Top legal eagle Rachel Eng has a string of coveted accolades to her name. The list is long, from being named Managing Partner of the Year at the ALB SE Asia Law Awards twice – the only person to have been honoured thus – in 2011 and 2013, to being crowned Her World Woman of the Year 2014.
Since her promotion in 2010, she is the first and only female managing partner of a Big Four law firm, a distinction she still carries today. (The Big Four refer to Eng’s Wongpartnership LLP, Allen & Gledhill LLP, Rajah & Tann LLP and Drew & Napier LLC.)
The career awards reflect Eng’s high standing in the fraternity as a corporate lawyer specialising in capital markets. In her 20-odd year career, she has handled some of the nation’s biggest initial public offerings, including that of Capitamalls Asia in 2009, and of IHH Healthcare in 2012, the first dual concurrent listing on Bursa Malaysia and the Singapore Exchange.
Although the 47-year-old mother of three says she loves her work, one gets the feeling that she is also enjoying a task more recently thrust upon her – that of role model for women in their 30s juggling family and career demands. She is also a mentor at her firm and with the Young Women’s Leadership Connection.
Eng, who was named joint managing partner in 2013, tells us: “I hope to set the path for other capable female lawyers, whether in the firm or other firms. To show them it is with hard work, with talent, that they can do it. They shouldn’t feel (the legal world) is male-dominated and therefore it is not possible because they’re female.”
Eng, who sits on numerous boards including those of Starhub, PUB and Certis Cisco Security, is also involved with Board Agender, an organisation that focuses on gender diversity in the boardroom. In Singapore, women make up only a dismal 8.3 per cent of board members in listed corporations. The global average is 11 per cent.
She says that boards here are supportive of female directors but are too busy to think about diversity. “The fact is there are many willing female candidates. It’s just that when the boards select, they tend to approach those they know or are recommended to them.”
As a sign of her pragmatism, Eng prefers not to see regulated gender quotas. “There is a certain stigma attached. Female candidates would feel like they’re second class if they are appointed just to meet the quota.”
“For Rachel to be at the top of one of Singapore’s largest law firms, and have a great family without a domestic helper, speaks of her exemplary professionalism, her amazing work capacity and her incredible ability to balance work and family.”
Yap Chee Keong, chairman of Netlink Trust and board member of several companies such as Certis Cisco.
Outside of the boardroom, family-friendly workplace policies are critical to even out the ground. They are something Eng’s firm is renowned for, with flexi-work arrangements including part-time and telecommuting schemes. The key is to “focus on our output and not so much on face time in the office”, she says.
In fact, Eng was one of the firm’s first lawyers to benefit. She worked from home, complete with fax machine, soon after giving birth to her first son, Darren. She adds: “Increasingly, it is not just women whom we need to look out for; male lawyers with young kids need the flexibility to work from home, too.”
Eng, who travels overseas at least monthly for meetings, points out that being the perfect parent is simply not possible with heavy work commitments; one sometimes just has to be “a little relaxed”.
Among her tools is technology. She gets her daughter to send her voice memos in Mandarin to check on her pronunciation. (Eng’s husband is in IT – which is why the lawyer has an Apple Watch, an iPhone, a Blackberry and a Jawbone activity tracker on her.)
She says: “Some parents get agitated if they can’t meet their child’s teachers or if the child gets punished. As my husband and I both work, we encourage our children to be more independent and we just take things as they come – with a bit of humour. We hope our next generation will see this and know that even when life is stressful, it is manageable.”
Eng’s only regret? She says with a rueful laugh: “The only thing I’ve given up is personal time.”