally is Lishi’s secondary schoolmate finds out more.
Do you face gender-based assumptions at work? How do you manage these assumptions?
While good progress has been made in recent years, there are still certain gender-based assumptions in the work space. For example, people tend to use the terms “aggressive” and “emotional” for women whereas men are referred to as “driven” and “outspoken”.
I am conscious of these gender-based assumptions but try not to let it impact on how I carry on with my day-to-day life. I have always played to my strengths and I am fortunate to be at a firm that recognises talent, hard work and has a strong commitment to gender diversity.
Have we achieved gender equality in the Singapore legal industry? If yes, how do you think we got here? If no, why do you think that is and what more do you think can be done?
I think we are moving in the right direction. The practicalities are difficult to grapple with, for example, going on maternity means taking time off work and depending on how much time is taken, it may impact one’s career. One workaround would be to encourage gender neutral parental leave. Policy plays a role as workplaces are introducing flexible working hours for all staff to cater to different family needs.
I believe the statistics still show that equity partners in law firms are still largely male. However, there is a concerted effort to increase gender diversity at a senior level, with some firms introducing gender diversity quotas. I do see this as good progress.
Outside the legal industry, we are also seeing an increasing number of women taking on C-suite roles. This is a good sign and sets a good example to what women can achieve.
Question: What made you choose to be a lawyer and what drives you today?
Similar to many lawyers I know, I didn’t choose to become a lawyer. I wanted to do business and was looking to study in California but my parents didn’t like it.
My “high maintenance” kids will prevent me from quitting my job! Jokes aside, I do enjoy transactional work and still (even after so many years) get excited when I get a new deal.
When you first started your career, did you ever imagine you would be doing what you do today?
Definitely not! People say law is a good degree to have as it gives you the foundation to move onto greater things, but more than a decade has gone by and I have not discovered the “greater things” or acquired any other skills (baking or cooking or yoga) other than my legal skills!
It never crossed my mind that I would become a managing partner or make the move offshore. Timing and luck were key factors. It also helped that the partnership was supportive and entrusted me to take on the managing partner role only after a year with the firm.
How would you describe your work ethic?
I believe in building a strong strategic partnership with my clients – one where we look out for each other along the way. It’s crucial in this market to be very responsive and deliver high quality work to our clients. Most of my clients are now friends and we have grown together in our careers.
Do you think there is a glass ceiling for women in the profession or in general and how can we overcome it?
No, there is no ceiling for anyone, women or men. It’s just a matter of how much one is willing to give up or compromise on to achieve their goals.
What challenges have you specifically faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?
Visibility within the organisation is important. Early on in my career, I used to think that working hard and doing your job well is sufficient. But over the years, I have learnt that career opportunities do not just come to you simply because you do well. It is important to vocalise your career aspirations and not be afraid to ask for what you want. This wasn’t something that came naturally for me and I had to make a conscious effort to be as vocal as my peers.
Another challenge is having a family and a career (the challenge is even more real now that we are all working from home and dealing with home based learning!). I am grateful that I have a village looking after my children and I would not have gotten so far without their support.
What is your most memorable case/matter?
When I was a junior lawyer, I spent one week working in China on a high profile deal and being the only bilingual speaker on the deal, I had to translate negotiations between senior management. It was extremely stressful and scary sitting in a boardroom full of people and trying to figure out how to say technical terms in Mandarin! I was meant to go for a couple of days but negotiations were extended and my client told me they would buy me a new wardrobe if I didn’t leave the country! It all ended well and we had a closing party at a very luxurious spa.
If you could have one superpower, what would that be?
I would like to be invisible so that I can hear what people say and see what people do, only appearing when I need to.
If you were not a lawyer, what would you be?
In my ideal world, I will be a popstar like Sammi Cheng.
What advice would you give to young female lawyers?
Perseverance is key. You are not going to find passion or meaning at the outset but you will get there eventually. Take time to plan your own career development and think long term. Do not be tempted to make short term decisions based on immediate needs or challenges while ignoring your long-term career plan.
Can women have it all?
Depends on how you define “all” but I believe women can achieve anything and everything they want but there will have to be compromises made (this applies to both men and women to be honest).
You can have a family and a career, and for now, I’d say that it’s more work/life integration as opposed to work life balance, given that work takes up a significant portion of my life at the moment. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to your personal career trajectory; just do what you think is right and make it work for you and your family.