In the second installment of Asialaw’s Exceptional Female In-House Counsel interview series, we speak with Sheng, executive director and senior counsel at Goldman Sachs (Asia). She also chairs Women in Law Hong Kong (WILHK). She talks about her career journey, work-life balance and the work that WILHK is doing to support legal professionals in Hong Kong.

Sheng spoke to Asialaw at a WILHK co-organised event focusing on flexible working in the legal sector. It was hard to miss her infectiously positive attitude to the energy needed to balance her busy work schedule, travel, leading WILHK and being a role model for her two daughters.

Career path

At Goldman Sachs, Sheng’s role focuses on advising her company on anti-bribery, anti-money laundering, economic sanctions regulations and internal investigations. Outside of her work responsibilities, she also co-leads the bank’s family forum network. Before taking up her in-house role, she was a counsel at O’Melveny & Myers in the US.

Stephanie Sheng

Sheng was seconded to Goldman Sachs while in private practice, before she joined the organisation full-time. “I was in my fifth year practising law when the first opportunities to go in-house came up and I was seconded and joined Goldman Sachs as an eighth year,” says Sheng. “There is a misconception that an in-house role is easier. The reality is that many companies don’t take in people until they are at a senior level and they’ve become more efficient, organised and seasoned, which allows in-house lawyers to appear more in control of their schedules, when in fact they are just more experienced lawyers.”

The pressure to earn fees can be too much for some lawyers in private practice. “Only certain people are cut out for the private practice lifestyle, especially for specialties like capital markets, M&A and litigation,” says Sheng. “The benefit of an in-house role is that it is focused on supporting a business, and therefore the clients are internal and part of your broader team.”

Asia retention issues

The challenge for some women lawyers between raising a family and moving up in their career can also prompt the decision to move to an in-house role. “Female retention issues for law firms start at the mid-level since more prominent roles are not available until people are relatively senior, but that’s also often when people want to start families,” says Sheng. “Some choose to leave permanently and stop work entirely or take jobs that are not as rigorous, but it can be difficult to go back into the legal field at the same level or on the same trajectory as when you left.”

Sheng finds the working day in Asia to be much longer than in North America and that it is harder to get away from work even after you leave the office.  The structure of families and the way of life in Asia only add to this, she believes. “In Asia, I have observed that there are more options available for families with helpers and grandparents and commute times are shorter, but there is much more difficulty extracting oneself from work,” says Sheng. “There’s a lack of the camaraderie of getting off work to pick up kids because a babysitter is usually available on call and colleagues would prefer socialising instead.”

Flexible and agile working arrangements, which can help women who want to raise children and have a job at the same time, are not as common in Asia compared to North America and there is often stigma around not being in the office as long as other team members. “Sometimes face time is an issue, but there is often no sense of formalised individual arrangements,” says Sheng. “There needs to be ongoing dialogue on flexible working because flexible working only works when all team members and management know what everyone’s schedules are like.”

The desire to stay in a job isn’t just about the pay, especially for millennials, the generation born in the 1980s to 2000s. “Retention is not just an issue of hours, pay and title,” says Sheng. Motivating people to be retained could be about the company’s charitable giving programmes, bringing in educational speakers, and encouraging mobility and letting employees live in cities they are interested in living in that title and pay may not be able to reproduce.”

“The concept of return to work and sabbaticals should be encouraged as well,” she adds. “There is such an unfortunate loss of talent. Some of the most committed legal professionals are return to work candidates, because they had the opportunity to do something else and have actively chosen to return to the legal field.”

Value of mentorship

Sheng was part of the committee that started WILHK’s mentoring programme. The WILHK network doesn’t just support lawyers but all legal professionals, including business development staff, legal secretaries and other staff. Members can hone their skills by participating in workshops such as voice coaching and networking with those in the same field. “The relationships developed through the mentoring programme work and are long-lasting because mentors have been through the process and have great pointers for mentees,” says Sheng.

Having a mentor who has been through similar experiences who can lend an ear and offer advice to a mentee can make a huge difference. “I once had a mentee who told me that she didn’t want to have children yet for fear of sacrificing her career,” recalls Sheng. “I told her that she was going to be a parent for the rest of her life and that she shouldn’t miss out because she couldn’t picture the long term. Sometimes we just can’t see the rest of our lives in front of us and just focus on the here and now, but once we’re able to get through a challenge, it becomes easier the next time around. At times it feels so difficult to get through another sleepless night, or to work through that transaction, but once you have done it, you have that resiliency and ability forever.”

Reflecting on her own path, Sheng says that the one thing she would have done differently was she wished she had more confidence. “I had a lot of doubts, especially when I had my children; it was during the financial crisis and law firms had difficulty paying people,” says Sheng. “But I was fortunate that I had this feeling that I would be letting myself and my parents down if I left; wasting my years of education and hard work. That feeling of shame actually kept me in the workforce. In particular because I have two daughters, I need to demonstrate in my actions my expectations of them. I want to make sure that my own children are motivated to work hard and have a sense of responsibility and self-reliance.”