Young Rising Stars: Sarah-Mae Thomas On Starting A Law Firm at 30
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
At 30, most lawyers either have their heads buried deep in work or are trying to figure out how to get out of work that has consumed their lives. Not Sarah-Mae. She ditched the comfort and safety of a regular pay and took the risky and uncertain path of starting her own law firm. Immortalize spoke to Sarah-Mae Thomas, managing director at Sarah-Mae Thomas LLC, about her entrepreneur journey, experience transitioning from Australia to Singapore and helping expats with their estates and family issues.
Name: Sarah-Mae Thomas
Company: Sarah-Mae Thomas LLC
Estate Planning Specialization: Mental capacity
Base Country: Singapore
Service Style: Collaborative and international
Anything Interesting: Designated dance choreographer at friends’ weddings
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Q: Can you tell me more about yourself? Why did you decide to go into law?
Thomas: I have always been very passionate about justice and helping people in difficult situations. There was once when my mum and brother were having an argument. I mediated between them and my mum said, “Sarah-Mae, I think you’d make an excellent judge!”. I replied, “I’m going to study ‘judgery’!” and my mum said “No, you need to study law, not judgery”. I was five years old and decided then that I wanted to be a lawyer.
Q: Did you start your career in Singapore?
Thomas: No. I was born in Singapore, did primary school here, and moved to Melbourne at 12 years old.
Q: Why did you move there?
Thomas: Education. My parents thought the education system here was too much of a pressure cooker and decided that Australia would be best to provide us with a more well-rounded education. And that’s what we did. We packed our bags and migrated to Melbourne, Australia.
Q: When did you come back to Singapore and why?
Thomas: 6 years ago. My dad had always been in Singapore. He would spend a week every month in Melbourne with us, whereas my mum was stationed there. She had moved back with my brother after 10 years and it was just me alone in Melbourne. That was when I decided that I wanted to move back home because I want to be with my family.
Q: What was your career progression like?
Thomas: I graduated from Monash University, did my traineeship, and worked as a solicitor in Melbourne. When I moved back to Singapore, I joined a large firm here and while I had a good experience, it was not what I had wanted. I would be churning out cases and had no real client contact. It was all about billables and crunching numbers and what I wanted was to have a more interactive personable experience with clients.
After 2 years at the large firm, I moved to a boutique practice. There, I went under tutelage with a very respectable family lawyer before deciding to start my own firm.
Q: Why did you decide to set up your own firm?
Thomas: I’ve always wanted to run my own business. When I was 15, I had entrepreneurial ideas in this folder called “My Big Dream”, which stored my business plans. Sometimes when I took the train, I dreamt about starting my own company although I never thought it would be a law firm.
My desire grew stronger when I moved to Singapore because I felt that Singapore law firms don’t have a focus on thought leadership at an associate level.
Associates are often given a file, and you do it. That’s it. You don’t bounce off ideas at lunch meetings and you don’t discuss about business development. I realized that to do what I wanted to do, I had to either be a partner or move up to some management position, and that would have taken at least 10 years.
Industrial Revolution Battles
One of the motivations for starting my own firm was that I got to create the culture and set the tone. I don’t have to convince leadership. That was a price I paid when I moved back to Singapore. I was fighting battles that I thought would have been fought in the industrial revolution.
People worked till 2am and came in on weekends. I remembered during Chinese New Year, if you had two days off as public holidays, it was given that one of the two days you had to come in to work all day.
To me, that translates to modern-day slavery. The boss thinks that they own you, pay you a minimum salary and your life becomes work. When I tried to speak to management about the importance of work-life balance, they would say “All these millennials, they don’t know anything about hard work”, which was not true.
The conversation should be “How can we work efficiently between 9 to 6”. In Australia, if you left at 7pm, people would think that you’re weird. Do you not have a social life? Do you not have a family? It was frowned upon. Whereas here, it was a norm. 9pm was normal, and I disagree with that.
Q: That didn’t make you want to go back to Australia?
Thomas: Many times. I wanted to throw in the blanket and go back to Australia. It’s so much easier. But my family is here, I made the decision, and I’m not a quitter. Everyone who’s forced to change in a certain situation either have a choice to sink or swim. I can be the thought leader, start a revolution and be a pioneer. You’re always that one single voice that sounds crazy until the revolution becomes the norm.
I wanted to go back to Australia every day for the first five years, until one day, I realized that I needed to have a different mindset. I needed to make my experience in Singapore the best experience. Australia isn’t perfect too and how do I integrate the best of both worlds?
Q: What’s bad about Australia?
Thomas: I wouldn’t say bad, but what Singapore does better is that the court system is one of the most effective and fastest system in the world. When you get a divorce claim or any claim through the court system, Singapore is much faster than Australia, India, US, or UK from start to end. They have timelines and they stick to it, and that’s what Singapore does well.
If you have a problem that you need help in Australia, you will probably get an answer in three weeks. But in Singapore, it’ll probably be up to three days. I wanted efficiency without the downside of work-life balance.
Q: Why did you choose to specialize in family law?
Thomas: Initially, I didn't want to touch this area because I didn’t want to be involved in breaking up a family unit.
Over time, as I started getting exposed to family law cases, I realized that this is an amazing area of law because I actually get to help people in very volatile situations. Even though I don’t condone divorce, I think it’s the last resort for situations like domestic violence and when the family is severely dysfunctional. I began to realize that I am in a place where I can help and make a difference.
Q: What are the difficulties that you are facing right now as a start-up law firm? Compared to the comfort you had when you are in a bigger firm?
Thomas: There’s always something challenging. When we’re launching, the challenge is to get business. Once people start hearing about us, they refer others to us so having that traction becomes important but also challenging.
Q: Who are your target clients and what’s your specialization in the estate planning side of things?
Thomas: Expats are my target clients. Mental capacity, in particular, Lasting Power of Attorney (“LPA”).
Q: What are the issues that expats should take note of when doing their LPA or Will in Singapore?
Thomas: They will need to decide if they want to do an international will or a local will. An international will covers assets in multiple countries while a local will covers assets in one country.
The LPA that you file in Singapore will only cover Singapore. If you expect to live in other countries, you will have to do an LPA-equivalent in other countries.
Also, the wills and LPAs have to be checked to make sure that they don’t contradict each other.
Make sure you get proper advice for your properties in various countries. Things to consider include inheritance tax, extracting the grant of probate and in the event of country-specific wills, ensure that your will in one country doesn’t deal with any property in another country.
Q: Anything interesting about you besides work?
Thomas: In Australia, I used to run Bollywood dance classes and now, I use that skill to come up with dance routines at friends’ weddings. Before Covid-19, I would attend many weddings and be asked to dance in almost all of them.
I also run a podcast called “The Legal Eagle Podcast” where I invite people to talk about various legal and social issues. I have always enjoyed hosting, emceeing, public speaking, and debating so I thought this was just a natural progression that I could fit in between my law work.
This interview has been edited for length.
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