Voices of Women in the Industry: Corporate Law
Interview with Sharon Lau
The Women in Practice Committee speaks to Sharon Lau, a Corporate Partner in Latham & Watkins LLP’s Singapore office and a member of the firm’s Executive Committee. Sharon is a mother of two and has two adorable furkids as well. Sharon discusses her views on balancing the demands of her legal practice as a senior female corporate lawyer with being a working mother.
1. What has your experience been like as a female corporate lawyer?
I must say I am somewhat stumped by this question as while there are many things I can share about my journey as a corporate lawyer, I am hard pressed to distinguish my experiences based simply on the basis of “being female”. Perhaps I have been fortunate that in my career, I have not once felt that being female has compromised my opportunities or made it harder for me than my male colleagues.
I decided to choose corporate rather than litigation as to be honest, I did not think I would stay long in law and I thought corporate would make me more “mobile”. For someone that previously loved wigs and robes and thought they were the coolest things about being a lawyer, this was an about turn. Having now spent almost 20 years at Latham, and even longer as a corporate lawyer, I can only say that life has its own way of mapping itself out.
I have been fortunate to always have had wonderful mentors in my career. When I started practice, I was in a team dominated by females with a strong female partner as my pupil master. She had exacting standards but taught me a lot, giving me lots of responsibility at a young age. At Latham & Watkins I have worked closely with a senior male partner over the years whom I regard as my mentor. He shaped my work ethic and always treated me as an equal. At Latham, there are many inspirational female partners globally whom I have had the pleasure of working with and our office in Singapore is also very well balanced in terms of gender.
Being a corporate lawyer has been rewarding and enriching. While the hours are long and client demands exacting, working in teams to problem solve for our clients and reach solutions successful for all parties in a transaction can be very satisfying. Part of the “fun” is brainstorming solutions with my partners and associates as well as clients and other advisors on a transaction, and the friendships formed usually working well past midnight also make the experience worthwhile.
2. Did becoming a mother impact your career?
Yes. I forced myself to become a “morning person” and to give up (or at least significantly reduce) the one thing I used to love most – sleep! One of the things my husband (who is also a corporate lawyer) and I try to do (when we are not travelling or having client engagements), is to have dinner with the kids as often as possible and for at least one of us to send them to school in the mornings as these are precious moments we can spend with our children. When my girls were much younger, I would try and put them to bed whenever I could, telling ridiculous made up stories but I would usually fall asleep mid-sentence. I would then tiptoe out of their room and go back to my home office and work for a couple more hours in the night.
Becoming a mother did not impact my career. I am fortunate to have a spouse who is very hands on and takes on his fair share (and sometimes more) of our responsibilities as parents and to our families, wonderful help at home and from family, which makes it all possible, and to have colleagues with a similar work ethic and who also work tirelessly around their own family commitments.
3. In your view, what are some of the challenges that female lawyers face today, and how do you think the legal fraternity or law firms can help to alleviate such challenges?
I do think I have been fortunate to be in an environment where I have support when I need it, and where bias (whether conscious or unconscious) has not worked against me. Others may be less fortunate. I recall participating in a Women in Law seminar we had organised in Korea when we first opened our Seoul office where Korean and Japanese colleagues and clients had described the bias they faced. In some other geographies such as Europe or the US where help is not as readily available, many women tend to sacrifice their practice when they want to set up a family.
Law firms and all of us as lawyers can, and must, work to rid society of bias of any nature, but particularly unconscious bias. Law firms can help to educate and change practices in the ways we work, for example, by putting in place policies and training to constantly remind employees of how unconscious bias can creep into the workplace without us even realising. At Latham there are many successful examples of women (and men) who have worked on reduced pace, particularly with young families and have progressed to have successful legal careers. We have always had flexible work arrangements with a “no face time” culture even before the COVID pandemic, which I believe has allowed our lawyers to balance as much of family and work (not forgetting play) as possible.
4. Do you have any advice for aspiring women lawyers who want to have a successful career in practice, and achieve fulfilment in their personal/family lives at the same time?
I would advise everyone to start young, and not wait, if you want to start a family. Learn to accept that nothing will be perfect, and work-life “balance” is not possible, but work-life “harmony” can be. Some days, it will be all work, others family first then work, some days self first then work, then family, other days, just friends and play. I have learned not to be guilty and to always reserve time for myself – for me, CrossFit and the gym is my must have recharge. My husband and I also try and spend quality time together away from the kids sometimes, which we believe is key to our marriage. While it is hard not to feel that guilt from time to time, I try and remind myself that my work ethic will rub off on my girls, and if I let them figure things out without being that helicopter parent, I am setting them up for success. Quality time with them, rather than quantity is a priority. Support is important, and its usually a network you need. As some say, it takes a village! I recall telling one of our associates who is a young mother of two, how I had multiple baby seats for the different cars the girls would have to ride in as toddlers, as I relied a lot on my parents and in-laws for much of the after kindergarten care, and I was happy to hear recently that she has a same family support network. It’s never smooth sailing of course but it is fulfilling.