Rachel Yee is head, legal and compliance, Singapore and Southeast Asia of Sembcorp Industries, an energy and urban development company. Having worked in the energy and utilities industry for 16 years, she thinks it’s important for her in-house team to go beyond the business-as-usual advisory and be able to keep learning.
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ALB: Tell us about your legal career so far, and what led you to taking up this role.
Yee: My experience with Sembcorp for the first 12 years of my career allowed me to partake in multiple key transactions and the growth of new businesses - very exciting work that enabled me to grow professionally. When the opportunity to join an independent oil major came up, I had the desire to experience a different work culture and an intriguing work scope. I was very keen to take it on as a challenge to myself and it further reinforced (to my relief) that work continued to be fun and manageable as long as I approached it with the same guiding principles.
Then, I took on the role of head of legal and compliance for the Singapore and Southeast Asia (SG and SEA) market at Sembcorp. Sembcorp’s sharpened focus on a journey of sustainable growth, its clear purpose and its strategy to play a part in building a sustainable future resonates strongly with me.
ALB: Besides legal work, how do you participate in your company’s business?
Yee: Working alongside high-calibre peers who regard the legal team as a key resource and an integral partner to the business also means that the legal team’s scope goes beyond the business-as-usual advisory. My experience in being part of multiple transactions is that the mutual respect accorded to the legal team, and understanding the importance of in-house lawyers being at the heart of the business, is a key ingredient contributing to the success of the transaction. At its core, my legal team members and I play a key role in ensuring that internally, accountable decisions are taken at the right level and right function, while externally, we support deal structuring, fronting negotiations with the business and strategising the best method to close the transaction successfully.
As the head of legal and compliance of SG and SEA, my role goes beyond legal work and requires a wide-angle lens to know my organisation, the sectors where the businesses are operating in, as well as the regulatory and business environment. Only with in-depth understanding will I be able to align my team set-up with the organisation's aims while supporting the business to achieve its priorities. Our work also plays a critical role as a safety blanket to keep the business informed about the level of legal risk inherent in such activities and ways to mitigate it. This same understanding also equips me with the knowledge to share different perspectives to improve planning and risk management, and provide suitable targeted training to support the business ambitions by identifying the areas to watch for to keep its legal risks at tolerance.
ALB: What kinds of lawyers would make the best fit for your team?
Yee: There isn’t a specific trait I can narrow down to. It is always a combination of competencies and soft skills, but what stands out when I interview a candidate is whether that person has the heart for the job, which goes beyond what one typically assumes is passion. While difficult to pinpoint, I would say it is a combination of the right attitude, aptitude, drive, humility and being a team player. Subject matter expertise can be developed when placed in the right environment as long as the candidate has the heart. Regardless of seniority and experience, learning is a continuous journey, and a good sense to understand the strength of the entire team helps one grow from strength to strength both professionally and personally.
ALB: When it comes to cooperating with external lawyers, what qualities or capabilities do you believe are the most critical to the work and a sustainable long-term cooperating relationship?
Yee: Respect. I do think it is that simple. Respecting external lawyers’ time, their expertise and their advisory. With mutual respect, that’s how a sustainable, engaging and enriching cooperative working relationship can be nurtured and maintained.
We engage external counsel for a reason and it is only after a stringent targeted selection process that I would engage external lawyers. With that foundation, I believe in working collaboratively with my external lawyers and they are part of the deal team to create the magic and make the transaction happen. Translated into action, I don’t dump issues on them at the last minute, expect the impossible with crazy timelines, and I take the time to listen to concerns which they raise. We each have expertise and perspectives, which, when combined, should create the best outcome possible with regard to the circumstances.
There will always be moments when urgent brainstorming to bounce off ideas and resolve emergencies arises, and having good relationships with competent external lawyers willing to go over and beyond when such situations happen makes a difference.
ALB: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? What motto do you live by?
Yee: I tend to plan 10 steps ahead with Plan A and have a fallback Plan B. This is still a work in progress for me, but I keep to heart what a wise mentor once shared with me – that my mindset will make all the difference as to how I deal with difficulties I encounter in my life journey. Life doesn’t always go how I want it to, and there will be things I cannot control. Learning to let go and focus on what I can control will make a big difference to my well-being, and I will have an easier time navigating the unexpected.
Work-wise, it would be to always go back to the fundamentals. No matter how tricky the situation or transaction appears to be, once I break it down into individual line items to rationalise and consider potential mitigations, what seems to be a mammoth task becomes much more manageable to resolve.