Asia Law Network has partnered with the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA), a professional body that connects the Singapore in-house community, to bring a series of interviews featuring prominent in-house counsel.
In this interview, we feature Renita Sophia Crasta, a Group Legal Counsel, at Ascendas-Singbridge Pte Ltd. Ascendas-Singbridge Pte Ltd owns, develops, and leases science, business, industrial, and technology parks in Singapore and in various locations across the world. Renita shares about her experience working in-house and how she gives back to the community in her free time.
What made you choose to be a lawyer and what drives you today?
While I’m certainly not one of those who ever dreamt of being a lawyer from young, my journey to law school probably started when I switched over from the Science to the Humanities stream in Junior College. It was one of the biggest decisions I’ve made as I decided to focus on subjects that to me, represented greater meaning in life. This also helped to narrow my choices of interest at university to law, teaching and international relations. I ultimately settled with Law as it seemed the most prudent choice at the time in terms of general interest, cost, convenience and long term prospects, and it has certainly lived up to my expectations since.
What made you choose to go in-house?
Going in-house was a natural extension of both my personality and interest. There is no doubt that the law firm represents a great training ground to hone one’s skills. However, in a law firm, one tends to become very specialized. In contrast, as an in-house counsel, the scope of work is much more varied, interesting and meaningful. You form close relationships with your clients, develop a keen sense of being commercial, and get to witness the direct impact of your advice constantly. One can also branch beyond the law to assist the business in the various ways that we can.
Describe your experience when you first joined as in-house counsel. What have you learnt and who did you learn from?
When I first joined as in-house counsel, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. After you have worked in a law firm for a while, it can become a comfort zone. Your friends are there and everyone is going through it together. In contrast, going in-house can really mean stepping out on your own. For myself, having an extremely supportive boss and a great team at Ascendas has really kept me going. I do not shoulder the weight of all the work alone and get to work with different legal counsel for matters that span across different jurisdictions. In addition, I’ve really been able to put my legal skills to use across different subject matters, from construction to leasing to marketing to general transactions and more. I have also learnt how to work well with the business people to achieve our goals quickly together, and to support the growth of the company as a whole.
Renita with one of her mentors at work, Ms. He Jihong, Chief Investment Officer at Ascendas-Singbridge
What unique skillsets do in-house counsel bring to the executive team?
In general, I think that as lawyers, we are trained to be logical and rational when making decisions. We are thus able to focus the team on what is important and quickly work towards our joint goals. We are also able to see issues from different angles. In addition, as a legal counsel, I work across the company at all levels and get to see a broad picture of the different projects going on at any time. I have the ability to pull it all together – whether through standardising an operational process to addressing concerns at management level or bringing together persons with similar ideas from different teams.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
It is always challenging dealing with large numbers of people with different work styles and expectations. Some may not always have the same regard for our legal services. However, it has been a satisfying journey making legal visible and relevant to all, and fortunately for me as well, the general culture at my workplace is fairly supportive of a legal counsel’s role in our day to day work.
What types of matters require you to seek outside counsel?
As a general principle, if a particular matter takes up too much time and resources, it is better to be dealt with externally. Another factor considered is the level of risk. If a matter is likely to result in litigation or there is an issue which has a huge commercial impact, it may also be prudent to obtain an external legal sign off.
How do you pick the law firms or lawyers to work with?
All companies generally have a process of obtaining 3 quotations and are generally fair and transparent when we ask for quotes. However, over time, one has a better idea of who are the better legal players within each of our own respective industries. We watch for their style of negotiation, reliability, level of drafting, speed of response and their ability to maintain a reasonable price. Some firms live up to our expectations while others do not. We tend to go back to certain firms and lawyers who are able to deliver on quality and speed.
What are some of the common misconceptions about being an in-house counsel?
In the past, there was often a perception that those who move in-house are not able to make it in the law firms. This perception has actually changed, as we often have many bright associates or partner-level lawyers also seeking to move in-house simply for a different legal lifestyle. In addition, some may think that being in house affords better working hours and easier work scope. To be fair, our working hours are generally better, but we do have our share of late nights as well. In addition, the work in-house can also be very challenging. Law schools and law firms don’t quite prepare us in-house as a whole new set of skills needs to be engaged in-house, such as handling many different working styles and areas of law. Finally, as part of the company and the business, one needs to be engaged in not just identifying the issues or negotiating the positions, but also ensuring the implementation of legal risk management.
As an in-house counsel, how have you managed to keep abreast of legal amendments outside of your work?
One way of keeping updated is through legal bulletins and lunchtime seminars provided by the law firms. However, for a more structured and targeted approach, I have found that the courses and First Thursday community sessions organised by the SCCA are also very helpful. Through these sessions, in-house counsel are brought together and are supported in a more coordinated and constructive fashion. These courses cover general topics such as Intellectual Property, Information Technology and Employment law, to more in depth topics such as tax structuring strategies and foreign investment know-how, as well as general compliance legal issues and recent developments in law.
In addition, PEERs, which is the young lawyers’ arm of the SCCA conducts a yearly workshop for new in-house lawyers to become acquainted with in-house basics, engage in community events as well as inspirational talks. Through the SCCA, in-house counsel have also been able to share about our various practices with each other and improve our respective companies as a whole.
Renita with the other members of the SCCA Young Lawyers Committee
Fun facts about you?
My desire to help others has often led me out of my comfort zone and over the years, I have found myself in a variety of initiatives. For example, I helped to co-produce the Law IV graduating class charity musical of my batch together with my very talented classmates and for that and my participation in various other initiatives, I was awarded the Law School Colours Award back then.
When I was busy working in a law firm and finding my own niche, I had kept a low profile. However, I have since become more involved in various charitable causes. These include organisations such as the SCCA, the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers, the Young Women’s Leadership Connection and the Catholic Lawyers Guild. I also volunteer at the Eurasian Association, the Alzheimer’s Disease Association and Assisi Hospice, amongst others. Most recently, I started the Female & Fearless series of workshops for disadvantaged females aged between 15 to 20 years old, who lack financial resources or sufficient role models, to gain greater confidence, communication and leadership skills, while they prepare to step into the rest of their lives.
Renita at a SCCA Event with President Halimah Yacob
Any word of advice for younger lawyers and aspiring in-house lawyers?
My personal advice would be to make the most of your time in law school and in your early years at the law firm by getting to know yourself as well as to improve your legal knowledge and social skills professionally. Don’t be discouraged as developing yourself and finding your niche may take time. Take up modules that you are passionate about in law school and not just choose modules for the sake of achieving certain grades. Likewise, engage in pro-bono activities to remind yourself of our privilege of being lawyers, and make a commitment to keep yourself grounded and give back to society from a young age. In addition, take time out to make friends, explore your interests and discover your own personality and preferences. Finally, don’t forget to learn the soft skills such as how to build rapport with team members and create a good first impression. These are skills needed in a law firm, in-house and with every new group of people that you meet and connect with.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.