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Monday August 31, 2009

A passion to excel

High-powered corporate lawyer Cho Yuen Yee finds her work stimulating rather than stressful.

THERE’s no question that Cho Yuen Yee excels in her job.

In the past two years, the Mallesons Stephen Jaques partner has been advising in a few high-profile deals.

On the job: ‘I am always conscious not to be complacent and recognise that you are only as good as your last deal,’ says Cho Yuen Yee.

Last year, Cho was voted by her peers as one of Australia’s best corporate lawyers (banking and finance) in the legal directory Best Lawyers. She was also featured in the Australian Financial Review on her achievements.

“I was thrilled but also very privileged to be able to get peer and client recognition for doing something that I love,” said Cho, 39.

Does being one of the country’s top corporate lawyers add to her work pressure?

“No, definitely not. Work is work, and my focus is very much on doing my best on each transaction to deliver the commercial outcomes that my clients want,” she said matter-of-factly.

“If, as a result, my professional reputation is enhanced, it is a bonus. I am always conscious not to be complacent and recognise that you are only as good as your last deal. This drives me to keep trying to do better,” she added.

As commercial lawyers, Cho said they were not involved in life-or-death situations in the way a doctor or surgeon might be.

However, that does not mean the stress is any less.

“There is always a general level of pressure and stress as one has to deal with client deadlines, competing priorities and knowing that our deals involve significant commercial consequences and money. However, it is important to keep some perspective.

“Being involved in cutting-edge transactions is something that I am passionate about and I learn so much from each deal.

“So generally speaking, work for me is exciting and energising rather than stressful. It helps that I have a very supportive husband, family and a fantastic team around me at work, otherwise I’m not sure I could do what I do!”

On average, Cho puts in between 50 and 80 hours of work a week.

“The trick is to rest and maximise the downtime so our stamina is there for the busy times.”

Cho is also proud of the fact that her firm practises true meritocracy and gender equality.

According to a recent Australian Financial Review survey, nearly 23% of Mallesons’ partners are females, higher than some of its large national counterparts.

“These two issues are extremely important to me. I do not think I can work in a place where they are not present. I am fortunate in that respect at Mallesons as these attributes may not be prevalent in every sector of industry.”

As a partner in the firm, she plays an active role in promoting these principles in different ways.

“Firstly, I believe positive role-modelling is crucial, as well as showing others that they can succeed if they apply themselves and not give up at the first hurdle,” she said.

Cho mentors lawyers formally and informally at the firm and also participates in university mentoring programmes.

“Secondly, I always keep an open mind to learn from others and take all criticism or negative comment as something to learn from.”

She advises young female professionals to believe in themselves and be confident.

“Do not shy away from excelling in something for fear it will make you stand out from the crowd.

“I worry sometimes about the influence of popular celebrity culture on young women with its focus on superficial things like appearance and weight. I hope that it will not distract young women from striving for academic, intellectual, professional or, for that matter, sporting excellence.”

The former Assunta Petaling Jaya student migrated with her family to Sydney when she was 15. Both her parents worked at the Rubber Research Institute in Kuala Lumpur; her late father was a research officer while her mother was a research assistant.

“They both retired from their positions so that we could migrate here as a family and start afresh. My sisters and I will always be grateful to them for giving us the opportunities we have had,” said the middle one of three siblings.

Cho attended Chatswood High School, after which she studied law at Sydney University, graduating with first class honours.

She then secured a scholarship to further her postgraduate law studies at Oxford University, Britain, where she again obtained first class honours.

Cho readily credits her alma mater in Malaysia for the influence it has had on her.

“I cannot underestimate the influence of Assunta and my fellow Assuntarians in ‘moulding’ me. The girls I went to school with were such a fantastic bunch that I don’t think our parents really needed to do anything to motivate us to do well.

“We largely motivated and competed with each other in a good-natured and supportive way.”

She added that the school culture, then headmistress Sister Enda and the teachers were all instrumental in giving guidance and motivation.

“It is borne out by the fact that the Assuntarians in my year are all such high achievers.

“There are doctors, surgeons, anaesthetists, entrepreneurs, architects and human rights workers amongst them, scattered all over the world.”

Cho became a mother two years ago after giving birth to Jasper.

“He has certainly brought a whole new dimension to my life and is such a joy to be around. Being a parent has been a very fun experience so far,” she said.

An opera enthusiast, Cho has not missed a single show in town and lists Verdi and Puccini as her favourite composers.

Besides opera, she enjoys spending time with her husband Derek and Jasper at the park, the zoo or just lazing around at home.

“Pre-Jasper, I also loved travelling to exotic locations to discover other cultures and ancient civilisations such as Peru, Bolivia and Uzbekistan.”

Cho’s aim in the future includes being a good mother and to see Jasper grow up to be a healthy and happy boy.

“(I also want) to see out the global financial crisis, and help consolidate and grow Mallesons’ banking and finance practice in both Australia and Asia,” she said.

Fact File

Name: Cho Yuen Yee

Age: 39

Hometown: Petaling Jaya

Education: Assunta Primary School and Assunta Secondary School, Petaling Jaya; Chatswood High School, Sydney, Australia; Sydney University; Oxford University, Britain.

Occupation: Corporate lawyer (banking and finance)

Current base: Sydney

Years abroad: 24

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