Conversations about Women in Law: Singapore

In recent years, Singapore has been making huge strides towards positioning itself as a global legal hub. With the rapid growth in the legal market came marked changes in the gender makeup of this sector: in 1973, only 15 per cent of lawyers in Singapore were women but in 2016, that number has risen to 42 per cent.

While this represents significant progress in gender diversity, men still greatly outnumber women in leadership roles. This makes discussions on retention, prospects and progress for female lawyers even more pertinent now than ever before.

In September 2017, a group of senior female lawyers from Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow and Jones Lang LaSalle came together to share their personal experiences over the course of their careers. The panelists discussed challenges they had encountered, what worked for them and what didn’t and what they wish they knew at the start of their careers.

Questions came in fast and furious from the floor. The audience – students from the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law – are already thinking deeply about gender diversity issues even before they enter the cut and thrust of the legal world.

Read more about the highlights of the panel discussion, in their own words, below. The speakers on the panel were:

  • Monica Puri, General Counsel, Global Supply Chain Management and Procurement, Jones Lang LaSalle
  • Celeste Ang, Principal, Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow
  • Melissa Healy, Local Principal, Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow
  • Pallavi Gopinath Aney, Principal, Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow
  • Stephanie Magnus, Principal, Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow
From left to right: Celeste Ang, Stephanie Magnus, Pallavi Gopinath Aney, Monica Puri, and Melissa Healy.

Recount an incident in the course of your career when you began to realise diversity was important.

Pallavi Gopinath Aney, Principal, Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow

Pallavi Gopinath Aney: Back when I was a trainee, we were working on this deal for four weeks, non-stop. It was really intense and the team was working day and night, literally trying to get 2-3 hours of sleep a night and cover for each other at all times. One afternoon, the client decided to suddenly put the transaction on hold – which was disappointing, but at least we could take the afternoon off and get a full night’s sleep! My team members (three others were also trainees) – all guys and the same people I had been working with relentlessly for the past four weeks – were talking about going for drinks. I overheard (and was really excited at the prospect of actually doing something social for a change!) and wandered up to them and asked, “Where are you guys going?” Suddenly, there was an awkward pause and they said, “Oh, it’s nothing much, just a bunch of us guys going for a drink.”

I remembered thinking to myself: here we had been working together for weeks as a really great team and I was not ‘allowed’ to tag along because it was just ‘drinks for the guys’. That was when I realised I was a part of the team, but not necessarily part of the team for all purposes.

Melissa Healy: I am at a slightly earlier point in my career, where I am working towards promotion within the firm. I am now suddenly aware that many of the fantastically talented women I trained with and worked with throughout my career are no longer with me at this stage.

What do you wish you knew before you started practice?

Stephanie Magnus, Principal, Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow

Stephanie Magnus: If you want something, you need to live intentionally, both at work and at home. You have to ensure that the time you spend goes towards meeting the goals that you have. In the first few years of my career, I took on a more passive role and just worked hard, hoping everything would just fall into place. If you start taking a more active role, you realise you have more control over your career, over where you want to go.

Monica Puri: A key issue with women is that we hold ourselves back. We believe that our work will speak for itself and we don’t need to acknowledge our achievements. Women are also conditioned to think that it is greedy to be ambitious. We need to change this mindset – don’t be afraid to be ambitious, to challenge, to raise your hand and say ‘I want more’. Don’t wait for someone to acknowledge your work. You need to be your own advocate.

Pallavi Gopinath Aney: Your enjoyment of your work, in my experience, increases exponentially once you start being an active and lively participant in your own career. There is a switch that turns on when you take control of your decisions and your work. The enjoyment that you get from the process and how you grow as a lawyer and a person is far greater than when you are just sitting around passively and working quietly, hoping someone will notice you.

Melissa Healy: Development of soft skills around networking and relationship building is not just important to help you reach the next level, it is the essence of what we do as a lawyer. Such skills are essential in order to be an effective advisor and business partner to our clients.

How can women adopt an assertive style that would enable them to thrive at the workplace?

Celeste Ang, Principal, Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow

Celeste Ang: I was recently at trial and my opponent was a male lawyer who had a very aggressive cross-examination style. My personal style is that I prefer to engage the witnesses in a discussion instead. I had a chat with my client afterwards and she told me that although my opponent was very aggressive, she felt I was able to elicit more from the witness. So don’t be afraid to develop your own style and be genuine about it, because that is how you will be able to get your point across.

Pallavi Gopinath Aney: I had a male boss who was a mentor to me for many years and gave me some great, candid advice along the way. He once told me: “If you are all about content but you are not assertive or confident in the way that you present it, then you’re just boring. But if you’re all about being assertive and you don’t have any content, then you’re just going to annoy people.”

So, whether it is a presentation or a meeting, two things to take away: first, don’t worry about being too assertive because, I assure you, your male colleagues are not worrying about whether they are coming across as too aggressive. Second, always have your content ready because if you don’t, somebody will shut you down and it doesn’t matter if you are male or female. If you have done your work and put in the hours, just ask your questions and don’t worry too much about how you come across.

Monica Puri: I think it’s important to have humour and learn when to take a step back from your work, to get some perspective and calm. How you present yourself and your body language affects how people perceive you and, if your approach is collaborative rather than isolationist, people will be more willing to work with you to achieve the end goal.

Stephanie Magnus: I don’t think I have ever questioned whether I am being too aggressive when I ask a question. There are many ways to skin a cat and it’s about diplomacy, rather than not asking the question for fear of being seen as aggressive. All of us have been in rooms, whether it is a board meeting or negotiation, where everyone else in the room is a man. It is the confidence which you project that will make the difference. Be confident about what you can bring to the table and that will show through. On that basis, people will respect you if you treat yourself as equal to them.

How do you deal with the challenges of balancing work and personal life?

Monica Puri, General Counsel, Global Supply Chain Management and Procurement, Jones Lang LaSalle

Monica Puri: Surround yourself with people who are supportive, whether it’s friends or family. You don’t have to do it all yourself but you do need to be a really good project manager! When I was in New York, going back to work after three months of maternity leave and having to juggle both work and childcare, it was the toughest point of my life. I would not have been able to do it if it were not for the support of my husband.

Back then, I wanted everything to be done perfectly. I had to read every online article on parenting and child development. I look back now and laugh at myself. Get the support and resources together to see how you can best manage your time. You don’t always have to be a perfectionist, just do the best you can. Don’t question yourself all the time and don’t give in to guilt as the self-doubt and negativity can bring you down.

Celeste Ang: It’s not about having it all. There is no way you can give 100% in your work, social life and family, so you have to decide what is important to you. I rely on the support and understanding of my family members – my husband and my parents. They understand that sometimes I may not be able to come home at the time I said I would. For me, I’ve decided I’m not going to be the ‘tiger mum’ for my daughter – for example, there’s no way I can teach her by myself. I have hired tutors and whatever time I spend with my daughter is quality time to build our relationship. Prioritise and be comfortable with what you have decided.

Have you ever felt the ‘imposter syndrome’ and how do you deal with it?

Pallavi Gopinath Aney: It is normal to question yourself – both men and women feel that. It is okay to be doubtful about whether you got something right or wrong. If you have never felt that, you are probably not growing as a lawyer.

Stephanie Magnus: I remember this interesting question that came up at a training session on unconscious bias. If you know there is a new role coming up, and it will be a stretch of your abilities, how much must you know before you decide you will apply for the job? A poll was done and the men said they need to know about 50% while the women said they need to know 80% – 90% and manage the remaining 10%. This disparity shows that we need to be conscious of the way we make decisions. This does not mean that you should go for it if you know nothing but you don’t have to shy away from challenges.

Melissa Healy, Local Principal, Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow

Are there ways in which being a woman in law actually give you an edge?

Stephanie Magnus: Sometimes people underestimate you when you walk in the room. You can capitalise on that. Our intuition helps us to be more empathetic so we more easily tune in to what the client needs. Also, the barrier to conversation may be a bit lower. Clients may share with us more about their lives at home, and we can have very meaningful conversations and build unique relationships in that way.

What are some leadership skills we should develop now in school?

Stephanie Magnus: Aside from technical training, it’s important to learn to work as a team and forge friendships with your colleagues. If you want to develop a long-term career, life is hard if you don’t have your peers as friends. When you manage a team, that is important as well. Do not come into a firm thinking you need to compete with everyone else.

Monica Puri: It’s important to accept challenges and step out of your comfort zone. Be willing to try new opportunities, learn new skills and adapt to new situations. Accept failure as part of life and learn to move on if something does not work out. Don’t take everything personally. Build relationships with people in different industries and improve your ability to communicate and engage people.

Melissa Healy: It is important to remember that other people’s success and development is good for the team and you cannot do everything all on your own. A critical part of becoming an effective leader within your team or department is to realise that it is no longer just about you and your achievements but also about bringing out the best in your team to achieve the best results personally and for the wider team.

Pallavi Gopinath Aney
: All of us here will probably acknowledge that we are here because someone gave us an opportunity or thought we had potential and mentored us. You have to pay it forward – that is essential to being a leader and building a long-term career, if you want to have some sort of impact. Take the time to teach and mentor your juniors and work well together with your peers.

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