Pallavi Gopinath Aney, a finance and projects Principal at Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow, was recently shortlisted in a global literature competition – one of 40 entries worldwide and the only finalist from Singapore.
The Half the World Global Literati Award recognizes unpublished work with a central female protagonist, which gives a fresh perspective on the challenges and joys of women’s lives. The inaugural awards have attracted entries from nearly 60 countries worldwide. The award is organised by Half the World Holdings, a global investment platform in companies for whom women are the end-consumer.
Pallavi’s novel, As They Never Were, revolves around the lives of three generations of Indian women against a backdrop of cross-country economic immigration. I spoke to Pallavi to find out how her experiences as a female lawyer had helped the shape the novel.
What have your experiences been like as a female lawyer in India and Singapore? How do these jurisdictions differ in this regard (or how are they similar)?
Most of my career, including the last decade, has been spent practising in Singapore. I work in a cross-border practice area (international debt capital markets), so I work with clients and lawyers from a wide variety of jurisdictions in addition to Singapore, such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Singapore and India are quite similar in that women are very well represented in the legal professions straight out of law school and at more junior levels. I meet so many keen, bright, young female graduates at our various graduate recruitment events and the career fairs in Singapore. The numbers keep thinning the higher you go, though.
My experience has been exceptionally good – I have had very supportive bosses and mentors (mostly men) over the years, who never led me to believe I would be treated differently because I am a woman. I also had excellent female role models. It is, of course, a demanding job, but knowing you work with people who value what you bring to the table and do not evaluate you based on gender makes all the difference. I believe that, while there may be a few unpleasant experiences along the way for younger female lawyers, things are also changing quite rapidly and there is a lot of support and respect for women in the legal profession. There is also a lot more support and recognition of the fact that neither discrimination nor exclusion is an acceptable state of things.
What are the key challenges for a female lawyer working in the debt and capital markets practice area?
As a female lawyer of my generation, the key challenge was that it wasn’t easy to find a role model in an international firm who looked and sounded the same as you and came from a similar background. So in many respects, when I was a junior associate, I just went along with an idea of what I wanted to be someday and looked at various role models around me and tried to imbibe the qualities I admired in each of them. This is changing slowly, but steadily. There are more role models today, more senior women in the profession, more mentoring and far more focus on leadership training for young women lawyers.
At an everyday level, the key challenge is that it is a transactional practice area and, therefore, unpredictable in terms of work hours and travel requirements. That can pose quite a challenge in terms of balancing work and personal commitments for both women and men, but generally more so for women with caring responsibilities.
What does Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow do to support and retain its female lawyers?
The culture at Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow is very supportive of female lawyers. Our initiatives include flexible work arrangements, such as part-time work, unpaid leave/sabbaticals, flexible work hours, and project-based work. The firm also has a very strong remote access system, which gives female employees the flexibility to work from home as needed. The firm devotes a lot of time and resources to raise awareness of diversity and has programmes in place, such as the BakerWomen network, that focuses on the retention of female employees. These measures have helped the firm to retain employees across all levels, whilst maintaining a high quality of work.
How have your experiences as a female lawyer informed your writing?
I think there are many different kinds of experiences that come together and contribute to any writer’s body of work.
As a writer, you are generally very interested in people and what makes them tick. As a lawyer in Asia, you get the opportunity to meet many people from different backgrounds and cultures; you travel a lot at a fairly young age in the profession and get to see laws and market practice developing before your eyes, in a way you may not in more developed markets. Just watching how business is conducted in India, Singapore or Thailand is extremely instructive about the traditions of each country. All that comes together to provide a very rich background to any writing, which I feel very privileged to have had the benefit of. In another profession, I may not have the opportunity to explore and learn so much about different people and places.
What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
That it is possible to find the time to pursue an interest unrelated to the law, while being very active in private practice, and each of those pursuits enriches the other!