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From pilot dreams to high-flying lawyer

Ms Stephanie Keen says technology has changed the way the legal business is being done - easing the tension in some aspects and ramping it up in others. For example, while computers can be used to help lawyers become more efficient, the rise of insta
Ms Stephanie Keen says technology has changed the way the legal business is being done - easing the tension in some aspects and ramping it up in others. For example, while computers can be used to help lawyers become more efficient, the rise of instant messaging apps has led clients to expect real-time advice so lawyers cannot pussyfoot around.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Forgoing a childhood ambition led 'deal junkie' to the exciting world of private equity

It is not often that lawyers see their hard work literally go up in flames - but that actually happened to senior legal eagle Stephanie Keen earlier this year.

Ms Keen, 46, the country managing partner at Hogan Lovells Singapore, tells The Straits Times: "I helped to sell a waste management business in Tuas recently and the deal was interesting - we sold it to a China buyer... But the business that we lovingly sold had a massive fire and seeing it in the press felt very upsetting because you knew so much about the business."

That sort of outcome is rare but is one example of how the self-described "deal junkie" gets drive out of her high-stakes job - perhaps unsurprising for someone who originally wanted to fly aeroplanes for a living.

"I had always thought I wanted to be an airline pilot," Ms Keen says. "My mother sort of suggested that maybe I ought to have a profession that was a little bit more sensible for a woman than flying around the world and not being at home. So that... went out the window."

Although she went on to read law at the University of Cambridge, it was with the intention of entering the wine industry. Instead, she got swept up by private equity after a particularly interesting summer placement.

"We did really interesting deals. I was two years qualified and I helped buy and sell Formula One for a private equity client," she says.

EMBRACING DIVERSITY

When we have diverse transactional teams - a mixture of Singaporeans, expatriates, males, females - you get lots of different thoughts and they work much better and clients want that.

MS STEPHANIE KEEN

"There was a downturn in the early 1990s when they were looking at taking on my batch of trainees. When I qualified, there were very few lawyers, which meant that we worked incredibly hard. So I did a number of really high-profile, really interesting deals as a very junior lawyer."

With two decades in the business under her belt, Ms Keen has also seen how technology is changing the way the legal business is being done - easing the tension in some aspects and ramping it up in others.

"I personally don't think (tech) will put us out of a job altogether, but what I think it will do is help us be more efficient," she says.

"You can have computers doing some of the heavy diligence and stuff that we would typically do, so if you were a litigator and you had to do discovery and look through a lot of e-mails with particular buzzwords, you can get a computer to do it."

The British-born Ms Keen, who is married to a Singaporean who works in the consulting business, explains that the rise of instant messaging apps has led clients to expect real-time advice so lawyers cannot pussyfoot around.

"And that, I think, has led to us becoming much more commercial. They (clients) are less interested in the full legal analysis, particularly in the transactional sphere."

This move, in turn, has taught her more about the financial ins and outs of private equity: "I think historically, lawyers would just paper an agreement that was done, whereas now we understand a lot of rationales behind the business."

Still, Ms Keen notes that some things have got easier, rather than more difficult, over time - including a greater embrace of diversity in the corporate legal sphere.

"When we have diverse transactional teams - a mixture of Singaporeans, expatriates, males, females - you get lots of different thoughts and they work much better and clients want that."

She hopes that this will continue to change with coming generations as children "see us working and recognise that it doesn't matter if it's Mum or Dad" who is the breadwinner or the homemaker.

The changes are already happening, with plans by her office this month to start a pilot mentoring scheme to support mid-level women associates, an initiative Ms Keen backed after noticing that job attrition tends to happen around the third or fourth year on the job.

"We've had a number of focus groups where we've tried to understand... why people are leaving at three to four years... and trying to understand the different mindsets and therefore how we can adjust things," she says.

Ms Keen will also be a speaker at Break The Ceiling, Touch The Sky, a leadership summit for women to be held here on Sept 4.

Indeed, she has found herself invested in such regional goings-on after moving to Singapore in the wake of the global financial crisis. She says she finds private equity in Asia much more exhilarating than action on Wall Street or in the City of London.

"Particularly in this market, there's just such uncertainty," she says. "There's uncertainty if you're going into bed with a founder, entrepreneur, and that person stays on board, how that will work."

In South and South-east Asia, similar interesting deals are aplenty because there are more family-owned businesses than in Europe, she says.

"When you're dealing with individuals rather than corporates, it's always more - it can be more problematic and create greater risk."

But she would not have it any other way. "I was leaving Europe just as the (global financial crisis) came in. Deals were becoming very vanilla (there). People were buying, selling without a lot of thought and without a lot of creativity because it was sort of just a money play in the (private equity) world," she notes.

"Whereas, out here, dealing with all the different rules and laws, dealing with individuals a lot more than you do with corporates, I find that is something that excites me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2017, with the headline 'From pilot dreams to high-flying lawyer'. Print Edition | Subscribe