International Women’s Day 2021: amazing stories

Deborah Chew

Deborah Chew was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. After heading East for university, studying political science and performance (drama and dance) at Vassar College, Deborah Chew followed many of her poly sci peers to go on to law school (in her case, Columbia Law School in New York City). To her surprise, she loved law, which she describes as ‘making order out of the chaos’. She has since built an impressive corporate and commercial career, both in New York and her adopted home of Melbourne, while also raising two children. She shares her story.

Deborah Chew with her daughter at Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Deborah Chew with her daughter Stella

I hadn’t planned to be a lawyer but I found I really liked law and was well suited to it, particularly the discipline of how you need to think to work through problems as a lawyer. I also hadn’t planned to be a corporate and commercial lawyer, but Columbia Law School is a feeder school for the big New York firms and so I followed the channel that I was directed into. I ended up working at Debevoise & Plimpton (which is a big NY law firm) and spent almost 10 years there. I enjoy commercial law because ultimately it’s about problem solving.

How many hours in a day?

Working in New York was exciting and very engaging, and the deals were big. But the hours were brutal. I’ve always been a lawyer who gets in late but would stay very late. So I would wander into the office at around 10am but I would leave most days after midnight. I’d work at least one day each weekend, and sometimes both days. I’d regularly do all nighters, where I would work all day, all night and then all the next day before going home to collapse. It’s crushing. It rewards someone with a lot of stamina but it’s just not sustainable.

I got to being a very senior Senior Associate at Debevoise and Plimpton. By that stage, I had two young children (aged 1 and 4). The next stage in my career path could have been trying to become a partner, but making partner at a firm like Debevoise is very difficult and far from certain. I asked myself ‘Do I want to try and make partner and live like this for the rest of my career?’ I decided no.

My husband was originally from Melbourne, so we moved here. I joined Arthur Robinson & Hedderwicks in 1999 (now Allens). It was a much better firm in terms of lifestyle and Melbourne is a much easier place to bring up children than New York. I moved to Hall & Wilcox in 2005, where I have a really broad practice. I act for very small startups to big listed companies and everything in between. I enjoy combining the technical, analytical side of law with the judgment (honed over the years) to know what matters commercially to my client.

Behind every great woman …

I’m in the second wave of women in law. The first wave were the trailblazers, like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who did it really hard and always had to be better than the men in order to even be considered. They paved the way for my generation. Even today, though, there are still a lot of structural impediments to succeeding as a female lawyer in private practice, particularly in commercial law where the commitment, time and energy required is more than 100%. That commitment historically is difficult, or has been difficult, to manage with a family.

I had it easier than a lot of my female counterparts because my husband was very flexible with his work hours so he did most of the childcare. When our children were babies, it was the 1990s and we lived in Brooklyn Heights. My husband would take the kids to the playground and there would be a bunch of nannies and maybe one or two mothers but no other fathers. Thankfully, men are more willing to be that flexible partner now.

I don’t think I’m a great role model myself because I always had a husband who took care of the kids and that allowed me to concentrate on work. The women who have it hardest are those who have the high work requirements but don’t have a partner who is willing or able to share the childcare responsibilities. For women who are trying to do it all, being a lawyer in private practice is very difficult. This is particularly true in commercial law, where the time demands can be unpredictable and less flexible than in other areas.

For a big law firm and for its time, Debevoise was very progressive. They had a program for female lawyers where you could nominate how many days a week you would commit to work while pregnant and you would be paid based on the number of days you worked, compared to the average lawyer within the year you were in. So if you worked four days, you would be paid 80%. But if you ended up working longer hours because of work demands, they would top you up. So for the two years when I was pregnant, I committed to 80% of the full time load but I actually worked 100% and I got paid 100%. To put it in perspective, I billed about 2100 hours a year in the years when I had my babies, which is a lot higher than the billable hours expected in Australia. (I even worked up until the day before the due date for my first child because I had a big deal that was closing that day.  Luckily she was two weeks late.)

But that was compared with ‘normal’ years, where my billable hours were more like 2500 hours a year. I really loved the work but I was working so hard that I never saw my husband or kids so after a while I got fed up with it.

COVID-19 silver linings

COVID-19 has been helpful because it has required flexibility of everyone. As a result, clients have become more willing to accept work being done at times that are more flexible. In the long term, that will help lawyers deal with the whole issue of ‘work life balance’. The work still needs to get done but it now can be done from a place and in timeframes that fit in better with the family needs people have. That flexibility will make it easier for women working in commercial law, which typically has very unpredictable and lumpy time demands.

People have now gotten used to that flexibility and how it has enabled them to manage their lives better. That’s not going to go away. Lawyers will require it and law firms will need to accommodate that.

Happily, Hall & Wilcox does accommodate that. The firm recognises that work can be managed in a way that also allows people to do other things that give value to their lives. We’re not just work automatons. A big chunk of our time is spent at work but another significant chunk should be able to be spent doing things that give our lives value and meaning.

Work life balance doesn’t only have to be about work and family. It can be about work and having the head space for doing other activities that are important to you. For me, I’m a big movie buff, and it’s one of the things that I share with my son (we watch movies together). I also did a lot of dance at college and I started taking adult ballet classes again a few years ago. I love the mental and physical discipline of ballet and I find it very mind-cleansing. I even discovered online ballet classes during COVID!  (Yet another silver lining.)