Speech by Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance, at the Launch of the Law Society of Singapore's Women In Practice Task Force
Mr Gregory Vijayendran, President of the Law Society,
Ladies and gentlemen, fellow members of the legal profession,
1. Good evening. Thank you for inviting me for this event. I thought it was important to come and be part of this because many women lawyers make this journey. I made that journey and it has been not without ups and downs and we all know the challenges that we face. It’s an honour to be here. Let’s have a quick look at the global context.
2. Women have long been reading and practising law in numbers similar to men, but the proportion of women industry leaders in law remains lower.
- Partner promotions of women at magic circle firms dropped from 33% in 2015 to 17% in 2017 (according to a report from May that year).
- An American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession 2017 report stated that only 18% of Managing Partners in the 200 largest US law firms are women.
- Only 24.8% of General Counsel for Fortune 500 corporations are women.
3. We have a meritocratic society with equal opportunities for women and men so there is no shortage of women reading and practising law.
- Some of the most successful women in law are here tonight.
- Almost half of the undergraduates at our law schools are women.
- Almost half of the lawyers holding practising certificates in Singapore are women.
- 10 out of 31 Judges of the Supreme Court are women.
- And, for some reason, the Director General and Directors in MinLaw’s Legal Group are all women!
4. But we can do better.
- According to the Asian Legal Business survey in 2017, the six law firms that responded, indicated that only 38% of partners were women.
- Only 11 out of 77 Senior Counsel are women.
5. So, we’ve done well as the numbers are not bad. But, we still have some way to go. So what are the challenges?
6. This audience will be familiar with the challenges faced by women in the practice of law.
a. Some of these challenges are not unique to women.
- Stress, impossible deadlines, demanding clients, difficult opponents, both men and women – They all combine to put an emotional drain on you.
- Long hours and burnt weekends – All this take a toll on family, social and personal life. And after a while, you ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it? Should I continue doing this?’
b. But some challenges also fall more on women, who are the primary caregivers in most families.
- Household matters.
- Bringing up young children – especially between ages 1 -12. 12 because, of course, that is the age where they take the PSLE exams.
c. Some of the challenges are cultural or social :
- Asian values – the idea of not putting yourself forward – I think all of us have experienced that. You must grow up to be a modest girl. You shouldn’t put yourself forward. At the same time, you must go out there and market yourself. And, so you have this conflicting thing because, all your life you’ve been brought up to be modest and not pushy. But, somehow, you’ve to go out there and hand out the business cards and get your name out there. So, it is challenging.
- You want to concentrate on getting the work done – But, this takes away time for business development and marketing. You have got a challenge there.
- And, of course, you’re expected to be ‘nice’. Because, if you’re not nice, and you’re tough, you may get all sorts of labels stuck on you. So, really, you have to find the right way forward, where you can find the right balance. Be true to yourself, but at the same time you’ve got to deal with certain expectations. All these are challenges that all of us have faced some time or another.
(II) So, what does it takes to succeed ?
7. There isn’t a magic formula. I wish there was. But, there isn’t. And, truth be told, individuals are different as well as there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula. Each person has to find the right fit for you. But there are some things in common which I thought I would share because I found them useful. These are lessons that I’ve learnt along the way. In fact, you may well have other perspectives and other things might work for you but, here’s some of the things which I found useful.
8. First, you need to know where you want to be. When I first started practice in the first three, four, or even five years, the only thing that had occurred to me was that I just need to knuckle down and get the work done. It did not occur to me that I should actually sit down and think – What is my career path? What do I want to be? What I want to do? Because, in those days, your career path was just really ‘work hard’. That was it. The rest was sort of just expected to come in due course.
9. Given the landscape nowadays, you really do have to ask yourself - what do you want to be? Is the partnership route the route for you? If it is, then you should work towards that. Do you want to go in-house? If that’s the route, then work towards that. And, ask yourself, in five or ten years, where do you want to be? It won’t all go according to plan, I can assure you on that. But, if you sit down and you do plan, then it might get you started in a way. Then, other opportunities may pop up and you take advantage of them as they come along.
10. The other thing that is very helpful is: Ask yourself - What is your personal brand? Your brand is separate from your firm’s brand or the organization of the entity that you’re working with because people have their own personal brands too. Some are known to be very facilitative; some are known to be particularly aggressive. Some are known to be very creative. But, what is your brand? What is it that sets you apart from your fellow lawyers? What is your unique value proposition? What is it that will make your client want to come to you?
11. Your brand cannot be separate from who you really are, you can’t pretend to be somebody you’re not. So, finding your brand requires taking a good hard look at yourself and asking what are your strengths and analysing the best of that and telling people about it and making that your personal brand. And, obviously it has to be driven by passion. It has to be something that you are truly passionate about. All of that is wrapped up in your whole identity and who you are as a lawyer. So, do think about that. Think about where you want to be.
12. The second, which goes without saying, is Competence and Capability.
13. You need to be excellent in your work. Not just good, not just okay. Excellent. You need to be very very good at what you do. Regardless whichever end of the practice it happens to be. Or if it is in-house, whatever sort of business unit that you’re looking after, or whatever that particular centre is, you must be very good and that takes a lot of hard work.
14. You have to understand what your clients want. Understand your practice area inside and out. Be the authority and expert. You shouldn’t be just taking something in the textbook and just reproducing it. But, you have to really know it, be able to comment on it and be able to see, given the rules of the law, where you think the outcomes will be based on the expertise. It takes time. It takes a lot of hard work but like I said, don’t be just your average practitioner. You want to be the authority and you want to be the expert.
15. Keep up to date with all the latest developments. Better still, be part of the process of that development. MinLaw is always having focus groups, engagement sessions and committees on various issues. And, we’re looking for more women to be part of that. And, other ministries who, when they are looking to revise their own legislation, they also look for feedback from the private sector, either for recommendations to committees or to be part of the focus feedback groups. So, be part of the process and be part of the law-making because we could benefit from that, and as I said, we are looking for more women to be in these committee and focus groups.
16. Be able to see around the corner; think ahead – not just for yourself or your career but for your practice area, your sector, your profession. Go beyond yourself, really look at the area you’re practicing and be able to be a thought leader in that area. Again, it takes time, takes a lot of effort. But, it’s all well worth it.
17. And, of course, be committed to constant learning. Because, one wonderful thing about the law is that you’re always learning. With every case, with every new thing that you do, you’re always learning new and amazing things. Be curious, acquire knowledge outside the law. You never know when it can be useful.
18. Third, overcoming the intangibles. This is the part I talked about earlier about all those cultural and social issues that you will have. Take them on. Be confident. Don’t undersell yourself. If there is a meeting in a room and you’ve a thought and you’re wondering, ‘Should I open my mouth and say something because it may sound really silly.’ Don’t think that. Just open your mouth and say it. It hasn’t stopped other people from doing it. What’s the worst that can happen? The worst is that people won’t agree with your idea. That is the worst. Just get used to opening your mouth and saying what it is you have to say. Of course, do make sure that it is something substantial, and that you’ve thought through it.
19. In 2017, the UK appointed Baroness Hale of Richmond as the first female President of its Supreme Court. When she was appointed to the House of Lords in 2004, she created for herself a coat of arms bearing the motto “women are equal to everything” (Omnia Feminae Aequissimae).
20. So, basically, she had the mind-set of ‘You can do it.’ That’s the kind of mind-set that lawyers need to have and less of the comparisons with another person. It’s very tempting to look at another lawyer, male or female and say, ‘Oh I wish I was like that person. How come I’m not like this person? Compared to this person I don’t do as well I should.’ That’s not a good attitude to have. Different people will have different strengths and weaknesses. So, just focus on your own and think about what your strengths are and make that work for you.
21. There was an article in today’s The New Paper entitled “Want to lead? Master the ‘Soft Skill”. It is about emotional intelligence (EI) and being able to manage your own emotions to nurture relationships. And it cites the story of Ms Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico. Every year she sits down and writes 400 letters – to the parents of her senior executives, and tells them what their child is doing for the company and why they are a gift to the company. The response from her colleagues was: “This is the best thing that has happened to my parents. And it is the best thing that has happened to me.” Very motivational, very simple idea. But, it is an example of leadership with emotional intelligence. It’s something that you would not traditionally consider as a leadership thing, but you cans see how powerful it is and how motivating it is. And, these are things that women are very good at, so leverage on that.
22. Fourth, use technology. Technology is transforming the process and delivery of law.
- Women are traditionally under-represented in the science and technology sector.
- There is no reason why women should not be among the early adopters of technology or those using technology to transform the way things are done. And, I’ve spoken of this in other forums, about how technology is going to change the practice of law, the face of the law. And, I think that women lawyers should not be left behind on this. So, embrace it whole-heartedly and make it work for you.
23. Fifth, finding or creating the right environment. Your environment shapes your mind set. So, supportive colleagues and friends are important. When I was in practice, we used to work really, really long hours. I rarely left the office before 3am or 4am. I didn’t really feel that it was draining, or bad or oppressive because everybody else was there with me as well, at that time. It made it a lot better. ? If we needed the odd midnight snack, because everybody was going through the same grind, we could, get somebody to order it and you could share your snacks. It just made it a lot better that you had people around you, who are like-minded and motivated as you were. It is what gets you through the tough times. So, the environment does matter.
24. Also, having a mentor helps a lot. It doesn’t have to be a single mentor, it can be two or three people that you go to. It is really important to have someone or a couple of people that you can go from time to time, when you encounter scenarios where you don’t know what to do, and you need advice, whether it’s for a conflict of interest situation or a legal matter. Or, sometimes, just having to navigate your way through dealing with somebody else’s particularly difficult issue. The point is: don’t be afraid to ask; don’t be afraid to search out the answers and don’t be afraid to find the right people who can help you with that.
25. And, do develop and nurture a good team. Because, between you and the people working for you, the output and end work product is only as good as they are. So, you do need to invest the time to make sure that they are also nurtured and helped and you’ll find that with a good supportive team, you yourself will be a lot happier, which in turn will result in your work output being a lot better. So, these are just some of my experiences from my years of practice. I hope they were useful for you. I’m sure that many of you would have had other, deeper insights that work for you and others as well.
26. Let me just say a few words on government support.
27. In Singapore, men and women both play equally critical roles in the workforce.
28. The Government has taken measures to promote and support work-life harmony and flexible work arrangements.
a. So that women and men, mothers and fathers can achieve both career and family aspirations.
b. Strengthened work-life support.
i. A working couple can access 20 weeks of paid leave and 2 weeks of unpaid leave in their child’s first year.
ii. Parenting, after all, is a shared responsibility.
c. Minister Josephine Teo announced on Sunday that the Government will enhance the Work-Life Grant.
i. This scheme supports employers in trying out flexible work arrangements for their employees, such as mothers returning to work.
d. Government also taking the lead:
i. Public sector is piloting an additional 4 weeks of unpaid infantcare leave.
e. Government also working with employers and unions to promote fair, responsible, and merit-based employment practices.
24. So, let me conclude by commending the Law Society and the establishment of this taskforce.
25. I would urge the Taskforce to undertake the following:
a. Identify the issues faced by women in legal practice.
b. Find ways to address them.
c. Provide a good support network.
d. Explore some of the possible initiatives such as:
i. How to support mothers who wish to return to legal practice after taking time out to look after their children. For example, the UK Law Society runs a 2-day refresher programme for women lawyers return to the workplace after a career break.
ii. How to encourage use and adoption of technology by women practitioners.
iii. And, perhaps also provide a platform for the exchange of ideas. Never underestimate the power of an idea. There is just something about when come to talk together and toss out ideas, and take each other’s ideas and run with it, suddenly before you know it, you’ve got something great going. And, you do need an occasion and a platform for that to happen. So, if we can make that happen for women, that would be great. Well, this was just what I wanted to share.
26. I congratulate the Law Society on this important initiative. And, I look forward to great things.
27. Happy International Women’s Day to all.
 In 2017, there were a total of 842 male law undergraduates and 731 female undergraduates at NUS and SMU. Figures excludes SUSS, whose first intake of students started classes in 2017.
 In 2017, there were 2,975 male lawyers and 2,216 female lawyers holding practising certificates. Source: Law Society of Singapore.
 This includes Senior Judges and Judicial Commissioners. Source: Supreme Court.
 177 out of 379 partners in the six firms that responded were women.
 Source: Singapore Academy of Law
 1 in 4 employees in science and technology sector were women. Source: Speech by Second Minister for Manpower at the SUTD Conference on Women in Technology and Design, 15 January 2018.
 Speech by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Josephine Teo at Committee of Supply Debate, 1 March 2018.
 Speech by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Josephine Teo at Committee of Supply Debate, 1 March 2018.