Dorothy Tan is Senior Associate Director & Deputy Head of Family Law Department at PKWA Law, one of Singapore's most established family law firms. She is recognised as a Litigation Star and one of Asia-Pacific's Top 100 Women in Litigation in 2021.

Tan speaks to Benchmark Litigation about her practice history, memorable cases, and gender diversity in the legal industry.

In your opinion how does the firm differ from its competitors?

I think what sets us apart is the strong “kampong” team culture we have painstakingly built over time. We have curated a deeply respectful team, and each member brings a unique value proposition that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Every member is seen and appreciated. This creates a corroborative and trusting work environment where everyone is motivated to take pride in their work. What it brings to clients is a dedicated team that works well together to advocate your case in the best possible manner.

What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?

I derive great satisfaction from understanding each client’s underlying motivations in pursuing family litigation. I tend to find that our time together at mediation is the most enlightening in understanding the client’s background and needs. Each client is different and there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, even if the factual scenarios are similar on paper. The most challenging for me will be all-in litigation battles over children. It is, till today, heart-wrenching seeing the children caught in the middle between adults who are sometimes too consumed in their own ego battles and emotional anguish to work out what is best for the children.

What has been your most memorable case to date?

It is difficult to pick one! If I had to choose a single case, it would be our work for a husband in appealing the ancillary division from the High Court to the Court of Appeal case in 2020. Whilst the outcome itself is significant, with a flip in the asset division from 25% to 75% in his favour, the case was memorable to me not for the quantum of assets awarded, but for how unique the case was. Parties had been in the Court system for over 20 years, spanning the gamut of judges (current and now retired) as they went through prolonged litigation. The wife had filed for divorce thrice, and failed twice. During the subsistence of the marriage, she had chosen further to file numerous complaints about her husband to the authorities, cumulating in a criminal trial where she testified against him. However, the Court had finally found her to be “absurd and ludicrious” and “was most eager to concoct evidence calculated to cause damage” to the husband. The wife’s conduct was so against the spirit of a marital union that the Court ascribed a negative contribution to her. That was a highly unusual case that differs from the Court’s, and any layman’s idea of what the collective efforts in a marital union should be.

What is the employment outlook like within the legal field? How much demand is there for people, specifically women, in your particular practice areas? Are you finding that fewer women are entering these sectors (regulatory defence/internal investigation/consumer finance/etc.)?

I think a long-standing problem in the legal industry is the high attrition rate. As a matrimonial lawyer, I think the risk of emotional burnout is very high. You take on not just legal work, but the years of pain and acrimony that has torn couples apart. One can get disillusioned with work and their outlook on the world, especially when family issues hit so close to home. This is one factor that makes matrimonial work so challenging. I think there will always be a high demand for empathetic lawyers who can hold space for their clients in matrimonial work – I think these are qualities that can be found in both genders, but I definitely have seen specific demand for female matrimonial lawyers by clients! I do not think there has been a decrease in women entering the sector and we continue to see a healthy amount of interest from law students who wish to enter this specialised field.

What obstacles do you believe women [in this profession] face that could potentially hinder their profitability or growth?

Juggling many responsibilities is a hallmark of being a woman, for time immemorial! I think women need to find and cultivate themselves environments and partners that lift them up and support their growth. I sometimes think that life expects too much of us within too short a period of time – the age where one becomes a partner in a law firm and learns the skills of managing both the legal work and the business aspects of How To Run A Law Firm coincides with the age where many (both male and female) are building their own families and find ourselves in the “sandwich generation”, with children and parents to take care of. I think it is all doable, but the greatest obstacles would be first, not believing in yourself, and second, having an environment (both at work and at home) that does not give you the opportunities to grow.

Do you find that women encounter different expectations with respect to personality and demeanour than male counterparts by clients, the courts, and other professionals across the industry?

I have had the privilege of interacting with individuals who mostly do not have different expectations from women because of gender. If anything, the presumed qualities associated with women, including empathy and understanding the client’s plight, may be an expectation I have seen. Otherwise, I tend to find that the general expectation of good ethics and manners are universal.

What do you think the legal profession needs to do in order to improve opportunities for women (in-house or private practice) litigators?

Ensure that all opportunities, including business development ones, are fair to both genders. Understand that women have a lot of responsibilities at work and outside of it! Encourage retention by listening to your female employees on their different needs at different stages of their lives. Find ways to work with it, including encouraging flexi working schedules wherever possible. Women are formidable but have yet to learn how to split ourselves to be in two places at once.

How important is mentorship in this profession and what advice, if any, would you give women who are just starting their legal careers?

Always find yourself a mentor. Sometimes, find yourself three. I strongly believe that mentorship is a key factor in building a more resilient legal practice. I don’t think anyone has it “all figured out”, but it is good to surround yourself with people who can give some insight on how they dealt with challenges when they were in your shoes. Never feel alone in the struggles - there have been people who have come before you who have survived, and others who come after that will look to you for guidance in the future. Always remember that the career is a marathon, not a sprint. You must have enough self-awareness to know how to pace yourself, enough self-love to accept that you deserve a healthy environment and richly coloured life (of which work is but one component), and enough confidence and tenacity to carve your own path.

PKWA Law Practice LLC
Position: Senior Associate Director & Deputy Head of Family Law Department

Address: 480 Lorong 6 Toa Payoh #16-00, HDB Hub, East Wing Tower, 310480
DID +65 6854 3475

Please click here to view Ms. Tan's professional biography