Boutique firm Consilium Law’s Managing Director Franca Ciambella explains how juggles being mother of three boys and heading up the law corporation.
Where are you from?
I’m Canadian, and I speak French, Italian and some Spanish. I’ve been in Singapore for 20 years. I came right out of school for what was supposed to be a two-year assignment with a big UK law firm. For my husband and me, it was an adventure – and it’s one that’s never stopped!
I was interested in international commercial transactions, so I needed to be in a part of the world that was emerging in this area. Since then, my career has gone into directions that I never expected. I started as an international lawyer, then I became the managing partner in an international firm, after which I got a job as general counsel for a Fortune 500 company, which I did for seven years. After that I was invited to become a member of the Singapore Bar, and now I feel very honoured to be one of the few foreigners with full admission.
You’re the managing director of your own firm, Consilium Law Corporation, the vice-president of the Canadian Association and a mother of three teenage boys. What’s your secret?
A lot of women ask me how I juggle family, charity work and so on. I think it’s a matter of being very organised and setting priorities, saying “My family’s very important to me, so I’m going to balance my family life with my work.” It’s very easy to be swept away by your career.
Especially for lawyers! How do you draw that line?
Right! What I did was to make a schedule. Many people spend long hours in the office, but waste a lot of time during the day. So, working extremely efficiently, I would carve out time in the day for family – say, from 6.30 to 8.30pm – and then I would continue to work from home. As young woman, while your career is developing, you also have to consider this balance as you choose your spouse. My husband and I see ourselves as a partnership; you need to support each other and make use of your different contributions.
You came over here for a specific role, but soon started a family and an active social life. Tell us what’s driven you to maintain such a high-powered career.
I think one of the great things about being a woman in this age is that we have the choice. What makes one person happy may not make another person happy. For me, one of the things that defined me was my career. It’s important for me to work hard, and the kind of work I do gives me a lot of satisfaction. I have a lot of friends who are homemakers and work extremely hard at that, or in charity work – that’s great! You need to find what makes you happy and do it.
What parts of expat life have you found difficult?
I’ve gone through trials and tribulations in my life that most women go through. My father died two years ago, and for expats being away from home, it’s extremely difficult when a family member is ill. My advice is to take the time to be with your loved ones while they’re still alive. A lot of us are reaching that age where our parents are getting older, and I have had friends who’ve been hesitant to take that time. You’ll come back. Your work will still be here, your kids will still be here, but your relatives may not.
I had breast cancer two years ago and again, that was a challenge, but I think you need to keep persevering and look for those silver linings. For example, it was while I was ill that I was invited to join the Singapore Bar, and being ill gave me the time I needed to prepare for admission. As expats, we all go through a lot of challenges while we’re away from our traditional support networks.
What have you learned about doing business across Asian and Western cultures?
The important thing is to do your homework and be aware of differences. You also need to have some basic standards that you’re going to stick to regardless of the culture.
Tell us about some of your funny moments in Asia.
Well, I once happened to be on a plane to China with the Prime Minister of Singapore and his entire delegation. Eager to leave them to their networking, I was first off the plane, only to be greeted by flashbulbs, crowds and the President of China. The first thing I said was, “I’m not the Prime Minister!”; but after a gracious welcome from Hu Jintao, I remembered what you’re supposed to say: “I’m so happy to be here”, at which point my briefcase flew open and all my files fell onto the floor!
Why do people call on your legal services?
For corporate and commercial work, contracts, mergers and acquisitions our practice covers the whole region; we can help people do business in China, Vietnam, Malaysia and so on.
Our Singapore family law and litigation department is also very strong, because of a unfortunate growing need in the expat community. While it’s saddening to see the rise in divorces, I do find my work in this department very satisfying. I’m an accredited mediator, and in one day of mediation, we can usually resolve most of the issues related to a divorce. If you don’t resolve them through mediation, you can be bogged down in court for many years.
You’ve certainly achieved a lot, both in your career and in your family life. Are there any dreams you’ve yet to fulfil?
Yes! Actually, I’ve started a book and I would like to finish it. The underlying theme is having the courage to speak out. I would also like to do more mediation – on higher levels, between governments. But there’s a time and place for everything.