Coffee with Sadhana Rai
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. This interview features Sadhana Rai who is a full-time, pro bono criminal defence lawyer under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. As one of two young lawyers to be offered the position, Sadhana describes her own experience as a CLAS Advocate and shares how to support younger women in the legal profession.
1. Do you face gender-based assumptions at work? How do you manage these assumptions?
The fact that I struggled to find an answer to this question is a testament to my work environment, and how my organisation has endeavoured to provide my colleagues and I a safe work space to thrive as individuals. I have been treated as an equal and respected for my work. I feel heard, and my contributions are valued for what they are (and not because of my gender). However, outside of this safe space, as a criminal law practitioner, I do find myself consciously (or maybe even subconsciously) addressing some gender-based assumptions in an industry that is primarily male dominated. The expectation generally is that women are less assertive, softer spoken, perhaps more accommodating, and maybe more suited for jobs that are less adversarial and more transactional (i.e not crime for sure). Any woman who does not fall within that stereotype tends to be defined as “aggressive”, “loud”, “litigious”, “outspoken” and more. What strikes me is that women who do not fall within the bounds of the stereotype tend to be seen as exceptions, and are not always kindly defined. I sometimes catch myself wondering if I am being too confrontational, too vocal, or too “shrill” even, a common complaint that most women receive when they are arguing. When I ask myself these things, it occurs to me that maybe I too have subscribed to some of these gender assumptions.
2. 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?
We have definitely come a long way since the days of Mdm Teo Soon Kim. This is a profession that once only admitted men. Women today can freely dream of going to law school without worrying whether their gender will pose challenges to their admission. I am proud to be part of a Bar that has endeavoured to create a space where both men and women can strive to excel. As with all change, there is still some way to go.
I cannot count the number of times I have been asked about when I am having children, or whether my family has issues with my working hours. I have never (and I have racked my brains!) heard the same questions being asked of my male colleagues. As well-meaning as these questions may be, I should not be defined by these things because I am so much more. Women should not have to feel like they need to be the exception to the perceived norm, or that they have to be of a particular stereotype to succeed in an adversarial environment. It is critical to question where they get these notions from, and why they persist. Some of these seemingly harmless (and perhaps even well intended) presumptions indicate a much deeper problem. For example, women are presumed to be meticulous and therefore better suited to managing bundles and documents. Women are presumed to be more nurturing and should therefore talk to child/women victims of sexual assault. Women are presumed to want to start families, more so than men. Mothers are presumed to want to spend as much time with their children and families.
Who defines this narrative? If women aren’t leading the conversation, then none of these presumptions can truly or accurately reflect what a woman is capable of. What troubles me is the consequences of such presumptions. Am I being deprived of opportunities because of my childbearing capabilities (or intentions)? Am I being deprived of court experience because I am deemed meticulous and better suited to handling documents, as opposed to being tenacious in cross-examination? Is my ability to take instructions from a male accused unfairly questioned because I am apparently better suited to speak to more vulnerable people?
Ironically, the solution is possibly in one of the first things every lawyer learns in practice: question every presumption. Every woman is unique, and has abilities, dreams and aspirations of her own. Communication and respect are critical in discussions like these to create a culture where women do not feel fear or guilt when proposing alternative flexible work arrangements, or when voicing out serious issues of concern.
3. When you first started your career, did you ever imagine you would be doing what you do today?
When I first started practising in 2012/2013, I genuinely believed that the route to success was really to work in the big four, with the best. I do not regret those few years I spent working in private practice, because the learning experience is invaluable and unparalleled. However, at some point, I chose to listen to my heart’s true calling. I have always been passionate about pro bono work and criminal law. This job at the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme as a CLAS Advocate has been a dream come true. I represent underprivileged accused persons, and get exposed to criminal advocacy on an almost daily basis. This has allowed me to meet people from all walks of life, and reminds me that there is so much more that can be done for those who do not have the same opportunities and resources that I do.
4. How would you describe your work ethic?
I would like to think I am one who never shies away from a challenge. I have a can-do attitude which, when tied with how driven I can get, can mean long, sleepless nights of research, drafting, and coffee.
5. What made you choose to be a lawyer and what drives you today?
I often joke that with Indian parents, you only have three choices (doctor, lawyer or engineer, of course), and I picked the one which did not involve math. In reality, my parents gave me absolute freedom to decide what I wanted to do in life. As a child, I had been quite vocal, and tended to voice my opinions (sometimes unnecessarily, if you ask my mother) and I found great purpose in advocating for causes that I truly believed in. That still drives me today: advocating for justice in a world where the playing field can be quite uneven for those without the same access to education and resources. When I am in court, on my feet, I feel most alive and engaged, especially because of the meaning my work holds to me.
6. Do you think there is a glass ceiling for women in the profession or in general and how can we overcome it?
As long as preconceived gender biases remain unchallenged, I think it may feel like a glass ceiling lingers over our heads. However, it is also important to acknowledge the progress we have made as a Bar. I know of, and look up to a great number of women who have risen through the ranks purely based on grit, perseverance and commitment. The glass ceiling meant nothing to them, or to their colleagues who supported them. As women, what we can do is to speak up every time something makes us feel uncomfortable, or if we feel something can be done better. The reality is, some of the people we work with mean well, and when engaged respectfully, are open to modifying practices to equalise the playing field. Even if we face resistance, true change starts really with just one voice.
7. What challenges have you specifically faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?
I have had clients outrightly tell me that they had preferred a male lawyer, and that they had been surprised at how “aggressive” I was in court and how, because of that, they are now confident that I can handle their case. I do not endeavour to be more “aggressive” in any way. I do not bang tables, or speak louder than the male lawyers, or dress any differently. All it took was for the client to watch me actually do my job to realise that my gender did not determine the quality of my advocacy.
Also in line with the stereotype, when I handle cases of alleged sexual assault, male clients tend to feel quite uncomfortable revealing details to me. The presumption is that as a woman, I would tend to feel more protective of the alleged victims who may be women/children. For some reason, I need to reassure them of my professionalism (sometimes repeatedly) before they can trust me.
Another challenge in my career I faced was in deciding what to wear. I am a big fan of the pantsuit, and what it symbolises for women. I quickly found out, however, that there is a femininity of sorts that is associated with the wearing of a skirt, and that affects the way people perceive you. I eventually decided to just wear whatever I felt most comfortable in. I did not need to wear a skirt to be more of a woman than I already am.
8. What is your most memorable case/matter?
My first acquittal will always mean the most to me. My client felt like the whole world had given up on him. If my colleague, Yi Mei, had not had faith in him and roped me in at trial, he would have had to go through an intimidating trial alone. I will never forget when the Judge announced that he had been acquitted. He fell to the ground to thank God. His sheer relief, and anguish, is something I can empathise with. This was a man who had spent close to a year and eight months in remand. This case reminds me daily that the work my colleagues and I do matter, and that sometimes, people need to be heard and acknowledged without judgment.
9. If you could have one superpower, what would that be?
I’d like to fly and feel that absolute rush of freedom as I soar into the sky. Alternatively, if I could read minds, it would be amazing. I doubt anyone would want to be my friend though!
10. If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be?
I did entertain the possibility of going into wildlife rescue work and advocacy, and may return to it at some point in my life.
11. Who are your favourite heroines of fiction?
The Queen of Jhansi (not entirely fictional) is possibly the most awe-inspiring heroines I have come across. The woman strapped her child to her back and led the charge in a war, on horseback, carrying two swords. True story. This should explain why I adore Mulan as well.
12. Who are your heroines in real life?
Sarah Belal who founded Justice Project Pakistan; Anneliese Day QC who took silk 38 weeks pregnant; Indranee Rajah who was one of the first role models I looked up to for how she held her own; Ani Choying Drolma who became a Buddhist nun at 13 and runs her own orphanage; my professor who breastfed her young child while coaching us at moots; my friends who support me unconditionally as women who understand the struggles and challenges of practice; and last but definitely the most important on this list: My mother who raised me the best way she knew how. Inspiration is everywhere!
13. What advice would you give to young female lawyers?
You do not need to pretend to be a man to succeed in this profession. You do not need to talk louder, or dress differently, or present yourself in any way other than what you feel comfortable with. However, you should let people know when something makes you uncomfortable. Your voice is your greatest weapon. You can only be heard if you speak up, and when you do, you may find that you are not alone. There are many men and women in the profession who face the same challenges you do, and it helps to talk about it.
14. Can women have it all?
If all you want is to live a purposeful and meaningful life doing what makes you contented, then I think with the right support system, anyone can have it all. I disagree with the notion that women (or anyone, for that matter) must choose between a career and family. We have the power to decide for ourselves what makes us happy, and how best we can achieve balance in our lives without allowing one thing or the other to define us.
15. Could you share a picture of something important to you?
My dogs but I am not sure that is relevant!