Mrinalini Singh im Porträt
„It is exciting to do something new and unusual, and to create your own path.“
Mrinalini Singh, Solicitor at Plesner in Copenhagen, about working as a female lawyer in different countries, systematic discrimination and the benefits of coaching.
Mrinalini, you are a lawyer in international arbitration. You've created a successful career in Singapore, Germany and Denmark. In 2013, you were one of the first international female lawyers in Frankfurt am Main. What was it like for you to be one of the first to follow this path?
A little bit like trying to navigate a new world without a map! It was – and is – exciting to do something new and unusual, and to create your own path, rather than following one already carved out by many other people. But it does mean having to lay down every stone in that path without very many reference points and, fairly early on, without very many friends.
In the end, what I found made it easiest, was to first focus on (and take comfort in) the things that were similar to my old life. Both times I've made a big move, what has been the most similar is the work itself! Everything else – the system, the people, and even the language have been so entirely new, you just have to accept that things will feel odd and difficult. I thankfully found a few people fairly early on who were kind and who I could ask all sorts of odd questions to, and that made all the difference.
How did you approach sounding the market in a new country for potential employers?
I approached it by not looking for a specific job first. I tried instead to make my own mental map of the specific country and industry by getting to know people, before applying for a job.
I would arrange visits to the city I wanted to work in and write to people in the legal industry asking if they would be free for coffee to get to know each other while I was there. Not necessarily with a view to finding or applying for a specific job immediately, but just to know them and what the market is like. (And yes, cold emailing is the worst and I would take full days to write 6-sentence emails to sound – hopefully – engaging and worth responding to, but not cringeworthy…).
Doing this helped me identify what kinds of opportunities there could be in a place, and how I could best present my skills and experience to fit that need. Sometimes there are (or aren’t) certain needs and opportunities in a place, but you might not know about them without speaking to people.
I also found that speaking to people informally – before making an application – helps them to see you not only in terms of labels or how you might be different or foreign, but how you might be similar as well. Showing how you are different or unique can help an application, but it can also shoebox you into a very specific corner, and I wanted to avoid that. Speaking to people beforehand made it easier to not be reduced into a "Singaporean / common law-trained lawyer / English native speaker" box.
Thankfully, there are plenty of curious and kind people in our industry, and there've always been interesting and helpful people to speak to (even If I did get some creative rejections along the way, which I've of course kept in a folder to laugh at on rainy days!).
Did you experience any particular difficulties working in a jurisdiction where you are not qualified, especially when it comes to promotions?
I've found that when working in a place where you are not qualified, you have to do twice as much to illustrate what you're capable of, and where you can fit in. This invariably ends up making your promotion track slower. Where certain marks/grades or types of experience for locally-qualified lawyers might speak for themselves, you do not always have something which automatically indicates your calibre or level of experience, and so it takes longer for people to recognize you’re ability and credit you for it, assuming they want to do so at all.
The difficulty is always how to place yourself within a system that isn't set up taking your specific qualifications and experience in mind. So people don't quite know what to do with you or where you fit in and take longer to work it out than for a locally-qualified lawyer. I found that what helps is to get to know and work with as many people as possible in a new workplace. That helps to not be shoe-boxed into certain labels (like "a common law qualified lawyer from Singapore" or a "non-German/Danish speaker"), but to be seen as a lawyer with relevant skills and experience. I've been lucky to have always worked with people who want to make the most of my effort and availability, and not dismiss me for being an outsider. I know that other foreign lawyers have had much less positive experiences overall.
Do you have any advice for female law students and young practitioners who wish to aim for a career as a lawyer in a country where they are not qualified?
What I would tell myself, looking back, is advice that I would actually give anyone, but perhaps you have to be more conscious of it as a woman and as an outsider.
The first thing is: The people make the place – everything boils down to the people and the relationships you have around you. When you're in a new place without history and a network, building that matters so much more than it would in your home jurisdiction. You don’t realise just how many people you know and friends you have – just from having been to law school and having done your legal training in a certain place - until you leave and realise what a support and a source of strength and knowledge that was. It matters just as much as your skills as a practitioner to get to know people around you and be curious about other lawyers and their practices. Not because you want something from them, and not with a particular view to getting information or a new job, or a speaking role at a conference - but just to be part of the ecosystem that you want to thrive in.
The second thing is: asking for advice and feedback is important but doing it well takes practice. It can be surprisingly difficult to frame requests for advice or direction properly. I find people (including myself) often want to know what they can do to improve or progress. Often, though, people cannot advise you on what you should do. They know too little about you, where you are in your career, and what you want specifically to be helpful. Instead, I found it more productive to ask what they did when in a specific situation (tailored to the specific area of your profession/life that you want to address). People can tell you what worked for them, and from that you can work out if that is something you could apply. I've gotten surprisingly good advice from some people, that way.
Nowadays, most professionals around the world speak English. Have you had the experience that language still was a barrier with some clients? If so, how did you work around it?
Overall no – but I had to be willing to get to some level of proficiency in the local language (in my case, German/Danish), even if your work is in English. In both Germany and Denmark, the clients I've worked with all speak English, often excellently. Still, people often want the possibility of speaking their native languages when communicating with their lawyers. Also, relevant documents and internal correspondence at a client may be in another language, even if the case is in English. You cannot learn every language of course, but have to at least be able to read documents in the language of the country you live in.
This didn’t mean I had to be professionally proficient in German and Danish (and I am still not!). But it does mean you have to show that you have some proficiency, and more importantly, that you want to learn and to chat informally in another language, even if the work itself is then done in English. I've found that most people appreciated the effort to begin conversations in another language, were kind about my errors, and then perfectly happy to switch to English to get the work done.
As a female international lawyer, you face discrimination risks in relation to two characteristics. Have you ever had the experience that people don't necessarily take you as seriously as your colleagues at the same career level?
I did find that a particular problem at the time I was moving out of being a mid-level associate, and I've noticed that is a problem for many women (and foreigners – it is always hard to tell what the real reason is!). Often the discrimination is not done in an overt way, and is done thoughtlessly – whether it is forgetting to keep you copied or informed on case developments, or involved in conversations with a client, or whether clients direct their questions to a more junior person rather than you, or whether certain (lower level) tasks are assigned to you rather than a more junior person.
I do not know what accounts for that difference. The way I dealt with it was to act as though I deserved recognition and respect, and that tended to help. I found that if I was polite and firm about delegating (rather than taking on) a certain task, or took it as a given that I should be involved in a certain conversation (and was inadvertently rather than purposely excluded), people tended to treat me accordingly. The key is to do all this without being obnoxious or presumptuous, but this is not difficult, if you've made an effort to get to know people and know best how to approach them.
What is your technique for dealing with systematic sexism and/or racism?
I've found the most helpful thing is to recognize that I cannot solve or correct the system, but that systemic problems do not necessarily create an unyielding slippery wall that cannot at all be scaled or worked with. Instead, the walls have little pockets and holes in them that you can grip onto, to move forward and up. You may not solve the overall problem today, but small things can lead to big improvements. It also helps with not succumbing to the despair that can creep up when you feel that your effort and work isn't recognised or acknowledged because you are an outsider.
As for those little pockets and holes that you can grip onto: I've found the easiest thing is to solve a problem while it is small, and on a personal level. And that can mean speaking with the person who has dealt with you in an unfair way, or someone who can help you deal with that person – quickly. Good conversations happen a little at a time and often, not after numerous problems have snowballed and resentment has built up. That just makes the prospect of addressing them more daunting. So if there's an issue I'm concerned about, I try to ask about it immediately by being direct. Being direct does not have to mean being confrontational. And your willingness to be open and direct but polite and firm is what makes people respect your presence and your work.
I often hear other lawyers frustrated when they are treated unfairly, but then say they will wait to see if a particular problem happens again (which it invariably does) before saying something. I've often heard the concern expressed that they don’t want to speak up immediately and come across as though they are overreacting or making a big issue out of a small thing. But it is precisely these small cuts, these small things, which are the real problem. I find that they add up and are both professionally damaging in the long run, as well as emotionally taxing, unless dealt with early.
What is your opinion on coaching, especially when it is directed at women or foreigners as part of the affected group?
I have found It extremely helpful – somewhat to my surprise. When it was first suggested to me when I expressed my frustrations at work, I felt this was an unfair additional step I had to take. It shouldn't be on people who are discriminated against or unfairly sidelined to somehow remedy themselves, I felt. And that Is true.
But the system exists, and if you don’t want to opt out entirely, you have to find a way to navigate it. I found coaching surprisingly helpful with finding specific ways to deal with problems, in a way which suited my personality.
For instance, at the time I tried coaching, I could see that some of the exclusions and sidelining which occurred at work had to do with not being professionally visible enough – also a by-product of being relatively new within a system. I worked with an excellent, very skilled coach whose advice on many issues I apply to lots of areas of my life. She showed me, without forcing the idea on me, that "networking" didn't have to be artificial or forced or even all about work. Instead, it could be enjoyable and interesting in the way that getting to know people in a non-professional context is. We made up a fun challenge for me: at every event, I would talk to and find out one interesting thing about three people, and that's it. It didn’t have to be about work at all, even if it was a work-related event. And deciding that I would see networking as an enjoyable way to meet interesting people, not an awkward thing I had to do, has made a big difference.
What is your experience, how important is it for a career as a successful female lawyer to have mentors on the one hand and allies on the other?
In work as in every other aspect of life – essential! As much as you'd like to feel that your life and progress are up to your own grit and determination, that is not enough. You aren't always going to have the right information on what you need to do to advance professionally, and you will often be absent from the forums where decisions are made that impact you, so it's important that you have mentors and allies who can guide you, and speak up for you when it matters.
There is a lot of useful material out there on how to build relationship with potential mentors. So far, I've been lucky that a few good friends have turned out to be excellent mentors, without our ever having gotten to know each other with that intention. One particular friend and mentor has given me crucial advice on many occasions – one of which was that I absolutely had to take steps (like coaching) and learn to find a solutions even where I'm not the problem.
As for allies, they are equally crucial. Ultimately what matters is the system improving. There are people in the system who do want it to change – and what they do matters. It is humbling to know you need their assistance, but it is also heartening to know that those people are there. I've been extremely lucky to have had two male (ex)colleagues in particular, who stepped in with the relevant partners where they saw I was being treated unfairly. Both times, this primed the partners to recognize and then help me solve particular problems.
Of course, I wish I hadn't needed allies to step in, but I did. There are lots of champions in sometimes unlikely places. They are usually not the people drawing attention to themselves. But they matter.
Would you say that the "glass ceiling" becomes more noticeable as you progress in your career?
Absolutely – and that's because that ceiling keeps moving upwards (thankfully), even if the movement feels slow during your own career; or lifetime. We're thankfully not part of the generation where women studying law or even joining an office are the exception – so at least I didn't feel the glass ceiling there. In my first job as a lawyer (in Singapore), I worked in a small team within a large firm, and all the excellent associates I worked with were women.
But the ceiling moves upwards, and so you notice it as you move upwards as well: for instance, when you need to be taken as seriously as a mid-level/senior lawyer. And then (though there are many womens' issues that have nothing to do with parenthood) those are intensified when you have to interact with other people's expectations and possible prejudices about whether you will have children and, if so, how that will affect you as a lawyer.
You are currently expecting your first child. How would you compare the conditions for balancing career and family in Singapore, Germany and Denmark? Which points do you think are particularly important?
In my view what matters – and these points all feed into each other – are: societal perceptions of women and men's roles in career/family, your specific employer's willingness to make things work when you have to juggle, and what the system sets up and expects In terms of employee availability and childcare.
In Singapore, I've found the assumption is that everyone should work and that extended family will play a large role in childcare. So, paid parental leave is short, and I haven't observed societal pushback against mothers returning to the workplace when their children are small. On the other hand, Singapore is a low income-tax state with comparatively little state assistance, so the quality and stability of the daycare assistance which families have while working depends very much on family's individual circumstances (financial and otherwise). Live-in domestic help is common and fairly affordable in Singapore, and many families rely heavily on this – but that in turn places a large and controversial burden on the many foreign women who work in Singapore as domestic helpers.
Coming from Singapore, I found Germany an interesting contrast: extremely generous in terms of the amount of paid parental leave which is available, but not at all generous with women who want to return to work before a year of parental leave, and those who want to continue working fulltime.
As for Denmark, I hope very much that the overall impression of Scandinavia being forward-looking on this point is true! Paid parental leave is generous and I've not heard of people finding trouble with affordability or availability of reliable childcare. However, I also don’t know that there are enough women in senior positions in various industries to conclude that these factors have made a sufficient difference to how much women often have to trade trade off their career progress for their families. I will find out!
Which women lawyer should be nominated as a role model for breaking.through? Why?
There are – thankfully – a number of excellent women lawyers whose skill and ability are recognized by the industry and their clients. Some of the people breaking.through has already interviewed, like Eliane Fischer, have been role models for me in how they navigate a challenging profession while being committed to ensuring younger female lawyers have, as early as possible, the exposure and the knowledge that they may have taken years to get for themselves.
Another person who has been a role model for me is someone who is an excellent lawyer and created a role for herself which did not already exist in her workplace, while balancing being one of the most composed and kind mothers I know. She has been a very important example of finding a path that suits you, rather than assuming you have to climb a pre-set ladder that exists.
As she became more senior in the law firm where she worked, she wanted to carve out a "modified" senior associate or counsel position for herself; one which would allow her to focus on research and written advocacy, and managing a team of junior associates, but without necessarily being client-facing. A hybrid role like this, with a significant knowledge-management component, didn't exist in her workplace. While balancing being a mother of two small children, she found a place where she could set up this novel position, and has now been thriving there for several years. She is a reminder that there are many creative ways to be an outstanding lawyer, without necessarily having to go along with a default progression pattern.
Thank you so much for this interview!
Copenhagen / Frankfurt, July 2021, Mrinalini Singh answered the questions in writing. The questions were asked by Elisabeth Schemmer.
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