Stefanie Yuen Thio: A Justice Warrior Through and Through
Melissa Gail Sing spends a morning with effervescent legal eagle and champion of charity Stefanie Yuen-Thio chatting about everything from what it’s like working with her husband to the challenges faced by the next generation of law graduates to why she likes target shooting and her secret little wish.
Fighting spirit. It’s the blood that runs through the veins of Stefanie Yuen-Thio, a fearless social justice warrior, both when she’s on the legal battleground and when championing the needs of society’s underprivileged. The leading lawyer and Joint Managing Director of homegrown law firm TSMP says, “When I see injustice, I can’t not jump in and do something. I’m an activist. When I see a problem, I will charge in there, probably more than I should. But I lead from the heart. I think emotionally before I think with my brain on certain matters where I think there’s been injustice.”
It’s an ethos which makes her clients comfortable enough to speak to her about matters outside of her sphere of expertise which includes mergers and acquisitions, equity capital markets and corporate transactions. It’s also an ethos that has inspired the many young law graduates she has mentored through the years.
How did you get into law?
My growing up experiences did not influence my career choice. I fell into law by default. I wasn’t smart enough to be a doctor, and I wasn’t very good with numbers so I couldn’t become a physicist, mathematician, accountant or engineer. I had no choice but to apply to study law or arts and social sciences. I applied to both and took the one that accepted me.
What do you love about this field?
I didn’t enjoy it at first. I thought it was too technical. But I like dealing with people and dealing with developing situations. I don’t like dealing with a vey long document in and out and being very detailed. Over the years, however, I’ve come to enjoy doing it because I see it as part of solving a problem or a puzzle. I enjoy doing that part of it.
Working with family members isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. What’s it like sharing the top seat with your husband?
Very rewarding because we’re building something together. So in that sense, I don’t feel that my marriage has suffered because of my career. My husband is very supportive and we are complementary. He is the company visionary with a great finger on the pulse of what’s going on. He keeps his eye trained on the future and thinks about things like what artificial intelligence means for us. I take on more of a management and enforcement role where I make sure that the firm runs efficiently. It’s a good partnership.
Do you talk shop at the dinner table?
Yes, but we don’t think of it as business talk. Of course, we won’t be dissecting a case over a meal but we may discuss the latest developments just like a wife might share the latest developments at work with her husband. The only difference is that my husband knows exactly what I am taking about, so I don’t have to explain everything. We’re very blessed that we’re life partners in our marriage, as parents, as well as in our workplace. It makes our marriage stronger.
In what way/s do graduating lawyers today have it different compared to when you were just starting out?
Back then, there were fewer career choices. You grew up thinking you’re lucky to have a university education although you’re not rich. Otherwise you wouldn’t have gone to university and would probably have had to do some other work than what you had wanted to. So people of my generation found the best job they could, did the best they could and they held on for as long as they could because the alternative was not to survive.
Nowadays, with a degree, there is a whole host of options for young law graduates and it’s become more socially acceptable to try different options. Many more decisions are being made today. More young associates leave their jobs because of the higher levels of stress today or because they can afford to just take six months off to go shopping, see the world or climb a mountain, or to become a theatre artiste or a chef. Some of them do well, but many others fail. So, the challenge for parents is to help their children self-actualise and decide what it is they truly want to do. We can’t pin our children to the boxes we were confined by previously.
Compared to those in my time, I’d say that young lawyers today are a lot more hardworking because our education system has ingrained in them the idea that they have to put in the hours for a competitive job like this. But they are also less hungry. They want everything to come in one click: work-life balance, career progression and so on. But it doesn’t work that way.
With the economy expected to take a downturn, the next back of graduates will come out with their feet placed more firmly on the ground. People who come out and start working during boom times tend not to value their jobs as much as those who come out during a downturn. The latter group will have to fight for a job and they have to actually earn it, even if they’re really good at what they do. These are the people who really appreciate what they have.
I think that sense of hunger is no longer there among younger lawyers, but people like me still have that sense. I may be running my own firm but every day, I wonder if my job is secure. There is a slight fear that this could all go away, so I must make the best of it. It makes you try to be the best today, because being better is the only defence you have to what could happen to you.
What do you find challenging about mentoring this generation of law graduates?
I think what’s crucial is to understand what it is that makes this generation tick. I have my own set of beliefs and attitudes towards my job, and this generation, they’re great and they have a lot of energy. On the one hand, they want the same things that you wanted, that is, security, financial comfort and stability. On the other hand, those wants are in an environment where there are so many other push and pull factors that makes things much more complex.
Not only does TSMP have a big Corporate Social Responsibility programme, you too are personally involved in several charities, including iC2 Prephouse. How do you choose the causes to support?
About 10 to 15 years ago, we decided to start giving 10 per cent of partnership profit to charity. But after a while, we felt that this was just cutting a cheque so we started doing more. We began offering pro-bono legal services. Then we found that some of us weren’t able to do very much in that area. We help people buy and sell listed companies, but we’re not so good at helping someone with marital problems for example. So we decided to do something that isn’t law related—hands and feet charity. This way, even staff who are not law-trained can be involved. We choose two charities to work with every year. We started with the big charities that were very organised and could teach us how to help. For the first year, we did big scale events with the Children’s Cancer Foundation. Gradually, we reached out to less well-resourced charities. Through the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, we looked for under-resourced charities, those that are less sexy with corporates, to help. Old folks, for example, are less sexy than children’s causes. I felt strongly that I should not just be randomly adopting charities but going for the ones where I can make a strategic difference.
What are your fondest memories of growing up?
My father is a lawyer, while my mum used to work in an airline till I was 15. I’m very fortunate in that we got to travel when I was younger because in those days, air travel was extremely expensive. My mum would get a free family trip every year, so we managed to see the world a little. I’m ever grateful for that. Travelling opens up one’s horizons.
I grew up in a family where my mother was the carer of the family. My grandmother lived with her and my great-grandmother would live with her and so on. Even my great aunt who was adopted lived with her. During Chinese New Year, everyone would come around to our home because the old folks were with us. My great grandmother used to grow fruit and vegetables in our home, and I remember pottering around in the garden. The kitchen was always a busy place with a pot of soup brewing. The kids would make a lot of noise and mess in the backyard. That was really fun.
I loved that we grew up in a big communal household where everyone gathered around the table to have meals together. It’s not a world we have anymore. I work late till 1am when everyone is asleep. I have to tiptoe into my room, and be really quiet as I get ready for bed. It’s a much more removed existence. I wish that my son could have a big family, a home with lots of screaming and friction but a lot of love that comes with that. I am very grateful to my parents for giving me that kind of household to grow up in, that they were not the ones who went off and were insular but they welcomed my grandmother and great-grandmother. I learnt that from my mother and when my great-aunt fell sick, it was the most natural thing for me to ask her to live with me. It was the same when my grandmother got older. I said that it’s my turn to look after her and so she came to live with us; we were four generations under one roof. That’s what I love about Singapore.
Any unfulfilled ambition or little secret?
I want to go out and be a cleaning lady at a hawker centre for a day. I’m trying to see if anybody will give me that job. They don’t really need to pay me and I won’t be wearing any make-up, but I want to know what that life is like.
People say, “Are you sure? Can you take it?” But I want to see the world. I am very curious about human nature, the human condition and what people go through and the different walks of life. We live such privileged lives. No matter what problems we have, we can still go back home and look after our children. So that’s my passion—understanding the human nature and getting to know people.
What are some of your lesser-known or new hobbies outside of work and how do these influence you?
I enjoy having dinners with friends at my home where we’ll engage in conversations on various subjects. I thrive on intelligent conversations. I also enjoy photography. I have a Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera that I use a lot. I like to shoot the human condition and many of my photos are portraits of people in the streets.
I recently took up shooting which I do at a shooting range. I like the discipline of it; you have to try to be very accurate. I find that empowering. At the same time, it’s so far removed from everything else that it creates a nice escape. Then there’s reading. Not too long ago, I was in London on a four-day Just For Me trip where I spent all my time in bookshops, collecting books and reading.
Photography: Lionel Lai/Acepix
Grooming: Sha Shamsi