Rebuilding bridges: Sharon Ser, senior regional partner in Asia at Withers, talks about handling lineage, litigation and complex family issues
A recognised expert in family law, Sharon Ser helps clients find their way through the complexities of divorce, custody, trusts, jurisdictions and the whole maze of potentially thorny follow-on issues. Over the years, it is an area which has given her genuine professional satisfaction and paved the way to her current position as regional senior partner in Asia for international law firm Withers.
But for all that, she is quick to recall she didn’t exactly choose family law – circumstance took a hand. And the fact that things have turned out so well is down to a combination of good fortune, grit, making the most of opportunities, and plain hard work.
“I was articled to a small firm in Twickenham in London,” Ser says, thinking back to her first job. “In the first week, one of the partners took me along to the local Citizens Advice Bureau as the firm’s ‘family law specialist’, and they started sending us work. It was a great training ground. You had to learn about the issues and understand how to manage clients. I made a lot of appearances in the local magistrates’ courts, going in with a pile of papers and standing up as an advocate. I loved it: the courtroom dynamics, the cases and arguments put forward, learning by failing when the judge or magistrate would query a submission. At times I felt it could just as easily have been a career on the stage.”
Neither did she originally plan for a career in law. The daughter of a London taxi driver and a kindergarten teacher who later became a full-time mum, Ser grew up as one of four siblings in a house full of noise and friendly arguments. Her earliest ambitions centred on journalism, an interest first apparent when, as a 12 year old, she started a school magazine soliciting short stories and articles from classmates.
At 18, aiming to join a trainee scheme for top Fleet Street newspapers – which required some background in politics or community affairs – she did a year’s research in the House of Commons for British politician Neil Kinnock. In later choosing to study law at the London School of Economics, her aim was to better understand how to analyse and present different sides of an issue for the news business. However, something unexpected happened.
“Much to my amazement, I really enjoyed the law,” Ser says. “I thought it was more ‘me’ and that I could play a part in shaping futures.”
With stiff competition for jobs in the 1980s, she applied to various firms for work as an articled clerk and focused on completing her qualifications and becoming a partner. That done, she was settled and relaxed, but a holiday in Hong Kong was to change everything.
“I was staggered by the energy of the place,” she says. “Soon after, I saw a copy of the Law Gazette advertising for a divorce lawyer here and, on a whim, I applied. I’m usually a ‘steady Eddie’ sort of personality, but I thought this was the biggest adventure possible – and if it didn’t work out I could always go back to Twickenham.
“On the flight from London to Bombay, I didn’t stop crying, but I arrived here on a Saturday, was in court on Monday morning, and things fell into place very quickly.”
Close to 30 years on, having made the move to Withers six years ago, she combines running the firm with an extensive caseload. On the one hand, the key is to structure and strategise effectively, finding the extra 15 minutes when necessary to take care of admin; on the other, it is to keep learning, reaching when necessary for the journals or textbooks. Importantly, she must understand the emotions involved in a case – not just the legal technicalities or the international factors when family members are in different countries.
“Clients who come to see you with a family law problem are as concerned about their broken heart or the impact on their children as they are with the facts and arguments, so you have to be empathetic,” Ser says. “Most people who come to see me want to do everything possible to extract themselves from a relationship in a way that minimises the damage.”
The work can involve complex trust structures, especially when dealing with large dynastic families, inheritances and sometimes even international abductions. Another newer development in Hong Kong is the increased interest in pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements, particularly where mothers want to make sure their children do not miss out financially in the event of any future divorce.
“In Hong Kong, there is a gap in the law regarding mothers who never married,” Ser says. “And I’m also dealing more with single-sex relationships, disentangling things for people who married outside Hong Kong.”
Away from work, she has become a hiker, is a keen supporter of inter-faith initiatives, and has set up the Hong Kong Friends of Tel Aviv University to promote education and charity.
“I’ve been lucky in life,” she says. “Opportunities have come along and I’ve been quite good at recognising them, but I’ve also had a series of mentors who nudged me in the right direction. The real skill in being a family lawyer is to look at what is being ‘destroyed’ and embark on a campaign of reconstruction.”
Sharon Ser’s advice on succeeding in family law.
Stay a student “It is important to love to learn because that leads to enlightenment in terms of the particular skills you can offer and will also heighten intuition.”
Know your people “I make it my business to know what the firm’s partners around the world do and, therefore, whose expertise I can draw on for different client issues.”
Shift perspective “You have to learn to be empathetic, if not naturally so. That is more constructive than just ‘judging’ a situation and it allows you to be more creative when advising a client.”
See both sides “Law is a service industry and the client’s needs come first. But law is also a business, so you have to understand accounts and overheads and be ready to invest in new skills and good partners.”
Tend to your talent “Younger people start off now wanting to get the balance right. They are much clearer about being good lawyers and having a good family life.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Rebuilding bridges.