Chat with Sarah-Mae Thomas

12 min read

Sarah-Mae is a rare species of lawyer. She has experience working in two different jurisdictions—Australia and Singapore.

She started out as a personal injury lawyer (specialising in workers’ compensation) in Melbourne. In 2015, Sarah-Mae was admitted to the Singapore Bar and now has her own law firm in Singapore, Sarah-Mae Thomas LLC, specialising in family law, civil litigation and youth criminal justice.

Sarah-Mae is an inspiring person and lawyer who genuinely cares about her clients. She has a high level of empathy that is too often missing in our profession. At the same time, she’s passionate about social justice and human rights—and achieving this one case at a time.

LB. I’m glad we have this rare cross-jurisdictional opportunity to chat! I know a fair bit about your story, but for our readers—when did you first realise that you wanted to become a lawyer?

SMT. I realised that I wanted to be a lawyer at the age of three or four. My mum and brother were having an argument, or a firm disagreement. I basically mediated between both of them and came up with a resolution. My mum looked at me and said, “I think you should be a judge one day”. And I said, “Oh, I want to study judgery!” My mum said, “No, you can’t study ‘judgery’ but you can do law.” That was when I was inspired to do law.

Early in my primary school days, I thought about doing law or being a policewoman, because I always wanted to see justice done. Justice was always my passion. I moved to Melbourne when I was 13 and a teacher asked me, “What do you want to study?” I said that I wanted to do law, but that I wasn’t smart enough—so I’d do teaching. My teacher said that if I wanted to do law, then I would get into law school. So that passion continued!

LB. You have a passion for human rights and social justice. In 2011, you were one of the few chosen by Monash Law School as a Castan Centre Global Intern. Can you tell us a bit more about your experience working in human rights overseas?

SMT. That was a very interesting experience.

The International Women’s Rights Action Watch is a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) that helps with the alternative reporting for the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Basically, what the alternative process does is that they bring in NGOs from all across the world, that is, the countries that are being interviewed for CEDAW that year. They create a system to draft and present the reports by way of oral submissions to the CEDAW Committee.

It was a really interesting experience because we could see first-hand how governments would give an apple-polished version of the state of human rights in their country, but these NGOs can come in and say, “No, hang on—this is actually what is happening and these are the alternative narratives.”

We had lunchtime briefings and dinners with the CEDAW members to tell them about countries that were being reviewed. I was there when CEDAW reviewed Lichtenstein and the Occupied Palestinian Territory that year.

LB. So did you feel your work with the International Women’s Rights Action Watch directly appealed to the human rights issues at hand or was it quite distant?

SMT. I felt that it wasn’t so remote or distant because I was helping members with the drafting of their report. While I wasn’t the one making the submissions, I was still part of the process.

LB. After law school, you worked in personal injury law at Zaparas Lawyers. Can you tell us a bit about your experience, the challenges, and what you enjoyed the most?

SMT. I really liked my time at Zaparas Lawyers. It was my first job and it was also a very family-oriented and nurturing environment, which was what I needed. I always thought that I would go into a big firm—in my mind, working at a big firm in the city was a legal dream. But internally, I knew that it wasn’t right for me at that time. When I went to Zaparas, I had a really good environment where you actually run files. As a junior lawyer, I was in charge of running around 100 files.

LB. That’s great, you don’t often run a file from start to finish at a big law firm.

SMT. Yes, obviously the partners will give you guidance—but you’re taking ownership of running of the file. You’re speaking to the client, you’re going for mediation before court appearances. It makes it so fulfilling.

LB. And you learn so much. I recall chatting with you about what you were doing and I thought, “Gee, she’s drafting all these court documents that I’ve never even touched!” I think your experience was fantastic.

SMT. I think it was meant to be. I fought very hard for a dream, but the reality was so much better. And when it came, it was really good.

The challenging part of that though, as a trainee, is that you’re not really equipped out of law school with going straight into running a file. So there is a bit more stress related to dealing with real clients. But it’s just about building a relationship with your bosses, understanding how to do it, and not taking everything on by yourself—because it’s a team effort.

LB. Did you personally find a big gap between studying law at uni and real-world practice? How do you think we can get better at bridging this gap?

SMT. Absolutely, there is a huge gap between studying law and real-world practice. Studying law was obviously very academic and didn’t offer much hands-on legal experience. But it helped that I did legal internships every summer. I did a few in Australia, Singapore and overseas, but nothing to the extent that made me fully ready for actual practice. When you go into a full-time job, you’re like—”How do I fax!? How do I draft a letter?” Obviously, these are the small things which you don’t learn at law school.

When I was in law school at Monash University, there was one compulsory subject called “Legal Experience”. We had to draft letters for four clients and a supervisor who would do a lot of reflections with us. So that was a good stepping stone into my full-time job.

I think that law schools should have a compulsory practical element in their courses. A lot of law schools are doing this now. Monash is one of those universities—and a lot of universities in the US are doing that. I think all law schools should make practical legal experience compulsory, it’s so important. Otherwise, you just go into a job…

LB. And have no idea!

SMT. Yes.

LB. In 2015, you decided to move permanently to Singapore. How was it like changing jurisdictions, from sitting the Singapore Bar Exam to appearing in different courts altogether?

SMT. When I started practising in Singapore, I found that the general attitude was that there was no such thing as “work-life balance” for lawyers. This was basically the mentality of the old-school Singaporean lawyer. And that was a rude awakening…

My initial thought was, “Wow, this is an interesting dichotomy. I’m caught in between two worlds—the more relaxed pace of Australia and the efficiency of Singapore.” But that triggered my passion for legal practice even more because you’re coming up against a position which you feel is wrong and I felt strongly that there was a different way of doing things—that I could represent my clients well and still have a balanced lifestyle. Law firms and legal practice can be done differently. You could say that my mission was, and still is, to take the best of both worlds and incorporate it into my practice.

So that led to my initial life as a lawyer in Singapore, appearing before different courts and judges where they would demand that you file a document within a short timeframe. If I felt it was unreasonable, I would make an application for a longer timeframe. A lot of my opponents were sometimes shocked because they said that it was the timeframe given by the court. I would tell the judge, “your Honour, two weeks is not enough, I need four weeks”, and being firm and explaining why.

I was working in an insurance litigation firm at the time and so there were a lot of claims. The interactions were very different. I learned to interact differently in different cultural spaces to get an effective outcome for my clients, despite the differences.

LB. You’re in a rare position to have seen and practised in two different types of jurisdictions...

SMT. I think it was a bit smoother because I was born in Singapore and I had friends to help me navigate the system—which made it easier to get called to the Bar. There are a different set of challenges with how lawyers operate in Singapore. You need to know how to stand your ground and not get pushed around.

LB. Can you tell us how it was like sitting the Singapore Bar Exam?

SMT. You have to sit 13 exams to be qualified to practise in Singapore, as well as one year of training. You sit for Part A of the Bar Exam, which is five subjects (Company Law, Criminal Law, Evidence Law, Property Law and the Singapore Legal System) and then you do the first part of your legal training, which goes for 6 months. Then you do Part B of your training, which comprises of 8 subjects—and then you sit for 8 exams at the end of it and undertake your training contract. Then you’re called to the Bar. It takes about 2 years and 2 months. I was exempted from most of the exams. I had to do 5 exams (as the Ministry of Law recognised my Australian experience) which took 4 months for the entire conversion process.

LB. Do you have any tips for lawyers who are thinking of moving jurisdictions and sitting for the Bar Exam there?

A tip that I would give to lawyers is—don’t let others make you think that just because you’ve worked in another jurisdiction (other than that country), that your experience should be discounted.

This might happen anywhere in the world—they might say, “Oh, you don’t have relevant Australian legal experience if you came from the UK or a different jurisdiction.” The same thing applies in Singapore. For example, you might be called to the Bar in 2015, but the reality is that you have a couple of years of experience. You might not have practised in that country, but it’s still legal experience! You shouldn’t let anyone just write it off.

LB. You work in family law in Singapore, dealing with some pretty challenging matters. I truly believe you need a special kind of perseverance to operate in this area. How do you maintain your high level of energy and passion for it?

SMT. I think it’s because I am very passionate about family law. It relates to children and married couples—basically a family breaking up. You might be dealing with a lot of challenging clients and difficult people. You need to have a special set of skills to navigate through the whole system.

I think it really helps to have a support network around me of family lawyers who can share their experience. Often, we face clients who are very demanding of us. But when it comes down to gathering information and evidence for their case, they can be paralysed in fear because they don’t want to handle it. And they obviously have a lot of emotional trauma in those types of cases.

Also, “recharge time” is so important. This area of law can be quite intense. My weekends and holidays are very important for me to rest, and recuperate emotionally and physically from a very demanding job. Maintaining work-life balance is so important because there’s no point in getting burnt out. You’re not going to be able to help your client.

LB. Do you have any advice for law students or young lawyers about finding a meaningful career in law?

SMT.

Definitely don’t go for what everyone is doing—find what best represents being true to yourself. What represents what you’re passionate about. Sometimes, in the first couple of years you might have no idea, but just go with your gut instinct—what you think you’re interested in, and doors will just open up. Pathways will become clearer and clearer.

I think a lot of lawyers don’t stay true to themselves. They just get stuck into this monotonous routine—“Oh, I’ve been here for 20 years. It works for me and I know how to navigate through this.” But it’s not really being true to their calling in life, to their passion. It might pay them what they want but deadens that creative and passionate side. It’s what we, as human beings, are called to live—a life that is creative and true to ourselves.

LB. I know that your faith is a big part of your life. People get a bit funny about faith, but I’ve personally seen you help a lot of people around you when they face tough times. And I know it gives you a lot of energy. Can you tell us a bit more about how your faith influences your work?

SMT. Yes definitely, for me it’s Number 1. Faith informs all of my decisions. Like before I do anything, I will ask God, “Is this the right thing for me to do?” Because there is a natural solution and there is a divine solution. We often have very different permutations from one case to the next. So it’s about navigating through those situations.

For me, I might be dealing with clients in difficult circumstances. For example, some have a lot of anger because of their circumstances—that translates to “I want 100% of the matrimonial assets” and “I want that person to die or suffer because of the wrong inflicted against me”. So because I have that faith, I can actually show them a different way. I tell most of my clients not to be bitter because that will breed resentment and create more problems for them. It’s a poison that you drink for yourself and not for the other person.

Faith is also a good conversation starter for me. I go to a church where the pastor writes a lot of books like “Living the let-go life” and “Stress-free living in difficult situations”. I have a lot of these books on my shelf at work. These are conversation starters for a lot of my clients, who ask me, “What does it mean to ‘live the let-go life’?” I tell them, “Well, it means trusting God and letting go of the things that are not in your control.”

A lot of my clients have started to go to church as an indirect result of our conversations. One client told me, “When I first started my case, I didn’t believe in God. I was angry with God with everything that happened to me. But after this case, I realised that even in this messed-up situation, God was here”. It’s very nice to see how my faith has translated in a very practical way. And it’s offering my clients solutions that they haven’t seen elsewhere.

LB. If you could turn back time, what do you wish you could go back to tell your past self about?

SMT. I would tell myself “be true to yourself”. Be true to who you are and who you’re called to be.

Always have a mentor who is in a season ahead of you so that you can glean from their experience and always mentor someone so that you are also nurturing a person in a season before you.

Be passionate and if you feel like you are losing sight of why you are doing what you are doing, take some time to make an inventory and reflect on what you want in life.

We all have choices in life so let’s live life to the fullest and make choices that truly reflect your calling.

Postscript…

Inspired? Check out Sarah-Mae’s legal practice in Singapore at www.sarahmaethomasllc.com

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