BACK TO PRACTICE: HOON SHU MEI’S JOURNEY
How a good, communicative relationship with her team allows her to be the mother she has always wanted to be.
BY ASHUTOSH RAVIKRISHNAN
One of my favourite questions to ask an interviewee is “Tell me about yourself”. There’s a lot you can glean from their answers, as I did from Ms Hoon Shu Mei’s. Shortly after introducing herself as an Associate Director in Drew & Napier’s private client dispute resolution arm, she went on to talk about her family. “I’m a mother of two children, aged seven and five,” she says, revealing how close motherhood is to her heart.
It should come as no surprise: after all, motherhood has shaped many of her choices since entering practice in 2010. During her maternity leave for her first child in 2015, Shu Mei plucked up the courage to have a difficult conversation with her superiors at the international firm she was working at. “I knew that I wanted to take a step back from work, even after my maternity leave. Stopping work was one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make,” she tells SAL.
This was well before COVID-19. So, terms like “work-from-home” and “flexiwork” had not entered the mainstream just yet. But Shu Mei was determined to create the environment she knew she needed to thrive. “So, I asked whether there was an opportunity for me to have an extended period of maternity leave, and for me to work part-time or flexibly. And there wasn’t, because before COVID, a lot of people were sceptical that such arrangements could work.”
She continues, “To be honest, I myself wasn't very convinced it could be done … I didn't know anyone in private practice working part-time then. Sure, there are some very senior lawyers who work as consultants in law firms, but not at my level. So, I did not advocate for myself. The firm I was at could not see how it could work either. And so, we parted ways.”
SAL: Like so many women, it seems like you had to choose between motherhood and your career. Tell us about that.
My own mother passed away while I was at university, so it was important for me to be there for my children. My partner’s parents do not live in Singapore either. I did not want to leave my young infant in the care of others. Looking back, I may have also fallen into the trap of thinking that it was a binary choice.
You took a year off to focus on motherhood and then felt the itch to go back to practice. Were you willing to go back full-time?
Not immediately. It was something I wanted to do, but at a gradual pace, maybe a few days a week first and build it up to five. But when I spoke with recruiters, most were doubtful that they could find a suitable match.
But you eventually made it back to a law firm…
Yes, I joined WongPartnership, but not as a practitioner immediately. Initially, I helped to oversee its litigation support operations, and helped with some business development. I worked three days a week. From the outset, I had asked about a possibility to eventually transition fully back into practice and they were happy to consider it.
I was given a few files that I could assist with. And eventually, I transitioned fully back to private practice, but still on a part-time basis. Clients knew how they could reach me, and if I was not available, my teammate or supervising partner. It was—and is—important to me to do the work that I love and be around to support and care for my family.
Picture perfect: Shu Mei with her family
And now you’re full-time?
I joined Drew towards the end of 2019, on a partial load basis, in the very team where I started learning the ropes of dispute resolution. We agreed to review the arrangement after two years. My kids are a bit older now, so I felt ready. I have a very supportive husband, who also carries the load equally with me.
Occasionally, I may not be at my desk or available as one of my children has some special needs, and so I may be at a medical or therapy appointment. I spoke to my mentor, Randolph Khoo, about my current set of circumstances. He was very reassuring and understanding … as they say, ‘as long as the work is done’. I think it's very important to have a good, communicative relationship with your boss, your team members, your secretary, so they know how to support you. But there is much for me to learn in this area still!
Sounds like you’ve had to have had some challenging conversations with your bosses. What tips do you have for fellow SAL members navigating these?
Be very clear about your own needs when you advocate for your work arrangement and what you are bringing to the table. You should also be clear about how you will be supporting the client, the file, and other team members, etc. If you do request for a different working arrangement, you must be prepared to compromise and be flexible – something has to give.
Was there ever a fear that you would be that “difficult” employee?
No one had ever expressed it to me in that way, so I don’t think so!
To me, if it was not working out, they would have said, “This is not working out for us. We would like you to convert back to full time.” or “There isn't a place for you here.” As I have had a very good channel of communication at the firms I have worked at, I was certain that they would raise any concerns if the arrangement was not working out for them. Regular check-ins certainly helped. That gave me the confidence to carry on with my practice.
Ultimately, everyone is happier, and it works out better when we can communicate our needs openly and without fear.
Lastly, has motherhood changed the way you practise, and if so, how?
As lawyers, we are really in the business of solving problems. I can see the underlying issues and interests better. I am also able to see potential pitfalls more clearly, since so many of my cases involve the custody, care or international relocation of children. I am also able to empathise with the client more – some of what they experience on the ground is heart-breaking – and maintain good boundaries. Although difficult, this is incredibly important. Building rapport and a good relationship with opposing counsel is also essential, as many problems can be solved with a simple phone call!