Just three weeks before Part A of the Singapore Bar exams, Sarah-Mae received a note from the Ministry of Law. Her application to be exempted from taking the exams had been rejected.
To move back to Singapore to be with her family, Sarah-Mae had written essays, submitted letters of recommendation and sent in her CV to prove that she was a qualified solicitor in Australia (and had, in fact, already been in practice for two years). She had waited two months for a reply.
But now, it looked like she would have to fly back to Singapore, immediately, to be able to take the exams in three weeks’ time. If not, she would have to wait a whole year before the Bar exams rolled around again.
She knew she had to go right away.
“I literally had to just quickly pack up my life in Australia.”
And even though she had given her employers in Melbourne advance notice of her plans to leave, she hadn’t expected to have to leave them quite so soon. Thankfully, her firm was understanding of her situation.
“And so, within two weeks, I left work and I had to study [for Part A]. I hadn’t done the course, so I had to study using my friend’s notes. And then, I did the Part A bar exams. I did five exams and passed. I was very relieved.”
With her Part A results in hand, Sarah-Mae decided to apply for an exemption again, despite most lawyers telling her she wouldn’t be successful. Going through the full process of training and sitting for Part B would have set her career back by two years. And she was already a qualified solicitor in Australia. She had practised, for two years, in a law firm in Melbourne. Why should she go two years back in time and struggle through everything again like a fresh university graduate?
She wrote in again to the Ministry of Law.
And this time, she succeeded. Two months later, they wrote back to inform her that due to her ‘unique and special circumstances’, Sarah-Mae would be exempted from having to take the rest of the Bar exams. Within four months of moving back to Singapore, Sarah-Mae was called to the Singapore Bar.
“People kept telling me, ‘You’re not going to get exempted,’” Sarah-Mae says now, seated behind her desk in her beautiful CBD office. Behind her is a framed black-and-white photograph of her favourite bird—the eagle—in flight.
“I had to go for interviews, and there, they were like, ‘No! You’re not going to get exempted. What makes you think you’re so special that you’re going to get exempted?’ And so, that was really a journey of me just not taking other people’s word for it. People will put their lids of limitation on you, but you don’t have to accept it. That’s why I love eagles. They don’t flap their wings, they glide and they see the big picture”
She’s not like other lawyers
A lot of Sarah-Mae’s journey as a lawyer has been about defying other people’s expectations of her.
“I remember during law school, whenever I came back to Singapore for the summer holidays, people would ask me: ‘Are you sure you’re a lawyer? Because you don’t act like one. You’re too fun.’ I’m like, yeah, so what? Lawyers can be fun too.”
It’s true that Sarah-Mae is not much like the stereotypical lawyer. Her office is a place of beauty as much as it is one of function—the soft yellow lighting, the colourful throw pillows arranged artistically atop a bay window, the tasteful floral arrangement of white Australian native flowers on a table. Sarah-Mae herself is dressed in an eye-popping pink dress. She gestures animatedly as she talks; her hands never stop moving.
And so, even though Sarah-Mae is a brunette not a blonde, there is a certain quality about her that reminds me of Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods, the lovable protagonist of Legally Blonde (2001) who proved that you don’t need to conform to stereotypes to be a successful lawyer.
Sarah-Mae swims, Sarah-Mae acts, Sarah-Mae dabbles in poetry. Pre-COVID, Sarah-Mae loved travelling around the world to places like Greece and Italy. She is fluent in English, Malay and German.
And unlike so many lawyers, get this: she is a firm believer in the importance of work-life balance.
A firm believer in work-life balance
In fact, she even wrote an article debunking what she calls ‘the lie of busyness’. That article was published on the Law Gazette and on the Asia Law Network blog. According to Sarah-Mae, many people confuse having a purpose with being busy, mistakenly believing that as long as they fill their days with work, they will have a purpose-driven life. But these people don’t realise that they’re not making progress or being effective; they’re just being more hasty and haphazard in the way they work.
“I think that it’s so critical to have a work-life balance, just because the brain is not built to work till 2 am. If you start at 9 am, then you should have a proper break in the evening. You shouldn’t be burning the midnight oil because the next day, you’ll come back feeling exhausted. And if you do this day after day, week after week, year after year, you will experience burnout.”
She is aware that she is, sadly, in the minority with respect to her progressive views on work-life balance.
“Other people will say that there’s no such thing as work-life balance. Because to them, your work is your life. But how is my work my life? It’s almost as if we’ve made our work our identity. When people ask you, ‘What are you?’, your first response shouldn’t be ‘I’m a lawyer. I’m a managing director, I’m a podcaster.’ We’ve made our work our identity when in fact, we are so much more than just a lawyer, or a podcaster, or a journalist. We are people, with stories, with narratives, with ideas, with potential. So yeah, that’s why I believe so strongly in work-life balance.”
Burnout, Sarah-Mae says, is a big problem for legal professionals. Especially in Singapore. She experienced it herself when she first moved back to Singapore and started practising in a local law firm in 2015. Despite having wanted to be a lawyer since the age of five, Sarah-Mae suddenly found herself questioning, at age 27, if it was time for a career change. Thankfully, her parents talked her out of her slump. That was the burnout talking, not Sarah-Mae.
“What I noticed, especially in Singapore, was that there was high burnout and people, after two or three years in the legal profession as a lawyer, were like, ‘I can’t do this, it’s not sustainable. I’ll just go in-house, or I’ll change my career.’ But that can’t be the way. Because I see my legal career as a marathon, and not a sprint. And if you’re sprinting, okay, that’s fine. But if you want to be here for the long haul, and to achieve your goals, you have got to do it sustainably.”
Her journey as a family lawyer
Today, Sarah-Mae is a family lawyer and the managing director of her own firm, Sarah-Mae Thomas LLC. 90% of her cases are related to family law.
But Sarah-Mae didn’t start out her career specialising in family law. Back in Melbourne, she acted for the Plaintiffs in accident and injury cases to claim workers’ compensation for injuries that took place in the workplace. When she moved to Singapore, she found herself working in the same area of law, but on the other side, representing the insurance companies. It was a very difficult transition for Sarah-Mae to navigate.
“It was very difficult for me because I have always been about justice, about helping people. And here, I have to advise insurance companies not to pay people who’ve been hurt and injured. Minimising claims, rejecting claims. And that’s just fundamentally not me.”
Thankfully, a partner at Sarah-Mae’s law firm offered her a brand new opportunity.
Sarah-Mae took to family work like a fish to water. This was despite her initial reservations about being involved in what she first saw as “breaking up a marriage”.
“I realised as time went that actually, you’re not breaking up the marriage. The marriage is already broken. You’re helping people pick up the pieces in the aftermath of a very difficult breakdown of their relationship.
“It’s not just ‘Yes, let’s sign the papers’. Family law can also be: ‘Hey. Can we have a mediation? Can we have a meeting where we discuss issues that are within the marriage and maybe work things out, so we don’t have to go down the path of divorce?’ I thought, okay, I think I can do this. Because [family law] to me was a good area of law to speak into peoples’ lives and to help them through a very difficult situation. And the rest is history. And I realised that when I was doing family law, I was in my calling. I was in my niche.”
Sarah-Mae will always remember one of her first cases was a couple who decided to reconcile even after filing a divorce agreement in Court.
While family law is notorious for being emotionally taxing, Sarah-Mae believes that the key to being a good family lawyer lies in maintaining emotional boundaries with her clients.
“It can be one of the most emotionally taxing fields to work in, because it involves people’s personal lives, and their family. You think, oh those poor children, oh that poor baby, that poor father, that poor mother… It’s the human element. Emotions are high and then you, as a family lawyer, can be very taxed emotionally. So drawing that boundary is very important. I definitely learned the hard way. There were many cases where I felt very sorry for the client and I took the work home and started being anxious about it.
“Initially, it’s hard because you’re not used to it. But gradually, you’ll go from, ‘Tell me all your problems. Let me help you. I’m your saviour’ to ‘Ok, I understand that was difficult. Here are some ways forward.’ And then, at the end of the day, you leave your work and you don’t bring it back home. You don’t have to eat the bread of sorrows when you go back home, thinking about the difficulties of each case. Because you’re just one piece in the big puzzle. I realised, I’m not their saviour. I am just one piece in the big puzzle, and if not me, then it’ll be someone else who helps them along the way. That’s how you draw emotional boundaries.
“A lot of times, clients confuse you for their best friend. You need to empower them. When they start offloading all their problems in the world, I tell them: ‘Look. I’m here to assist you legally. And I guess to a point, I can help you, give you the right steps and directions. But you would be better off if someone else who is a professional counsellor or maybe a friend is able to help you with that.’”
Apart from helping her clients to draw strength from the right support systems, she also hopes to help them find the right perspective towards their divorce:
“The right perspective, to me, is not to be bitter about your ex-relationship. Because often, I think that is the stumbling block for divorcing parties. Basically, they’re drinking the poison themselves and hoping the other person is going to get hurt. But this is not Romeo and Juliet. You need to get rid of the bitterness, you need to move on.
“So that’s the right perspective. Not ‘I want vengeance’. Not ‘I want my pound of flesh in court.’ Because if you go down that path, you’ll spend years in court, throwing good money after bad.
“They’ll be like, ‘No, I want this sentence to be in. I want ‘adultery’ and not ‘unreasonable behaviour’. I want a private investigator to find every bit of evidence.’ And then, they get very bitter. I always tell them, ‘Throw that out.’ And I’m not invalidating that. I’m validating those feelings, but I’m saying, ‘Don’t fight over the plate, you know, or the cupboard that you want. Or the piece of jewellery. Because sometimes you get letters saying, ‘I want that bangle, I want that gold earring, I want that Cartier earring.’ When really, is it worth fighting over things like that? I will always ask people, ‘Will this bring you two steps forward or backward?’”
She helps her clients to see the bigger picture, to keep their eyes trained on the end goal:
“I tell them: ‘Your daughter, she’s ten now. I know you’re very angry with your ex-spouse and you want to hurt your ex-wife by giving her less money for your daughter, or giving less time to the other parent for access. But see your daughter now as a 21 year old, graduating from university or getting married. Both of you will want to be able to attend that ceremony, on civil terms. Is this position that you’re taking—about access, about money—going to help you reach that end? Whatever you’re trying to fight about now in 2021, will this hold any weight in 20 years’ time?’”
Sarah-Mae believes that the lawyer has a lot to do with helping clients to form the right perspective about their divorce.
“Because the lawyer can either feed on your bitterness and anger and then prolong your divorce case when it doesn’t need to be prolonged, or they can just go, ‘Hey. I know there’s a lot of hurt, but let’s try not to fight through that hurt.’”
Embracing new ways of thinking
As the managing director of her firm, Sarah-Mae has to wear her entrepreneur’s hat as much as her lawyer’s hat. This has meant being forward-thinking, more entrepreneurial.
“I think when you start your own business, your perspective becomes very different. Because you’re no longer just doing a case, a legal case, from A to Z. You have to think about the bigger picture. About entrepreneurship. And then, you’re suddenly tapping into things that you didn’t have time to tap into before. Because before, you were just thinking about your KPIs for work, and your goals are very much just about doing your work. But as a business owner, you need to think about the big picture. So that got me thinking: ‘What can I do that I’m passionate about that is in line with my business?’”
Sarah-Mae is passionate about many things (raising awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace, women’s inheritance rights in Ghana, Bollywood dancing, etc.). But this time, the answer was starting The Legal Eagle Podcast (which is also available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts).
While taking a couple of journalism electives in university, she had discovered a love for emceeing and hosting. So, having her own podcast was the perfect way for her to get in touch with her creative side while promoting her business.
On her podcast, Sarah-Mae talks about family law as well as legal technology—something which Sarah-Mae is very passionate about. Because Sarah-Mae has also embraced the use of legal technology in managing her practice.
“If you look around this office, you’ll see no files. Right? You see no paper files. For me, Tessaract [the cloud-based practice management system Sarah-Mae uses], has been so amazing. In the old school way of lawyering, you literally would have your floor covered with paper files. Your desk would be very messy. Technology has been critical because, come circuit breaker, I didn’t have to lug any files home. I could just log in and then just, you know, tap into my client files wherever I was.”
So it comes as no surprise that Sarah-Mae disagrees with the view that technological disruption will replace lawyers; she remains optimistic about the future of legal tech:
“I feel like there’s a lot of fear-mongering when it comes to what they call the ‘uberisation’ of law firms. That overnight, technology’s going to come and make lawyers irrelevant. That’s not true. Because you still need lawyers for ‘soft’ issues. Especially when you think of family law. You can’t just have a computer to decide how you generate access, you need to hear what are the problems in co-parenting, what are the issues. That, only a human can do.”
So, who exactly is Sarah-Mae?
Sarah-Mae is someone who wears many hats. She’s someone who defies the traditional expectations of what it means to be a lawyer. She’s someone who doesn’t back down from a challenge, someone who stays true to her beliefs and values. She’s someone who tries to see the bigger picture, and who has a wealth of wisdom to share, despite her youth.
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 a 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.