It is often said that the law is not an occupation – it is a calling. Both Rachel Eng ’91, managing partner of WongPartnership LLP, and Lee Eng Beng SC ’92, managing partner of Rajah & Tann LLP, have most certainly found the right calling. Victor Katheyas ’13 reports.
Rachel Eng ’91 and Lee Eng Beng ’92 are proud alumni of NUS Law School (Eng Beng having stayed on after graduation to teach at Law School from 1992 to 1998); and Law School could not help but feel a sense of vicarious pride when both were appointed managing partners of their respective firms – Rachel on 1 September 2010 and Eng Beng on 1 October 2010.
Both are recognised as being amongst the best in the legal fraternity in Singapore and are recommended for their expertise in publications such as the International Financial Law Review 1000 and Chambers Global - The World’s Leading Lawyers. Rachel specialises in capital markets work, Eng Beng focuses on litigation and arbitration; and both greatly enjoy the cut and thrust of their respective practices.
It might surprise the reader to know that neither Rachel nor Eng Beng entered Law School with any particular passion for the law.
Eng Beng confesses, “I was a mediocre science stream student who did not relish the thought of studying more of the sciences; and who did just well enough in the ‘A’ Levels to apply for Law School!”
Rachel confides that her decision to study law was largely a result of practical considerations. She was initially considering two overseas scholarship offers – but then “the offer from NUS Law School arrived”. She remembers, “Around the time when I applied to NUS Law School, my father, who was the sole breadwinner at home, was at risk of being retrenched. When I decided to study law in Singapore and gave up the overseas scholarships from the government, my parents were happy as I did not have to be away from home. But I knew it was financially strenuous on my family."
Says Rachel, "Even though my father finally managed to keep his job, I taught tuition to partially support myself during my undergraduate days. I treasured my opportunity to study law at NUS and reminded myself to study hard.”
Thankfully, both found themselves thoroughly enjoying the study of law once school had begun. Even though there was a heavy amount of reading to do to prepare for classes, both managed to find life outside of studying: spending time with friends on campus, getting involved in extra-curricular activities and organising different campus activities.
Eng Beng wistfully notes, “That level of freedom, spontaneity and connectivity with friends has, sadly, been unsurpassed since I left Law School!”
Looking to the future
Both Rachel and Eng Beng share that they aim to widen their firms’ footprints in Asia. This requires continuous and intensive efforts in all areas, says Eng Beng. Amongst other things, this involves focusing on the depth and breadth of their legal activities and service lines, as well as their corporate branding.
These efforts have already begun coming to fruition. Rajah & Tann currently has a representative office in Shanghai, and is associated with Kamilah & Chong, a Malaysian firm which is helmed by some of its own partners. In addition, it recently set up a joint venture law firm in Vientiane and is in the process of establishing a presence in Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Indonesia.
WongPartnership, which already has a presence in China and the Middle East, intends to carry on marketing itself to those and other markets within Asia. Rachel adds that the firm’s expertise in the China and Middle East markets has been recognised by The Legal 500: Asia Pacific (2010 edition).
The changing face of legal practice
Both note that the practice of law has changed – and become more demanding – since they first started out.
Clients have begun to expect faster turnaround times because of more efficient communication channels such as email. In addition, legal research has become more demanding due to the increased complexity of business and financing activities means that the legal issues that have to be analysed are more difficult. In addition, many of these transactions are international or regional in operation.
What this means is that the concept of a work-life balance needs to be approached from a new perspective.
Eng Beng candidly admits, “The demands of legal practice make it impossible to strike a work-life balance on a daily basis…The most one can do during busy phases is to be as efficient and organised as possible, so as to maximise the limited amount of private time.”
However, this does not mean that it is all work and no play. Eng Beng believes that it is possible to strike a better balance in the context of a slightly longer time frame, with some discipline and training. This would require lawyers to know when to turn away cases, enlist the help of colleagues and take time away from the office whenever there is an available window.
Rachel shares the same sentiments.
She says, “The concept of work-life balance does not necessarily mean working from 9 am to 6 pm, especially in this Internet era. Each of us has to discuss with our family, and find a way to maintain the ‘optimal’ balance in our life.
For me, I work in the office for most part of the day and I work from home at night using our office's remote access system. This allows me to see my children at night to chat a little before they go to bed.”
How to inspire young lawyers
The main challenge facing both firms is attracting and retaining talent. Eng Beng senses that many young lawyers often question if they are being adequately rewarded for their efforts – particularly after a string of late nights at the office.
Rachel says, “The young lawyers are lucky to grow up during years of growth and stability. Until the global financial crisis hit, none of them has witnessed any real hardship. There are some exceptional ones who are full of initiative, and are responsive and reliable. The rest are by and large bright and promising when they graduate, but the challenge is how we can interest them to keep up their interest to practise law as a career.”
In addition, she notes that young lawyers should expect to work really hard for the first three to five years of practice. “Like any other profession, one needs to learn the ropes and get the foundation right in the first few years. There is no shortcut to this.”
But if they do continue to practise law, says Eng Beng, “they will quickly realise the true demands – and rewards – of being a lawyer.” Rachel adds, “I would urge young lawyers to join the profession with the right mindset - we are a profession, and not just an occupation. We serve our clients with the ingenuity of our minds, the quality of our skills, and applying the right ethical standards."
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