SEE PHOTOS & WATCH VIDEO: Corporate lawyer Rachel Eng helped build a fledgling legal firm into a power player, while raising three children (without domestic help!). We find out how Her World’s Woman of the Year did it
It was 2009. The global recession was in full swing. The stock markets were volatile and many banks were in trouble. At local legal firm Wong Partnership, corporate lawyers were working harder than ever for shrinking fees. Some of the firm’s clients were overleveraged and couldn’t pay their legal bills.
Rachel Eng, then the head of the firm’s capital markets and corporate department was tackling quite a different problem, however. Her eldest child’s Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) was coming around. “It was April, and I was thinking of taking a sabbatical to help my son Darren prepare for the exams—like most mothers do, you know?” the mother of three says wryly. “But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Everyone was working so hard to make ends meet.”
She revisited the idea in August, two months before the exams, but quickly shot it down when an important client hired the firm to list his company by November. For the next three months, Rachel worked round the clock. Her only concession was to leave the office by 7pm during the week of the PSLE, so that she could be home to give her son support. Guilt-ridden, she apologised to Darren for not being around often, only for him to reassure her: “Don’t worry mum, what you did was enough.”
“So sweet, right? That wiped out half my guilt,” Rachel says, smiling.
As with many working mothers, balancing work and family has been a constant challenge for Rachel, 46, who’s now a joint managing partner at Wong Partnership. But by all accounts, she has succeeded in this juggling act, never mind that foiled PSLE sabbatical.
In her 23-year legal career, Rachel has not only established herself as an outstanding corporate lawyer – independent legal publications recommend her expertise in equity and debt capital markets, real estate investment trusts and corporate finance – but has also broken the glass ceiling in a male-dominated industry. In 2010, at just 42, she became the first woman in Singapore to be named the Managing Partner of a Big Four law firm (a term used here to refer to the four largest firms, based on staff size and billings).
“It’s like the difference between being the CEO of Pepsi, versus that of a convenience store,” reveals a legal contact of mine.
Rachel was also the first woman to be honoured as Managing Partner of the Year at the prestigious Asian Legal Business South East Asia Law Awards in 2011 (it’s one of the biggest legal events in the region). When she nabbed the award again in 2013, she became the first person to win it twice.
Impressively, Rachel achieved all this and raised a family while in a profession known for poor work-life balance. She is married to Dennis Ang, global head of IT in a US-listed company that has its corporate headquarters in Singapore. In addition to Darren, now 16, they have another son, 15-year-old Derek, as well as a daughter, Rae, 10.
“She’s got a successful career, a loving family, and kids who’ve grown up well—it’s what every woman dreams of,” says Yvonne Cheong, a friend who has known Rachel since they were both students at Raffles Girls’ Secondary School (RGS).
Even more noteworthy is how Rachel coped without a domestic helper until last year. This is an oddity in Singapore, where many working parents rely on helpers to mind their children in their absence.
Rachel’s mentor and Wong Partnership’s former managing partner, Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara, says: “She never had a helper while she was building the practice. I don’t know how she did it, to be honest. It’s a Herculean task to raise kids while building a practice, dealing with clients and travelling for work… It’s a very tall order.”
During our two-hour interview, Rachel is crisp, efficient, and unerringly precise. When I remark that she’s spent two decades at Wong Partnership, she corrects me: “It’s 19 and a half years, actually.”
But she is also warm and candid, freely recounting the unlikely romance between herself and husband Dennis. They met while studying at Hwa Chong Junior College (now Hwa Chong Institute)—he was a jock, the school canoeing captain, while she was a student councillor. Asked if Dennis was her only boyfriend, she nods in mock resignation, saying: “My daughter told me, ‘Mum, you so fail!’”
Born to a technical supervisor dad and seamstress mum, Rachel grew up in a three-room flat with her younger brother and sister. Throughout her childhood, her mother sewed garments at home to make money. The family’s biggest indulgences were hawker centre meals on Saturdays, which were, she says, “a luxury for us.”
Rachel’s blue-collar upbringing contrasted with that of her privileged classmates in RGS. While most of her friends enjoyed piano lessons, the Engs could afford classes for only one of their two daughters—so neither took classes. “My mother reasoned that if only one of us could learn the piano, then both of us would not learn, to be fair,” she says.
Still, young Rachel stood out as an all-rounder. Clever and hardworking, she was offered university scholarships to study Mathematics and Japanese overseas, but turned these down to do law at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The idea of a single girl studying and living abroad was a foreign concept to her parents, she explains. In any case, not everyone had the opportunity to be a lawyer, so she decided to give it a shot.
At NUS, Rachel became a consummate multitasker, juggling her studies, chairing the freshmen orientation committee and giving tuition to earn spare cash. “She puts in her best in everything she does,” says Yvonne. “She’s very smart, very brilliant, and it showed during her student days.”
One wonders if Rachel’s experience with juggling all these commitments was what gave her a headstart in a profession notorious for its punishing pace. In tacit agreement, her colleagues at Wong Partnership highlight her legendary work ethic. “She has focus and tenacity; a real go-getter,” says Gail Ong, a partner in the firm. “If anyone can make a project a success, it’s her.”
A story circulated among colleagues recounts how, when Rachel went into labour the night before she was due to launch an initial public offering for a client, she continued fielding work calls until she was wheeled into Gleneagles Hospital to deliver her second child Derek. Following that, she was back on the phone just nine minutes after giving birth—even though she was still bleeding and had to be placed under observation for four hours.
“I think what I did was within my duty,” says Rachel of the incident. “In my job, timing is critical. Whether or not we complete a filing can influence the success or failure of a client’s project.”
THE TOUGHEST DECADE
Asked to pinpoint the most challenging period in her life so far, Rachel fingers her 30s, during which she was building her career while raising her children. She joined Wong Partnership in 1995 when she was 27, and was made a salaried partner in 1997. Three years later, she was plunged into the deep end when her boss, the head of Wong Partnership’s corporate department (whom she declines to name), resigned and pulled more than a dozen of the firm’s lawyers away to set up another law firm.
The burden of managing the department fell on two partners, Rachel and Dilhan, assisted by a gaggle of young associates. It was a precarious time as the firm was just eight years old—a baby compared to the big boys in the legal scene, some of whom had been around for almost a century and housed more seasoned lawyers.
“I was only 32. I thought to myself: ‘How am I going to get clients, much less high-profile ones?’” says Rachel. “It was a David and Goliath situation; we were trying to punch above our weight. We had to secure a job, prove ourselves, and use that momentum to get the next job.”
As a partner, Rachel had to lead many of the firm’s transactions. One botched job and a client could walk away forever. It wasn’t unusual for her to travel at only a day’s notice or be thrown straight into a deal—like when a colleague abruptly called her out of a meeting to handle the $10 billion merger of Overseas Union Bank and United Overseas Bank in 2001, which was the largest competitive takeover in Singapore at the time. “I didn’t see daylight for three months,” she says of that period.
She travelled regularly to develop Wong Partnership’s nascent China practice even when she was expecting. To ensure that her pregnancies didn’t take her away from work, she skipped prenatal classes and scheduled her doctor’s appointments on Saturdays.
Though her parents babysat their kids during the day, she and Dennis used to squabble over her working hours. “You just sort things out day by day,” she admits. “It’s not easy, but we came to an understanding on some dos and don’ts.” They agreed that Rachel would try to leave the office by 7pm so she could put their children to bed, and work from home thereafter if required. Dennis, who often took overseas conference calls at midnight, cared for their kids in the wee hours of the morning while she slept.
The daily grind drove her to consider quitting her job at one point, but she pushed the thought aside. “The rest were so junior. If I had left and they couldn’t find enough replacement partners, I don’t think we could have…” she trails off, before adding briskly: “Every person was important. We just had to grit our teeth and continue.”
Rachel’s dedication has paid off. Just 22 years after its inception, Wong Partnership has become one of Singapore’s largest law firms with close to 300 lawyers—a feat Rachel has had a hand in achieving. Between 2000 and 2010, she helped grow the firm’s corporate department from 22 to 180 lawyers and also built the firm’s practice in China.
It was therefore no surprise that when managing partner Dilhan left in 2010, Rachel was chosen to helm Wong Partnership. Three years later, the firm appointed Ng Wai King as a joint managing partner to share Rachel’s duties—a strategic decision given the firm’s growing global ambitions, she says, and not (as some have speculated) to help her cope with her family commitments.
Rachel has help at home these days. She hired a domestic helper last year to assist with the household chores—a necessity now that she and Dennis are travelling more often. When she’s in town, the family spends weekends playing video games or bowling.
Rachel is quick to admit that her work-life acrobatics have left her feeling worn out on occasion. “There are times when your kids are at home and they’re so sick, but you’re deep in work… You leave the office exhausted, but have to pull yourself together to do a night feed. And you get frustrated when the babies cry all night. You feel guilty all around for not doing enough,” she says.
But she reminds herself that it’s important to give and take. “I’ll sometimes ask my children, ‘Do you feel I should stay at home more with you?’ or ask my colleagues if I’m spending enough time with them. Using their feedback, I calibrate my life.”
Her busy schedule has forced her to parent efficiently. When tutoring her kids, she focuses on their mistakes instead of going through every question with them. “As working mothers, we have to adjust how we handle our families. It’s different for mothers who have more time at home,” she says.
She does not pamper her kids either. Before her helper came on the scene, she and Dennis placed a mop and a bucket near each of their children’s rooms and drilled them in cleaning up after themselves. The kids know not to call her at work if they forget to bring books to school. Says Rachel: “I tell them I won’t send things over. They must live with the consequences of being punished and also find ways to cope, which I think is a necessary skill in life.”
HAVING IT ALL
Under Rachel’s watch, Wong Partnership has cemented a reputation as an excellent workplace for women. The firm has more female than male partners (the gender ratio stands at 55 to 43); women make up 41 per cent of the firm’s equity partners and 43 per cent of the firm’s executive committee (equivalent to a Board of Directors).
This state of affairs is supported by family-friendly policies that Rachel has championed over the years, including flexi-work options and a Mother’s Room in the office, where women returning from maternity leave can express and store their breast milk. Such initiatives have nabbed the firm honours such as Corporate of the Year from the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) in August.
Colleague Gail recalls asking a young female lawyer recently about her impression of Wong Partnership: “She told me that firm is a place where you see women who are partners, and who manage to have a career and a family. I think a lot of that is because Rachel is the face of the firm,” she says. “It sounds clichéd to say she has it all, but when young women look at her, they realise that they too can achieve what she has.”
Yet Rachel strenuously denies being a wonder woman. She even e-mails me after our interview, describing herself as “just a working professional” with a “small happy family”, and urges me not to overplay her achievements.
She puts it simply: “I don’t know what the definition of a superwoman is. It’s not like I aspire to be one. Every working woman has the same challenges. It’s how we combine the different pieces and work within our limitations that make all the difference.” HW
RACHEL’S TAKE ON…
A working mother’s guilt: “Guilt will always be there, but talking to your kids can be reassuring. My son once said, ‘Mum, don’t worry. I can’t remember anything before the age of four.’ So I tell younger women: ‘While you may feel guilty, your baby doesn’t feel anything at all!’”
The pressures women face to be perfect: “We do not need perfection to be happy. To have a job and a family, trade-offs need to be made, and you have to live with them. For instance, I have never taken leave during my children’s exams. Is this a trade-off? My husband and I don’t think so. The kids are taking the exams, not us. They need to understand that they are not studying for us.”
The secret to work-life balance: “There’s no real secret. Every day is a logistical nightmare—rushing the kids to childcare, picking them up from my mum’s place, putting them to bed before finishing my work. It’s about making sure each task is done properly. I think having a child also keeps you going. Once you see your baby’s smile, you forget how tired you are.”
Having me-time: “I only had time for work and my children during my 30s. But now, in my 40s, my children are less needy and I have more time to catch up with friends. When I can, I’ll go for a walk with my husband or jog on weekends.”