#HeForShe & Commemorating IWD 2023
Conversations with Adrian Tan and Ng Wai King
To commemorate International Women’s Day 2023, the Law Society’s Women in Practice committee spoke with Adrian Tan (President, Law Society of Singapore and Partner, TSMP Law Corporation) and Ng Wai King (Chairman and Managing Partner, WongPartnership LLP) to discuss their views, as senior male lawyers, on gender equity in the legal fraternity, and what law firms and practices can do to support and empower female legal practitioners.
Interview with Adrian Tan
Adrian Tan is the President of the Law Society of Singapore and the Head of Intellectual Property and Technology Law at TSMP Law Corporation. Adrian has a degree in Computer Science and was the former General Counsel of CrimsonLogic Pte Ltd. He writes widely on technology, social media, and various aspects of the law and legal practice.
1. What is the gender composition of your firm? Would you consider your firm to have sufficient female representation?
TSMP is one of the few firms that has a woman as Joint Managing Partner. In the legal industry, women leaders are few and far between because law was a patriarchal institution and generally a very conservative profession. When I was called to the bar, the established law firms were all led by men, except for my old firm Drew & Napier, which had a female leader, Dr Thio Su Mein. Dr Thio left Drew & Napier to start TSMP, and now Ms Stefanie Yuen-Thio is one of two joint Managing Partners.
The composition of TSMP is about equally split between men and women, which I believe is in line with the philosophy that if you allow them to perform, they are equal. This is a meritocratic firm, so there is no overt attempt to include females. It would be counterproductive to be too deliberate in trying to boost the number of women who are hired as lawyers – this would be viewed as affirmative action on the firm’s part rather than a recognition of our lawyers’ merits.
As for the gender composition of the profession, it is also about even. When I became President of the Law Society, I wanted to see whether men or women tended to leave the profession more. As it turns out, the numbers of men and women in the profession in the junior, middle and senior categories are about the same. It also appears to disprove that cliche that women who marry and have children will leave the profession. Many women continue in legal practice even after starting families.
2. What do you think has contributed to the misconceptions that more women than men leave legal practice at the mid/senior levels, for example, to start families; and that there are more men than women at senior positions in law firms?
First, society in general has stereotyped ideas about women. One common one, which can be found in many professions and occupations, is that when a woman becomes a mother, she leaves her job to take care of the child. But, in the case of Singapore lawyers, the Law Society’s data does not show that women do this in a significantly higher number than men. Perhaps it’s because in today’s society, many men are starting to share in the child caring duties at home.
Also, the focus so far has also been on women who leave legal practice but not on women who return. Anecdotally, we hear that even those women who leave practice return, sometimes in a part-time capacity, sometimes as in-house counsel, so they continue to use their skills.
On the second point, particularly in litigation, I suppose there is some truth. There are more male Senior Counsels than women. The leading figures in commercial litigation also tend to be men. In my view, this is because of the stereotype of what we want a litigator to be – an aggressive and competitive man. The ideal litigator has attributes which match and map directly onto traditional qualities of a man. We hear less about top female lawyers who may not fit into this stereotype, and we certainly need more successful superstar female litigators to be role models for young women. Male litigators have spent decades and even centuries telling their stories, and cultivating an image of the litigator as a man. Women litigators now have to tell their side of the stories, in order to inspire other women.
3. From your perspective, what are some of the challenges which female lawyers face today, and how do you think these challenges should be addressed?
Building on from the point I made earlier, one of the challenges which women lawyers face today is the stereotype of what a good or effective lawyer is. For example, in litigation practice, society – or clients – have a stereotypical impression of who we want a litigator to be: a man who is aggressive, intimidating, and who wins cases because he is very competitive and unyielding. These are all traditionally ”male” attributes, as opposed to women who are conventionally perceived to be conciliatory and who seek consensus.
I remember that in the older days, women who wanted to be litigators tended to have to be more ”macho” or have more ”male” characteristics. They would dress very soberly and did not wear any feminine jewellery. This was because of the mistaken concept that the more you looked like a man, the more you looked like a litigator.
We need to change the stereotype that a successful litigator is someone who intimidates witnesses in court and is aggressive and fearsome. The courtroom dramas that we watch do not help at all, as they perpetuate this stereotype. That’s not what we want, we want to destroy the stereotype. We need to show the truth: there are many styles of litigation. We need to demonstrate to lawyers and our clients that a good litigator is someone who is a peacemaker. A good litigator offers a solution where there is a conflict and brings harmony to the situation.
Ms Indranee Rajah S.C. is an example of a very successful litigation lawyer who does not fit into the traditional ”male” stereotype of who a litigator should be. My good friend went up against her many years ago and said that she was “really amazing”, and “not a ‘shouter’”. Ms Rajah is a calm, quiet and steady person who will take the Court through the facts and law, and has a very earnest way of presenting her arguments. She is pleasant, easy to listen to and logical. She doesn’t need to raise her voice, or pretend to be fierce and intimidating. She wins by appealing to logic and common sense. We need more people thinking of her as a role model of who an excellent litigation lawyer should be – not only for women, but for both men and women.
4. What is your advice for aspiring women lawyers?
Find positive role models. Learn how to develop presence and your own voice. You do not have to subscribe to the traditionally ”masculine” stereotype of a lawyer – you do not have to be aggressive, confrontational, and antagonistic. Instead, you should learn to find your own style, and to make people listen, in any setting, whether it is a boardroom or a courtroom.
5. How can the legal community support the growth and development of young female lawyers?
As a profession, we need to change mindsets about the attributes of a good lawyer. One way of doing this is to highlight and feature the achievements of successful women lawyers. We need to hear more from them, from the big picture to the little details. We need to hear about their motivations and challenges, but also the smaller things like how clients, other lawyers or judges treat them. We many, many examples, so that there will be an ample supply of role models. There are so many good women lawyers in Singapore, we just need to showcase them.
This gender diversity should extend to taught courses and seminars on legal practice. Women practitioners should be invited to speak to our undergraduates, so that our future lawyers have the chance to dispel their own stereotypes.
Importantly, we need to ensure that workplace environments are healthy and conducive for junior female lawyers. In general, our profession is well-behaved, but I do hear complaints from women lawyers about men in the workplace who feel that they can harass a woman. In that sense, it’s no different from the experience of young women executives in other industries. I came across a situation where a female trainee faced unwanted attention from a male associate. We asked her to write a complaint to the Law Society, or make a police report. But she declined, because “I don’t want to ruin [their] career” and “I don’t want to be known as the person who complains about [her] seniors”. Attitudes about ”victim-blaming” need to change. As a legal community, we should be in the forefront of fighting harassment. Such conduct has no place in our profession. We are honourable people. Our duty to the profession is to attract the best talent. We can do so by creating workplaces that are supportive and conducive for our young lawyers.
Interview with Ng Wai King
Ng Wai King is the Chairman and Managing Partner of WongPartnership LLP. A leading corporate lawyer, Wai King’s experience focuses on mergers & acquisitions and private equity. His expertise in corporate law has seen him consistently recognised in various legal publications to include being known as a “Market Leader” in IFLR1000, the Guide to the World’s Leading Financial Law Firms, a “Global Elite Thought Leader” in Who’s Who Legal and an “Elite Practitioner” in AsiaLaw Profiles for M&A, amongst others. Wai King graduated from the National University of Singapore where he was awarded the AV Winslow Prize, and obtained a LL.M from the Columbia University of Law where he graduated as a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar.
1. Please could you tell us more about the gender composition of your firm? Would you consider your firm to have sufficient female representation?
The statistics indicate that there are probably more female undergraduates than male undergraduates going to law schools today. Therefore, if you look at incoming trainees at WongPartnership going forward, chances are that in any particular batch, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more women than men. Now, whether any practice group has more women than men – I don’t think there is a fixed pattern. We interview for the best candidates, and I’m happy that our own intake of trainees reflects the market dynamics.
What is interesting for us is also the promotion to partnership. The gender composition for partner promotions varies from year to year. There are years where there are more women than men; some years more men than women. The challenge at that level is to persuade our lawyers to stay the course, for the long term. This is a bigger challenge than achieving diversity itself.
As a whole, we have more female lawyers than male lawyers, and more female partners than male partners.
2. You mentioned that there is a challenge persuading lawyers to stay in the legal profession for the long-term. What does your firm do to accommodate lawyers’ needs in different stages or seasons of their lives?
My partners and I have regular dialogues with our young lawyers as part of our employee engagement efforts. As part of our introductory meetings with our trainees, we have panel discussions involving senior lawyers. We recognise that it is important that they see diversity of views, and we will therefore have at least one female partner married with kids on these panels. We do this because questions are always posed to my female partners about how to manage a career in law that allows you to have a family and a practice.
Can you have it all? Our position is that you cannot have it all at any one time. There are things you may decide are more important at different points in your life, and as a firm, we try our best to support you in your journey.
I have partners who have been with us right from the beginning, whom we have supported through different stages of their careers. For example, the Co-Head of one of our largest practice groups started with us as a trainee (or pupil, as they were then called). At some point of her career, she wanted to complete a diploma in piano performance, so she did that and took some time off from the firm. She subsequently came back to practice, became a partner of the firm, and went on to have two children whilst in practice. At some point she decided she needed to spend more time with her young family, and less time at work, so she had a part time arrangement for a period. Today she co-manages one of our largest practice groups in our firm with 60 lawyers under her charge.
Has that time off affected her career progression? Some people will say yes, because she did not get there the fastest. But in my view, she is an excellent lawyer with great people skills. Her clients love her and she manages one of the largest practice groups in our firm. We are happy to have offered her the opportunity to have a successful career and the time she needed with her family. She has done very well for herself, is now in a key leadership position and does a great job in managing the practice.
It is all about finding your own pace in your journey. And she’s not the only one. There are many examples of well-regarded women lawyers in the firm who have found their own career paths, at their own pace.
3. Can you tell us more about the policies which your firm has implemented to support and empower women lawyers?
Apart from allowing our lawyers to take breaks from their careers when they need it, we also offer flexible work arrangements for some of our lawyers.
We recognise that the journey of each lawyer is different, and if we were prepared to allow flexibility in terms of the hours they had to spend in the office, or the demands of their role, we might be able to better retain talent. While this started as an initiative which we are able and willing to offer to our young partners who became mothers, we’ve also started thinking about it for other lawyers who are working mothers.
For example, I persuaded one of my associates to take on a role in legal technology, because she wanted time for her family, and also wanted to continue being in the firm. We helped her to find a role with a workload that did not constrain her from demands of her young family. We curated the time that she could be in the office, allowed her to do some things from home, and this was before Covid. The plan was for her to take the lead to apply her knowledge as a practising lawyer to some of the things we should be doing on the legal technology front, such as AI products. Having her support our practising lawyers in this role has been very helpful to the way we think about legal technology.
We also recognise that many of our partners may have caregiving duties, whether for young children or elderly parents. We are happy to accommodate arrangements that the particular partner desires, to the extent it is possible. In these situations, it is important that our partners make sure that their clients and colleagues understand their availability.
But it is a balancing exercise. If you are in a very active practice which requires you to be client-facing all the time, the question is how much do you want to do this from home? If the partner wants a less client-facing role, we will also explore this option with them. Equally, there may be partners who enjoy practice but cannot cope with a full book – the question is what works for them, and how we manage their priorities while offering fair remuneration.
4. From your perspective, what are some of the challenges which female lawyers face today; and how do you think these challenges should be addressed (e.g. at a firm-wide level)?
The general challenge that young lawyers face today, is the demand of clients. We are in a profession where the demands of clients have evolved over the years. The pace of practice is much faster than when I first started practice. Because you are on mobile and laptops, you are always available to your clients. A question which young lawyers often ask is whether that pace is something they can sustain over a longer period.
When you deal with challenges of younger women lawyers, the issues are interesting. In the past, it seemed that juggling the demands of family and work was a challenge more unique to female lawyers. This is in part due to the traditional, conservative ”Asian” view of the role of women in the domestic context. Today, my impression is that fathers are more involved in childcare as well. I see my male lawyers becoming quite involved at home once they become fathers, so there is some improvement there.
However, from a firm’s point of view, we need to consider whether there is still some inherent bias that we need to address. For example, if a lawyer is a new mother with a young child, will that constrain her from certain opportunities like business travel? I think that as partners, we should not make any assumptions on these matters. We should leave it to the individual to make the decision, and not withhold these opportunities from working mothers.
5. At a more personal level, how do you think male lawyers/colleagues can contribute and support women lawyers in their careers?
This is an interesting question for male lawyers, especially if they are parents of daughters or have a working spouse. I think male lawyers should seek to understand and empathise with their female colleagues’ challenges. It helps if you have some personal experience too. For me, having a working spouse allows me to understand what she goes through, what some of my colleagues go through. Being a parent helps too, when dealing with younger lawyers and managing their expectations.
4. What advice do you have for aspiring women lawyers who want to advance in their careers, and also wish to achieve fulfilment in their personal/family lives?
I suppose my advice applies to both men and women. First, they need to be in an organisation/platform where they have opportunities to do what they want.
Second, they also need to embrace the opportunities they are presented with. They must be willing to learn and be teachable – that’s an important trait. In our profession, you cannot stop learning. The law changes and cases continue to evolve. Being curious and willing to learn are traits that a good young lawyer should embrace.
That being said, young lawyers should also learn to say no when circumstances call for it. As a young lawyer, there is sometimes a tendency to do everything, but you need to balance it out as there are other things in life besides work. Learning to say no to an opportunity which takes you away from your family is as important as saying yes. There will be different points in life where some things matter more than others, and you need to be clear about your goals and objectives.