Young lawyer hopes for a more connected and collaborative law firm future

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Vera Lee may not have planned to become a lawyer from the get-go, but she’s loving her chosen profession. She now wants to deepen her knowledge in IT law, particularly around the cloud and on cognitive solutions.

The IBM lawyer also hopes that law practices, both in private and in-house practice, continue to evolve. Though firms are already addressing millennial lawyers’ needs, there’s so much more to do and improve, she says.

She tells Australasian Lawyer what she wants to see in law firm environments, why she’s inspired by a New South Wales Australian of the Year awardee, and more.

Vera Lee

Give us a brief overview of your experience and background
My journey started when I flew to Japan straight after my HSC to pursue a law degree at the University of Tokyo. After completing my LLB, I worked in finance and law in Tokyo and Sydney. Since being admitted as a lawyer in NSW, I have worked in law firms such as Baker McKenzie and Allen Legal, a boutique start up firm that assists start-ups and investors. Currently, I work as an attorney at IBM Sydney where I assist the legal teams in Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan on a variety of matters.

What attracted you to law?
Although I had always been curious about the Law, it was never on my list of desired career paths as a teenager. Certainly, no one in my family ever thought I would become a lawyer. The turning point was when I went to Japan to study. I had to choose between International Relations and Law. After consulting my parents (more like being instructed by them!), I decided to choose law because I thought it would be more challenging and would open up more opportunities for me in the future.

What legal profession figures do you look up to?
There are many people in the legal profession who I look up to. I have always admired people who have achieved what they wanted to in their life and career despite great adversity. 

I was particularly inspired by the story of New South Wales Australian of the Year for 2017 and refugee lawyer Deng Thiak Adut. Deng was taken from his mother as a young boy in Sudan and forced to train as a child soldier in the Second Sudanese Civil War, where he witnessed many atrocities and was almost killed at one stage. He eventually came to Australia as a refugee, taught himself English and completed a law degree. Deng is currently supporting Western Sydney's Sudanese community as a defence lawyer and performs a lot of his work pro bono.

Many people would use such experiences as an excuse to not succeed in life, but Deng turned this into energy and motivation to help others. I hope I can learn from Deng and work to become a stronger and more resilient individual in my legal career and in life, generally.

What do you want to achieve in your career and what has been your biggest achievement to date?
I want to continue to develop my knowledge and experience in IT law, particularly around cloud and cognitive solutions. It would also be great to give back to the legal community by mentoring others and engaging in pro bono legal work.

I don't know if it's an achievement, but I certainly feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work as a legal professional in a variety of firms and organisations, both in Australia and Japan. It has been a great journey so far.

Do you think firms are addressing millennial lawyers’ needs?
I think law firms and in-house legal departments are becoming more sensitive to the needs of millennial lawyers, who are known to value work culture and a healthy work-life balance over prestige and money. Some of these legal workplaces have initiatives such as buddy, mentoring, or shadowing programs to assist junior lawyers to settle in and develop a good foundation in their legal career. There is also an increasing trend for organisations to adopt flexible work arrangements such as working remotely or part-time. 

What are your hopes and aspirations in terms of working environments for the future?
I would like to see improvements in the working environment to allow lawyers to work more comfortably and efficiently, both alone and also collaboratively with other people.

I also hope there will be more and better resources available to assist lawyers who work with colleagues or clients from other jurisdictions. Perhaps this can be achieved by embracing new and improved technology and/or implementing structural changes to the working environment.

What makes your role interesting and different?
I support the legal teams in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China which makes my role very interesting. Not only am I exposed to a diverse range of transactional matters, from software to cloud, each jurisdiction has its distinct language, culture, laws/legal system and processes so I'm constantly switching from one language and mindset to another, which keeps things exciting and challenging!

What’s the biggest faux-pas in you’ve committed in your career?
I was working on an important research assignment on aviation financing the entire weekend and cancelled my dinner plans with a close friend who was visiting from interstate, only to find out it was actually due the week after!

What’s your weirdest professional encounter?
Before being admitted as a lawyer, I worked as a paralegal at a Sydney legal centre that provided free legal advice to those who were diagnosed with HIV. I remember reading the file note for a client who was in Silverwater Gaol. The file note included a warning to female staff that this client can be quite charming and for us to be careful.

Surely enough, five minutes into my conversation with the client, he started asking me where I lived and whether he could take me out for dinner one day after he is released from gaol! Apparently, it happened to other female staff too. Needless to say I was very relieved when the matter closed.

What are your interests outside of work?
I like going to art galleries, singing in the dark, salsa and being close to nature. I’m also passionate about languages and can write "father" in Arabic  – ha, what a feat!

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