“It is about finding the right people for the work here at the Singapore Academy of Law – to recognise the modern expressions to traditional values.”
Serene Wee, CEO of the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) shares her motivations and challenges of work with Asia Law Network. It has been some 25 years since Serene began work at SAL and her wealth of experience coupled with her knowledge of the legal ecosystem made this feature invaluable.
Thank you for taking time to speak with us Serene, to start things off, could you share with us how was it like when you first started working at SAL?
I first started working at SAL in 1993, so that is a bit more than 25 years ago. I joined on the 5th anniversary of SAL and at that time SAL was a small organisation. We were running a members’ lounge and restaurant. We had 27 staff members and I was the 27th staff (haha!). 16 of the 27 staff members were restaurant staff so you can imagine how small our outfit was then.
Moving into the Supreme Court was a big change from City Hall where SAL used to be. Moving into the Supreme Court was similar to a throwback to an old world charm. It felt very dignified and different. From the small outfit we were, we grew to now having over 100 employees spanning five clusters and four subsidiaries. I have to admit that when we started, I was unsure where SAL would be, but we have come so far and grew leaps and bounds.
What do you think is the most challenge aspect of your job?
It would be to constantly evolve through transitions while still remaining relevant to the industry (and to do it well). There are many expressions of the core functions that SAL performs, which is to develop Singapore Law and develop the legal profession. We find that we have to always break the mould and reinvent SAL to keep up with the rapidly changing times. And with every era of work we have to bring in talent – people who can take the organisation to greater heights, and integrate them as part of the organisation as we grow.
And we look for people with modern expressions to the traditional values – people who love their job and celebrate their work.
What do you think is one accomplishment that you felt shaped your career?
I don’t think that I can single out one accomplishment that I feel shaped my career. However, I do take pleasure in putting together good input for the committees formed and the validation of programs that SAL offers. While we have grown we acknowledge that we cannot take on everything. It is hard to be selective in our efforts, but it is a must.
Since you have taken helm at SAL, is there any significant event that stood out for you? And why?
It would be the retrenchment of staff at the restaurant SAL once had. And I had to do it twice. We had moved from a plated service restaurant to a bistro at that time, and with the shift in business and cuisine we needed a change of the chefs and staff. And when the bistro eventually closed, I remember that it was very emotional for me.
Everyone used to be together working on the same floor, we would have tea and chat. Even the senior members in the legal industry would ask after the staff, and visited them at their various new work places. If I had to name one event, it would be this.
(Thank you so much for sharing this difficult and humbling process as you lead the organisation, Serene!)
How did you find your previous experience prior to this role has prepared you to take up this position at SAL?
I had a lot of management training prior to joining SAL and that had put me in good stead when I began to build up SAL. I learned that sometimes you just have to put down your tools and clear your mind. People everywhere underestimate the value of training.
I always told the younger generation, it is important wherever you go, choose a career, choose the industry, choose the best organisation and the best boss you can work under. I had that both before and in SAL.
(If you had to share one thing you learned under the bosses you had, what comes to mind?)
One of my bosses taught me how to look after my staff in SAL. We are constantly moving forward and pushing for the next big event. However amidst the heaviness of work, we are working with people. And people have down times, so the organisation must make space.
What is SAL’s focus for this year and what initiatives can we expect?
We have three areas of focus for this year and mainly addressing the three key challenges that the industry is facing.
First would be Internationalization. We want to distinguish Singapore Law that makes the profession the quality work it is. SAL has spent many years, in varying expressions on this theme. We work towards putting Singapore on the world map and since 2006, we have ran roadshows, and strive to make Singapore the ideal location in Asia and the ‘choice of law’ in contracts.
A survey we ran recently told us that 63% surveyed picked Singapore as the preferred venue for dispute resolution and Singapore Law as what they will use in contracts. The choice of law is the faith that they have in our commercial law and courts.
A subsidiary of SAL, the Asian Business Law Institute (ABLI), seeks to harmonise the laws in Asia. We hear the feedback from the ground that the disparity in legal systems was a big challenge and SAL sought to bridge that gap. And in order to bridge that gap, ABLI has embarked on various projects and published two free books—Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Judgments in Asia and Regulation of Cross-Border Transfers of Personal Data in Asia— where the different laws where the different laws on a particular topic are discussed, gaps and common principles are also addressed.
The second area of focus would be legal tech. Technology is an inevitable and undeniable force that we have to be prepared for. We want to get the smaller firms onboard and the large firms to participate in legal innovation. One initiative to support that would be the Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP) where all the conversations can land and a place where international visitors can go to understand more about the Singapore legal tech scene.
Last, it will be the professional standards for the industry. We introduced the Legal Industry Framework for Training and Education (LIFTED) for legal professionals. LIFTED provides a framework for making decisions about what to learn, when and why, based on their particular roles in the legal profession.
LIFTED also connects legal professionals with relevant programmes from a range of learning providers drawing from multiple sources.
If you could describe SAL’s work in one word, what word would that be and why?
That word would be collaboration. We acknowledge that while we want to reach for the stars, we are finite. Meaningful collaborations can make the work go the extra mile and speaks for itself. Collaboration between staff, departments, clusters and subsidiaries makes all the difference in propelling the organisation forward.
What is your typical work day like?
I will be in on average 16-20 meetings a week, and I spend a good deal of my time on SAL’s programmes, products and looking for collaborations. We want to make our work purposeful for the legal industry.
What are some fun facts that you can share with the readers of Asia Law Network?
Well, we had a stray cat who walked into our lives recently. And my nephew named her Rex and despite my best efforts to get her adopted, she is still our resident house cat. Some renovations had to be done to the house lately and I actually included a clause in the contract to ask the contractors to feed Rex if he didn’t want to move with us temporarily while the house is renovated.
I also enjoy travelling and used to travel annually to New Zealand to visit family. One of the activities I find enjoyable is also seeking out tasty and interesting dishes.
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