Why women lawyers need tenacity, self-belief and a kind work culture to thrive
Rebecca Chew was the first woman to be appointed deputy managing director in Rajah & Tann’s long history. Chew moved to the firm in 1992, in search of an organization with a vision for the future and a healthy work-life balance.
“I remember my mother going to deliver my letter of acceptance to the firm and at 6pm the lights were out,” she says. “My mum was impressed because at my previous mid-sized firm, I was always the last one out of the office.”
Chew says Rajah & Tann, which had only 10 lawyers when she joined, was progressive for its time, viewing employees as members of the family. “Their philosophy resonated with a lot of lawyers at the firm. The managing partner would consider allowing heavily pregnant women to work half-days.”
While Chew benefited from this nurturing environment, juggling her responsibilities in the early years was still difficult. “We grow up with a lot of self-doubt and views about ourselves as Asian women. We have family duties, we have to take care of our husbands, parents, children, etc., in addition to our career. So there was a lot of struggle initially, but when I won my first high court trial, I thought, ‘I can actually do this’.”
Chew was also buoyed by her peers. “My male colleagues always say I’m the tenacious one – I have that reputation and I was lucky to have supportive colleagues.”
Chew believes Singapore’s legal profession has moved in the right direction for women. “We are seeing more women studying law and entering the profession. The challenge for us is ensuring their career path and development so they hit the senior levels at the firm.”
Since 2009, Chew has been in charge of human resources at Rajah & Tann, winning the firm accolades for work-life excellence. Flexible and tailored work arrangements, health and wellness workshops, overseas training, and sporting events are all part of policies designed to look after and retain lawyers facing challenges at different stages of their life.
“I tell my colleagues, don’t be discouraged if you face a setback,” says Chew. “I say to new mothers, if you have a baby, it is not the end of your career if you decide to take some time off for your family. If you take the scenic route for a year, it doesn’t mean you can’t reach equity, or jump back onto the expressway. You just need to be patient and realistic. Some may be ahead of you, but if you are persistent, you can catch up.”
Perseverance is essential, not only to reach seniority, but also in the early stages of one’s career. Chew experienced client objections to her leading a case on account of her gender, and she felt that some clients may prefer men to work on contentious mandates. But in many ways, Chew felt fortunate to have been given the opportunities to develop her craft. “I believe my boss thought I had a different value proposition – better soft skills and empathy. I remember being assigned to represent two elderly ladies as my boss assumed I’d connect more effectively with them.”
Chew’s advice to women facing unconscious bias is to remain steadfast and focus on your goal. “I wanted to develop my skills. I wasn’t concerned with any unconscious bias against me. Young women shouldn’t be disturbed by the fact that they aren’t getting the best type of work, or the most exciting briefs. You may be thrown crumbs, but you can get strong eating crumbs.”
Senior women lawyers across Asia share personal stories of successes, struggles and strategies for a more inclusive legal profession. The following mosaic of personal stories identifies some of the nuances that typify women’s experiences in particular Asian jurisdictions, while also drawing on the wealth of shared experiences that bind them.