This is an exclusive interview with Wong Fook Meng, the Managing Partner of Chee Siah Le Kee & Partners, a firm of 13 lawyers and over 40 support staff in Malacca.
1. Hi Fook Meng, most of the people who visit the E Lawyer website are from Kuala Lumpur and are looking for jobs in Kuala Lumpur. You are one of our clients outside of the Klang Valley. Can you tell us a little bit more about life in Malacca and why you choose to practice in Malacca?
I actually started my legal practice in Kuala Lumpur and was working in the law firm of Mah Weng Kwai &Associates. I really enjoyed the robust litigation practice in Kuala Lumpur and Mr Mah was an excellent boss and mentor. However, I decided to relocate to Malacca as it is my hometown.
Practicing in Malacca affords me the opportunity to balance work with other important life commitments. The people in my firm work incredibly hard. But, we are spared the heavy traffic and crowded environment of the big cities. On most days, we can still spend a full evening at home with our loved ones. This is very important especially for those with young families as you get to invest your time and energy to building your family rather than giving them your emotional leftovers. We also have more time to contribute to worthy causes. Many of our partners provide leadership or play active roles in charitable organizations, NGO and also the local Bar Committee.
Like most State Bars, the Malacca Bar is a close knitted community of lawyers. You know most of the practitioners in your field of practice and there is a strong sense of community as some of your fellow lawyers become your very close friends. Malacca is also a city which has a lot of historical and cultural heritage and not to mention some of the best culinary specialties in the country (please don’t get me started on the food topic!). Property prices are also relatively much lower compared to other places such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Baru.
2. Please share with us more about your firm e.g. history, areas of practice, current team members & etc?
Our firm was founded by Mr Chee Kong Chi in 1981. Over the years, it had grown to be one of the larger firms outside the Klang Valley. We currently have 13 lawyers and over 40 support staff. We have 3 practice groups : Civil Litigation, Corporate Finance and Commercial Banking and Conveyancing and Retail Banking.
Most of our clients are institutional clients such as financial institutions, public listed companies, property developers, manufacturers, hoteliers, politicians and even non-profit organizations. Many of our clients are captains of industries and entrepreneurs. As such, you rarely have a dull day in the office as you engage with some of the movers and shakers of industries in your daily work.
As an example, we are involved in providing legal services for the Hatten Group and the Kerjaya Prospek Group which had both launched innovative developments which are changing the Malacca property landscape. We are glad to be a part of how entrepreneurs are making a difference in the community in Malacca.
3. What is the working culture in your law firm? What values do you embrace in the workplace?
We strive hard to create a strong collegiate spirit within the office. We are like a warm close knitted family where everyone works hard and try not to let the others down. Underpinning our friendly working environment is a solid focus on creating a high performing culture where we go the extra mile to deliver outstanding results to the clients.
Our clients are the driving force behind our practice. As such, we have a very high commitment to deliver high quality legal work and services to our clients. The sense of professionalism and dedication to our tasks is very strongly entrenched in our firm.
People often think that they need to choose between being friendly and productive. We believe in the proposition that we can deliver outstanding work without being abrasive or unfriendly. There is a lot of respect and warmth within the firm and this is the same attitude that we bring with us as we engage with our clients. The “kam cheng” value is one that is consistently practiced in our daily work.
Recently our tea lady fell ill due to dengue fever. The senior partners of the firm visited her in the hospital and brought along papaya juice and the consultant literally fed her with some Chinese medicinal supplements. During the economic downturn in 2009, we gave out our own “BRIM” of RM500.00 cash assistance to everyone in the firm. At times, when a particular staff cannot locate a missing document, everyone in the firm stop work and help to locate the missing document. These are stories which demonstrate our strong team commitment. It is just part of our firm’s DNA.
We also practice inclusiveness in our workplace. We hired a young adult with learning disability as our internal despatch. He zips around the office delivering documents from one floor to the other. Our team members treat him like one of their own younger brothers and always feed him with food and snacks to the extent that we have to discourage the practice as he was getting obese! We also have physically handicapped team members who do secretarial work.
We also use technology to improve our efficiency. With the smart phones and tablets in our hands, we can stay connected and do quick research on the go. I was recently on a three weeks trip to the United States of America. Our partners are often overseas or outstation. But, we stay connected at all times and monitor important assignments with the aid of technology.
4. It is interesting that you said your team is committed to going the extra mile to deliver results for the clients. A lot of employers complain about Gen Y lawyers being unwilling to go the extra mile. How does CSiLK motivate their young lawyers to go the extra mile?
We always remind our young lawyers that we are a firm of professionals and that our clients’ interests are of paramount importance. We need to work hard to ensure that our clients’ interests are fully protected by the instrument of the law. Also, we need to take pride and ownership in our work as it is a reflection of our own personal character.
Besides that, we also believe that people will work hard when they are properly compensated. The financial returns must commensurate with the amount of time and energies invested. We fully believe in sharing the fruits of our labours together.
Lastly, we create a supporting environment for our young lawyers to learn and grow. People will do their best when they know you genuinely care for their welfare and development, both on a professional and personal level.
5. Do you have any talent development or training programmes in your firm for young lawyers?
We believe that our young lawyers represent the future of our firms. We are always looking for talented and dedicated young lawyers who are serious in growing their careers.
We have a lot of internal training both in legal skills and practice development skills. We also send our lawyers for legal seminars and conferences in Kuala Lumpur and other places for them to keep abreast with legal developments. Once a month, we have a Starbucks discussion with our lawyers where we discuss some leadership principles over coffee. In 2013, we had management consultant and author of Barefoot Leadership, Alvin Ung, to conduct a series of leadership development training for our lawyers. We also have Friday lunches where we do legal updates.
But, the most important training is on the job training. Partners will work together with associates on more complex assignments. Through the partnership in working on actual files, we hope to do skill transfer from partners to associates and raise everyone’s game.
The learning is also mutual where partners are also listening to and learning from the young lawyers especially when it comes to technology and understanding how younger clients think and operate.
Our main goal is to support our young lawyers’ career path and help them to grow to be trusted advisors to our clients.
Our firm also believe in continuous development for everyone including the partners. We need to constantly grow our skills and knowledge or face the risk of becoming stagnant or obsolete. Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing two eminent barristers from United Kingdom, Edwin Glasgow QC and Desmond Browne QC for Praxis. I learnt so much from these two gentlemen on how to refine our art of advocacy. Talent development is a daily and never ending process in our firm.
6. Are there any “out-of work” activities that you organize for your staff?
The highlight of our firm is the bi annual overseas team building trips. So far, we have been to countries such as South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia and Thailand. Every confirmed staff in the office is entitled to go for these trips including the tea ladies and the drivers. You can also bring your spouses and children along. Yes, it costs a lot financially but you cannot put a monetary value on forging bonds of trust and friendships within the firm. During these trips, team members often share more deeply about their life stories and all these cement the strength of the relationships within the firm. And it is a great joy to especially have team members’ children in our trips who never fail to brighten up the atmosphere.
7. Many young lawyers are looking for jobs which gives them “work-life-balance”, what is your view on this?
What constitutes the ideal work life balance is dependent on each person. Each one of us is unique and have our own individual values that we embrace.
As a rule of thumb, young lawyers who are starting out in practice should invest a greater amount of time in building a strong foundation for their practice. This inevitably will involve longer hours at work. But, if you are interested in your work, investing the time in doing a good job and learning the law is an enjoyable pursuit rather than an endurance test.
If you are able to deliver excellent quality of work over the long haul, then you can earn some flexibility in your schedule. For example, taking a longer vacation or doing pro bono work. Most employers are willing to give you the flexibility for “work life balance” if you are first a high performer in your work.
On a personal level, I am a firm believer in work life balance. One should never sacrifice important things like family, friendships, health and a well-rounded development on the altar of monetary gains. That’s foolish chasing after the wind. There’s a life to be pursued and enjoyed outside the office.
8. Can you share with us, what would you look for in a lawyer before you hiring him/her?
Firstly, someone who has a good grasp of basic legal principles, excellent comprehension of facts and issues and the ability to apply legal principles to solve clients’ problems.
Secondly, we look for people who are keen in creating value for others. Many young lawyers are interested in what they can get instead of what they can give. But, it is only as we create value for clients that the financial and non-financial rewards will come.
Thirdly, the law is a people business. As such, someone with a winsome personality who can engage well with clients will have an added advantage.
On this note, we are in the constant look for talented lawyers and legal secretaries to join our expanding team. Should any want to know more about working with us, please send your application to me directly at email@example.com
9. I understand that your firm is the largest in Malacca. Can you name 3 significant factors / reasons which get your firm to be where it is today?
Firstly, our non-negotiable value of integrity and honesty. We are highly committed to handling each transaction in a professional manner so that our clients can sleep at peace at night when they entrust their matters and monies to us. In an age when so many people and institutions fail due to a lack of integrity, we have an absolute commitment to be a law firm which can be fully trusted by our clients.
Secondly, our ability to listen to and understand our clients’ business and needs better. We work hard to comprehend our clients’ differing commercial needs and see how to tailor our legal services to help further our clients’ interests within reason and the confines of the law. We work together with our clients on picking the winning strategies for their matters. At the end of the day, our clients look to us as their trusted advisors to help them navigate the troubled waters of litigation or the complex maze of a commercial transaction.
Thirdly, our kam cheng value. We grow and nurture our relationships with our clients and also with each other within the firm. Many of our staff have been with us for more than 20 years. We just enjoy working with each other ( well..at least most of the time!). And, we are always looking for like-minded people who share our values to join us and be part of our growing team. I would love to personally meet or speak to anyone who is interested to start or grow their legal careers in Malacca.