Women in Law: Singapore

As a hub for economic activity in Asia, Singapore has its fair share of law firms – both local and multinational. And it seems there are plenty of room for women at the top: even if there are challenges to being a women in law in Singapore, we talked to several who have made their way to being leaders.

Lee Suet Fern of Morgan Lewis Stamford
Lee Suet Fern of Morgan Lewis Stamford

Women in Law in Singapore

“I actually think it’s easier for a female out here. Not that there’s no prejudice, but people tend not to single you out for gender,” notes Stephanie Keen. Stephanie worked in London previously and also spent time in New York, but has been in Singapore for five years and is now managing partner of the local office of Hogan Lovells. “Clients tend to be supportive – and a number of the local law firms have some senior female role models.”

One of these is Suet Fern Lee, who co-founded Stamford Law – now merged with US firm Morgan Lewis to form Morgan Lewis Stamford – and is regarded as one the country’s leading M&A lawyers. She studied and worked in the UK before working in Singapore: “When I was up at Cambridge in the 70s, there were very few places for women,” she says, “but that never bothered me as I enjoyed trying to beat the boys! In Singapore, the fact that I had not attended the local university like everyone else then made me something of an outsider when I first started work here.”

“In some ways we are a traditional society. There are women who may opt to be home-makers or take that step back in their careers – but it’s not because of a lack of opportunities.” says Valerie Kwok. She co-heads the Banking & Finance practice of local firm Drew & Napier with Sandy Foo. The two place importance on the fact that the country is relatively young – it was founded in 1819 as a British colony, and became self-governing only in 1959. They reckon that sense of being new means there’s less of long history of gender inequality to battle with. “Thanks to the vision of our founding government, we benefited from equal opportunities and education policy – our mothers went to school, we went went to school,” says Sandy. “My mum was a teacher – in her generation, not going to university tended to be due to financial reasons rather than because you were a woman,” says Valerie.

Stephanie Keen of Hogan Lovells
Stephanie Keen of Hogan Lovells

Room for Improvement

Of course, some things haven’t always been ideal. “In terms of policies and legislation, things have certainly moved and improved in the recent past,” Valerie says. She is thinking in particular of maternity leave, which is now four months long, compared to shorter maternity leave previously. It still falls short of the UK, where it is currently 12 months, and perhaps reflective of the rather employer-friendly labour laws of the Singaporean Ministry of Manpower, though these policies are being reviewed and improved upon.

Sexism, when encountered, can be relatively subtle. When she started out as a City lawyer in London, it could be something of a gentleman’s club, Stephanie says. Modern-day Singapore feels less like this – but sometimes, she admits, comments can be made, for example about women being appointed to certain positions due to quotas. “There is a sense that issues still exist with females experiencing bias such as getting promoted later,” she adds, “though to the extent this is the case it could be, in part, because women tend not to ask for these things as actively.” The lawyers at Drew & Napier admit that in the past, most of their bosses were male – though that has also changed with time.

While a lot of these women have reached high positions, the spread of males and females at the top is not quite even, admittedly. Asking Valerie and Sandy why, they speculate it might be partly due to culture: “Being a traditional society, you have women who make the choice of wanting to be home-makers, or drop off halfway through the career ladder to look after children.” Stephanie recalls a period in her career, at associate level, when a lot of females seemed to be leaving for family, or for a different career outside of a high-powered law firm. “Some were asking for flexible hours – at that time, that wasn’t agreed to or considered possible.”

Suet Fern agrees: “it’s hard to stay in an A grade career, being a top private practitioner, so women look for alternatives with more regular hours, and less demands on time. But it’s a shame: things work out, the children will grow up, and you might end up with a talented woman doing a B grade career.” She feels her working hard was a good influence on her sons – now, they have come regard working mothers as the norm, a model which is in itself helpful for combating more conservative conceptions of gender roles.

Valerie Kwok of Drew & Napier
Valerie Kwok of Drew & Napier

 Family and the Law

Indeed, it’s agreed across interviewees that being a lawyer and having children might not be the simplest of life plans. But Stephanie says the supportive environment of modern law firms and clients helps: “I’ve had two children in the past three years, went to meetings heavily pregnant, and the clients remained fully supportive – they wouldn’t ask for somebody else on the deal, because they knew I was committed.”

Echoing Suet Fern’s advice to just keep going, Valerie notes “you have to work efficiently, and prioritise correctly – there are times when family comes first, and other times when projects are moving and you just need to work.” Sandy adds “I think you grit your teeth, and accept you’ll never get enough sleep!” Stephanie compares it to the UK, and reports there is less of a habit of working on the weekend than in London firms: “there’s a strong work ethic in Singapore of course, but there’s also an equally strong ethic of the importance of family. You have to work your days around what is important.”

Plans to improve

Asking about what might help going forward, Suet Fern places emphasis on more flexible hours, and the need for maternity leave. Sandy and Valerie remark that flexibility in hours has been a great help already, especially as it has progressed alongside development in technology that enables one to work from home more easily. Stephanie also comments on this idea: “Clients know I might not always be at my desk, but I’m always contactable.” She also notes the usefulness of various diversity committees at her firm. “At Hogan Lovells we have the Asia diversity committee and global AGILE group – which isn’t just for females, but an initiative supporting those whose home life needs don’t fit the traditional law firm hours.” One proposal to keep projects going and clients happy involves working hours being annualised, with longer hours worked during busy periods and greater time off when projects are finished.

There’s also an interest in other types of diversity. Stephanie remarks upon the internal initiatives at Hogan Lovells with regards to ethnic diversity in hiring. Singapore is itself a very diverse country, with an ethnic Chinese majority but large groups of Malay and Indian people, among others. With the recent death of the country’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew (often known as just ‘LKY’), there has been attention towards how harmony in diversity is maintained. Often cited as key to this is Lee Kuan Yew’s introduction of ethnic quotas in public housing estates, to ensure integration amongst different groups. The country also has a series of public holidays from different denominations; days off are taken for Easter, Chinese New Year, Diwali and Hari Raya Haji, among others.

LGBT issues, however, remain a difficult subject. Homosexuality is illegal in Singapore, although arrests are rare. Nonetheless, the annual gay rights event, the Pink Dot rally, continues to grow. This particular event is sponsored by various multinationals, such as Google and Goldman Sachs. This has caused a bit of backlash – as Singapore remains quite a conservative society in this regard, the question as to how multinationals with policies on diversity can address this particular issue remains one to be answered.

Sandy Foo of Drew & Napier
Sandy Foo of Drew & Napier

Advice for the future

A variety of advice is forthcoming from interviewees. Sandy says, “just keep your head down and take it one step at a time – don’t feel overwhelmed.” Suet Fern makes a similar assertion, noting that young lawyers shouldn’t be afraid of hard work. Stephanie agrees but adds “you need something extra.” Having a mentor helps – and most of the lawyers mention certain practitioners, male or female, who in their early careers helped and guided them. Stephanie says, “increasingly in this world you need to be an entrepreneur as well as a lawyer, and develop your business.” Perhaps this element is part of what has helped all of these women rise to management roles in their own firms. Happily, they all note, nobody has shown an issue with having a female boss. “Some of the men in my firm think I’m a little tougher on them,” says Suet Fern, laughing. “I’m sure that’s not true!”

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *