In Conversation with Elaine Seow, SINGAPORE
The Global Women Entrepreneurs & Leaders in Law (GWELL) series is a collection of interviews and stories about women from around the world who are working with the law in a leadership capacity. Each of the women featured share the realities of their successes and failures. The GWELL series gives women in leadership roles a platform to share their stories, which are a source of inspiration for all women.
In this article we speak to Elaine Seow in Singapore. Elaine heads the Corporate and Dispute Prevention Practice in one of Singapore’s oldest law firms, Braddell Brothers LLP. Elaine has more than 15 years of experience in Singapore law, having been in private practice since 1999. She specialises in corporate and commercial law, focusing on franchising, mergers and acquisitions, employment and company law. Elaine speaks to us about her career and how she maintained her resolve to continue her career after almost giving up on practice due to the difficulties in balancing her personal and professional lives.
Lex Conscientia: Hello Elaine, tell us more about yourself and what you do in Braddell Brothers?
Elaine: I head the Corporate law practice in Braddell Brothers. We advise start-ups, food and beverage clients, information technology companies, joint ventures and shareholders on their rights, obligations and contractual documents. Our areas of specialty include franchising, employment law and mergers and acquisitions. Our very personal practice functions like a safe pair of hands. On the one hand we have our robust Litigation and Arbitration team and the other hand represents our trusted Corporate team. Together, the two teams provide seamless and comprehensive support for our clients. I am also a Commissioner for Oaths. This means that in addition to my corporate work, I have deponents who come to the office for commissioning of their documents. I also travel to clients’ premises to attend to commissioning.
Lex Conscientia: We understand you first practiced law in Singapore and then in London before returning to Singapore again – tell us about your stint in UK.
Elaine: Yes, I was very fortunate to practise in a boutique property law firm. During that time, I was able to exercise rights of audience in the Magistrates' Courts, County Courts and before a Registrar in Chambers in the High Court in London. As a property litigation solicitor, I had a heathy spread of cases ranging from instructing barristers for contentious hearings to conducting straightforward hearings on my own. As a newbie with just over a year of post-qualification experience from Singapore, it was a nerve-wrecking experience for me to appear in the courts in England. Before every hearing, I would calm the butterflies in my stomach by chugging hot tea (English Breakfast tea with milk, no sugar is now a daily habit).
Lex Conscientia: You once ran your own law practice. Can you share with us the lessons you learned from that chapter in your career?
Elaine: Running my own practice was a very humbling experience. I learned that starting anything from scratch involves huge amounts of grit and resolve. I was inspired by my Dad’s motto; “The only constant in life is change”. I have kept this motto in mind throughout my career and in my business decisions. I was mindful of building a name for myself as a reliable lawyer who clients will remember and seek out. From being a salaried employee in an established practice to becoming self-employed in a two-person firm, I had to change my definition of income. There was constant trepidation and fear where my next client would come from. In addition, there was the constant worry about covering the overheads and recovering our capital expenditure. There was so much to learn (book-keeping, accounting, IT support, regulatory restrictions) that I found myself reading extensively on various aspects of running a business. I had a fantastic mentor in my pupil master. I believe that the experience of running my own practice has made me much more aware of the commercial realities of running a business and, as a result, has made me a much better commercial lawyer.
I learned to appreciate the importance to the bottom line of loyal clients, trusted colleagues, networking and an understanding bank manager.
Running my own business made me realise that, for me, trying to please everybody wasn’t going to work. This experience helped me to choose my areas of specialisation.
Lex Conscientia: The Singapore legal scene has witnessed tremendous change in recent years. Liberalisation, has brought several foreign players into the market to compete with Singapore practices. What is the mood on the ground?
Elaine: I can only speak from my personal experience and very specifically on this topic, from the point of view of a practitioner in a small outfit. With the opening up of the Singapore legal sector to foreign lawyers, people were concerned that there wouldn’t be enough work to go around. As a small country, Singapore already competes with Hong Kong for corporate work and arbitration cases. With the influx of foreign lawyers, there would have to be a corresponding increase in these areas of work. There is still some disquiet among some lawyers whose corporate and arbitration work has been affected by the new entrants. Singaporean law firms have had to keep up with the change and we have since seen more joint ventures and alliances with foreign law firms.
Lex Conscientia: The mediation and arbitration pie has shrunk significantly due to increased competition from foreign players. How has your firm responded and in particular, have you made any changes in your own Dispute Prevention Practice?
Elaine: All of our senior partners are passionate and driven. Our litigation and arbitration team continues to have a steady stream of work as arbitration counsel. The firm regularly represents clients in domestic and international arbitrations in Singapore, Indonesia and various other countries, and undertakes complex arbitrations under the ICC, UNCITRAL and other rules. One of our partners is admitted to the panel of arbitrators of various international arbitration centres and has sat as an Arbitrator in Singapore as well as Indonesia and Vietnam. The challenge of a smaller pool of work available has been offset by continued referral work from clients and fellow lawyers. That to me, is one of the best endorsements one can receive as a practising lawyer. The areas of law which our firm practises in include medico-legal, commercial and civil litigation and arbitration. Here, we have built up a fantastic reputation and this is what continues to sustain us.
Lex Conscientia: A while ago, you faced the prospect of giving up practice due to the difficulties in balancing your personal and professional lives. Would you be willing to share more with us and in particular how you came to your decisions?
Elaine: The struggle to bring up children as a working mother in crazy-paced Singapore is extremely demanding. I’ve always subscribed to the belief that kids who are in primary school need the physical daily presence of their mother, at the very least, for psychological and emotional support. It is not easy to balance the needs of young children while running a busy legal practice. Like many women, I seriously considered leaving practice. However, when faced with the reality, it dawned on me that I would miss the adrenalin, the opportunity to be able to advise substantively on the law and, strange though it might sound, I would also miss my practising certificate which has become a part of my identity.
With a clear understanding of my motivations and with the support of my friends, I was able to move forward with my career. Making time for exercise was also a pivotal part of ensuring I was healthy enough to face my day to day challenges.
Lex Conscientia: Where do you get your strength from? What inspires you? What guided you?
Elaine: My three main pillars of strength are my faith, my mother and my daughters. My Christian faith sustained me and has maintained my inner peace. My mother is inspirational and I believe that my own resilience was built watching her balance her work as a teacher and being a wife and mother. Finally, through my 2 daughters, I find every reason to persevere. It is my older daughter who often reminds me, “Everything in life happens for a reason, mommy.”
Lex Conscientia: Did you have any women career mentors in your life?
Elaine: No, I did not have senior women mentors but I have peers. I believe that peer-coaching is a useful tool for women of my generation. Hence, I am looking at setting up an informal alliance of fellow down-to-earth women lawyers and professionals.
Lex Conscientia: Your CV mentions you have advised charities and not-for-profit organisations in Singapore. Are you also active in charitable work yourself?
Elaine:I wish I have more time to engage in regular volunteer work. I do volunteer in my kids’ school where I teach a non-curriculum module called “Character First”. During the holidays, the kids and I deliver food and supplies to needy homes. Instead of monetary donations I personally prefer sharing my time whenever possible.
Lex Conscientia: What advice do you have for young, aspiring women lawyers practising in Singapore?
Elaine: Three simple points to note here. Firstly, build up your own network of friends. Like-minded friends whether within or outside of your work sector, provide heart-warming support, both directly (for work referral) and indirectly (as a check and balance to your sanity), to your continuing success as a working female. My girlfriends have helped me as members of my internal cheerleading team when I needed their boost of confidence. Be generous with your girlfriends and cultivate meaningful female friendships.
Secondly, build up your reputation as a trustworthy source of sound legal advice. Be honest with clients. If it is an area you are not comfortable with, do not accept the brief and refer it on to a lawyer who specialises in that field. Clients remember integrity and honesty. Even if they do not, your co-workers will.
Finally, build up your own health by regular exercise as this completes your ability to perform your work well. I intend to pick up belly-dancing next to add to the repertoire of my fitness programmes. I strongly encourage all women to set aside the time to exercise. Young women lawyers in particular should make this a habit before being consumed by the over-riding pressures of practice and managing their family or other commitments.
Lex Conscientia: We enjoyed speaking with you Elaine, any famous last words or mantra to share?
Elaine: I always tell my juniors and my kids that empty vessels make the most noise. I also adopt this pseudo-sage image when I share with them that “What goes around comes around”. Keep busy, read, network, exercise.
Her website is: www.braddellbrothers.com
Connect with her on Linkedin
Lex Conscientia is a bespoke management consultancy and legal support provider to those who work with different aspects of the law. www.lexconscientia.co.uk