Asia Law Network met Grace recently and convinced her that she needed to update our readers on her whereabouts! Kick starting a new career at Simmons & Simmons JWS, Grace offers a different perspective into the regulatory space that we would otherwise not know about.
A former in-house counsel at the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Grace has over a decade of experience in advising banks, asset managers and corporates on regulatory and fintech matters in Singapore and Hong Kong. She regularly interacts with key regulators, is closely involved in regional regulatory reform initiatives and has led discussions with regulators on behalf of the financial services industry.
To start things off, congratulations on your new role in Simmons & Simmons JWS! Could you share with us how you came to become a lawyer in the regulatory space?
I would say that my path is quite an unusual one, since I entered private practice in the later part of my career, after having spent my formative years working in MAS and HSBC HK. In the earlier part of my career, I handled various complex and high-profile cases involving a wide range of financial crimes, including market misconduct, money laundering, sanctions violations, and bribery. While at HSBC HK, I also had the opportunity to work closely with the bank’s independent compliance monitor, and advise the bank on adopting remedial measures and in making changes to compliance policies in response to investigation findings.
I feel that my in-house experience has been invaluable in giving me a uniquely strategic judgment to advise clients on their complex regulatory and risk issues. Being a regulatory lawyer is immensely rewarding, as I get to participate in and help shape the development of regulatory policy, and assist clients to navigate a complex and rapidly changing environment.
I note that you are a strong advocate for digital innovation and critical infrastructural transformation, and have been advising banks, exchanges and startups in the fintech sector. Could you share with us more about your fintech journey?
When I first started focusing on fintech three years ago, the blockchain scene was still nascent, and startups were testing the waters with innovative product offerings and alternative distribution platforms. Today, there is a thriving fintech community in the region, and there continues to be strong opportunities. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to interact and work with some of the top exchanges, funds and startups in the region, and regularly advise them on a gamut of regulatory issues.
As a regulatory lawyer, fintech regulatory work is challenging and rewarding, as many of the issues I face are untested, and one has to keep abreast of a myriad of evolving global regulations.
That sounds very exciting. Can you share with us one of the your memorable fintech cases that you have been involved in?
One of my memorable cases I have been involved in was in assisting a technology company to set up cryptocurrency exchanges in the region. In that process, I was involved in preparing policies and reviewing protocols for the exchange, advocating for the exchange’s interests with the relevant regulators, assisting with the launch of innovative product offerings, reviewing the exchange’s compliance with data protection and security requirements, preparing market maker contracts, amongst other issues.
In the course of that experience, I grew to be much more familiar with the operations and regulatory issues involved with running a crypto business, and it was useful in helping me apply that knowledge to assisting other startups and financial institutions considering more institutionalised applications of the blockchain. I also utilised the experience in helping crypto clients in drafting AML best practices for digital asset exchanges, in conjunction with ASIFMA, which was the first of its kind released globally, and which was circulated to regional regulators and is now one of the key guiding documents for the industry today.
I understand that you cover cross border regulatory issues in Asia, with a focus on Singapore and Hong Kong. What are your views about how the Singapore landscape compares to Hong Kong?
My experience is that the international firms are much more visible and dominant in the legal services market in HK. HK is seen as the world’s gateway to China and China’s springboard to fulfil its global ambitions, and there are tremendous commercial opportunities by virtue of its reputation as the longest established Asian hub.
That being said, there are strong advantages to operating in Singapore given the stable regulatory and political environment, and the government’s strong marketing push for fintech and economic development. Most of my clients prefer to set up bases in either or both countries to seize the opportunities offered from operating in Asia.
I have affinities for both countries, being Singaporean, and having worked for five years in HK. I usually travel between both countries to meet and service clients, and feel that clients can benefit from hearing about the comparative perspectives from both jurisdictions to decide on the next steps for their business plans. For financial institutions such as banks and asset managers, they also usually need support in the jurisdiction from other countries in Asia such as Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, and I help support and facilitate that process.
I note that you also advise on data protection and cybersecurity issues, and that you are a certified cybersecurity professional. What are your thoughts about the challenges of financial institutions and corporates operating in this environment?
According to a recent report by Carbon Black, some 96% of organisations surveyed have suffered a cybersecurity breach in the last year, of which 95% said that the attacks have become more sophisticated. Understanding, planning for and mitigating cyber risk is crucial to reduce the impact of cybersecurity incidents, and to reduce the risks and consequences of regulatory enforcement.
Firms will need to take practical steps to assess their data and systems, understand their vulnerabilities, and policies and procedures should be developed on a risk-based approach based on the specific risks and nature of the business. Policies should be effective and enforced in practice, and resources should also be available to promptly investigate potential misconduct.
Do you think that female Asian lawyers face a glass ceiling when working in international firms? What is your experience in this regard?
I would like to preface by saying that I do believe women have the right to choose and shape their own career path, and not every person aspires for partnership. I have met many amazing women in law who have found their calling in legal research, marketing and social media, and project management.
For those who do aspire to advance further, it remains a challenge and it is important to note that every organisation will have unique political dynamics. In Law360’s 2019 Glass Ceiling Report, it was noted that law firms are making slow progress towards increasing female representation at all levels, and at the equity partner rank, women account for just 21.5%, despite representing 40% of law students for the past 30 years. Although this is a US-centric report, my sense is that the numbers are likely to be similar or even lower for Asian female lawyers in most international firms.
In my view, unconscious bias (both internal and external) is the key challenge that many women face in navigating through the workplace. Women also need to have more courage to engage in work politics and lean in, and believe in their value proposition and their ability to effect change in their companies. Firms should also do more to reduce gendered perceptions that have implications on the role and status of women in the workplace.
I am encouraged by the fact that the Law Society has recognised this issue and has formed the Women in Practice community this year. I have been part of their roundtable discussions on topics relating to advancement, harassment and flexible working, and it is heartening to know that there is a supportive community in Singapore that is looking to increase awareness and advocate change in our legal community.
Could you share with us 3 fun facts about yourself?
Back in university, I took up a stint as a summer analyst in the Structured Fund Management team in Lehman Brothers UK. During that period, I had the opportunity to learn more about asset management strategies and derivatives, fund accounting, and risk management. However, my three-month internship was cut short in the last week when LB went insolvent, and it was quite an experience to receive administrator notices (with regard to my delayed pay) so early in my career! The experience had a significant impact on me and I later focused on analysing and proposing a regulatory reform proposal for the credit derivatives market, entitled “The Milgram Universe of Credit Derivatives”, which was later published by Chase Cambria in the International Corporate Rescue Journal in my final year.
I have been a passionate jazz fan since the age of 13 when I first heard Chet Baker on the trumpet, and grew up pretty much in the family of Jazz @ South Bridge (when they used to be at 82b Boat Quay) and am always keen to visit bars when I travel. I have fond memories of quiet jazz nights in Kyoto’s Potoncho, speakeasy bar hopping in New York, and the jazz festival in Copenhagen. I hope to visit the New Orleans jazz festival one day! I also collect vinyl records and have amassed a rather eclectic collection over the years, each associated with a special memory.
There is a saying that cats make perfect pets for lawyers and for me that is very true! Two years after my first calico cat passed away, I adopted my present British shorthair calico, Chiharu, who gives me infinite amusement with her sweet antics. She has been trained to sit down and “shake paws” on command, so perhaps the next step is to get her started on picking up the groceries? (wow!) Haha! I am passionate about animal welfare causes and am involved in volunteering and fundraising causes for societies such as Kirsten’s Zoo and ACRES.