Corinna and Serena are two women who are outstanding in their own fields. Both graduated with LLBs from the National University of Singapore and started their careers in legal practice - Corinna, at Allen & Gledhill; and Serena, at Khattar Wong & Partners. Both women eventually started technology company Bizibody Technology Pte Ltd together in 2000.
Serena is now the CEO of Bizibody Technology Pte Ltd and founder of the Bizibody Alliance, an umbrella brand providing legal technology solutions and support services to the legal fraternity in Singapore and Malaysia. Notable nationwide legal technology projects Serena has been involved in include the Subordinate Court’s Justice Online and the Singapore Academy of Law’s Lawnet (Legal Prospector).
Corinna is currently the Executive Director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). Her volunteer experience with AWARE began during her practising years - she was the principal drafter of the Domestic Violence Bill that former AWARE president and Nominated Member of Parliament, Dr Kanwaljit Soin, tabled to Parliament. Her contributions as AWARE’s first Executive Director include leading AWARE’s campaign for more protection against workplace harassment from 2010 to 2015, which culminated in the adoption of the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 and the Tripartite Advisory on Workplace Harassment in 2015.
Corinna and Serena just so happen to be twin sisters as well. Read on to find out if they are identical or fraternal twins; their thoughts on burnout; and how life begins at 35 (or 50).
Letters of the Law (LOTL): Let’s start from before the start. Why did you choose to study law?
Corinna (C): I actually didn’t choose to study law, but it was because she [Serena] was going to law school, then I had to go to law school too.
Our paths sort of went out and in and out and in… We were in the same schools [CHIJ, then CJC]. I was in a science class; she was in an arts class. I wanted to do biochem in university; she wanted to do law. My parents said, why don’t you follow your sister to do law? They were of the view that there was no future in biochem. I was kind of unwilling to go to law school but I ended up going anyway.
After law school, I started out at Allen & Gledhill, but eventually, we ended up in the same place again [Khattar Wong & Partners]. Then she went to Hong Kong [to practise at Khattar Wong & Partners’ Hong Kong office], while I went to the States because I got a scholarship [to study non-profit management at Columbia University].
Then, in New York, I got bitten by the dot com bubble and wanted to do it in Singapore. I asked her to help me. She wanted to do Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in Hong Kong. From law in KhattarWong, right? So I said, why don’t you help me first? We decided that she wouldn’t do TCM, and we ended up starting Bizibody Technology.
Our paths have really gone like that throughout. Only this part, where we are now, we’ve been separate for quite a long time.
Serena (S): We started Bizibody in 2000.
C: Yes. We had a sort of competitive history in the past. Maybe she has a different memory of all of this, but this is my memory of it: We used to be rivals on the tennis and squash courts. We were both national players. We were in the same age group, so we often played against each other as well. We were quite competitive. And when I asked her to do this [Bizibody] with me, she decided that we should be on the same team for once. So we did. We pulled in four other lawyers—only a few of us had tech background—and I became the leader of the group, because it was my crazy idea.
S: Then the dot com crashed, maybe around 2002…
C: At that point, we had already raised about $1 million for the website. We could have gone on, seeing that it was leading nowhere, or we could change track and do something with what money we had. We know technology, we know lawyers, we know how they work. That’s how we decided on our current business model, that we would provide tech to the legal industry.
Then after that it was Bizibody for some time, for both of us. In 2005 I sort of burnt out. I wanted to close the company. I felt bad because I had dragged everyone along. By then, it was only Serena and Sylvia left on the team with me. She [Serena] had always said that she would support me, but that I had to be the one in the forefront. But I couldn’t go on anymore. Out of a sense of obligation and because of the fact that she liked the whole techie thing, Serena said that she would continue. So I left and went back to practice. She stayed on and she’s still there.
Now we’ve been quite separate. I went back to law, and then in 2009, I got involved in the AWARE saga—
S: I helped out with that.
C: —yes, she helped out. She used her technology. She had a SMS platform, which we used to send voting instructions. [Editors' Note: You may read more about the AWARE saga on AWARE's website or at this article by The Economist.]
I stayed on in the non-profit world after the AWARE saga and became its first Executive Director. She continued with Bizibody. That’s the general shape of our career.
S: A lot of things are by trial and error and mistakes. When I did law, it was very well-planned: I would do arts, because I really did not want to compete with my sister anymore—
C: I didn’t know all this.
S: —I’m serious! After O levels, I did arts, although we’ve always been much more into the sciences. I had it all planned. Then I would do law. At that time, there were only a few things that society—according to my parents—would value: accountancy, law, or medicine. She [Corinna] was supposed to do medicine.
C: That’s why I went to the science stream.
S: And I would choose law. Accountancy seemed too boring.
C: Our younger sister went to Accountancy.
S: But then she didn’t play according to the plan. For most of us back then, you didn’t really know what you were getting yourself into. These days, by the time most people graduate from law school, they’ve already been interning for many years. They have quite a good idea of what practice will be like. But it was very different then. You had no idea what law school was like and you had very little idea what practice was like.
C: I worked in a law firm.
S: She got a scholarship for Freshfields.
C: Essentially, I was not a very good law student. I was used to doing fairly well in science, and then in my first and second years in law, I was quite mediocre. Then in third year, I remember going to this board. Do you still have that?
LOTL: No, we don’t. But Professor Tan Cheng Han wrote about it in his Letter.
C: On the left of the board are the names of people who did very well. So as usual, I went to the middle of the board. I couldn’t find my name. I walked to the right. In my heart I was like, oh God, did I do so badly? I still couldn’t find my name. Then finally, I walked to the left. As it turned out, I was the top girl for the third year. At that time, third year was the most important year, because that was the grade you used to get into law firms when they interviewed you. It was a complete surprise. I still have no idea how I did that.
Because of that, I applied to an international firm called Freshfields that had a Singapore license. They were giving out scholarships to Singaporean students to spend two months at their London offices.
Our lives were kinda like—there was always an equivalent. When I went away, she also went away. But we would often be in different countries. I went to London in the summer of my third year, and she went to Japan on exchange.
S: It was really by process of elimination as opposed to wisdom or anything like that.
LOTL: Were you two often in the same classes in law school?
LOTL: Was that confusing for your professors?
S: No… Actually, we didn’t know whether we were identical twins.
C: So the story is that our mother told us we were identical twins. But she also told us that the doctor was very old and unreliable. He didn’t tell her she was going to have twins until three weeks before she gave birth to us.
Then, recently the gene test became commercialised and you could get it done quite easily and cheaply. I really wanted to find out but I thought I could not persuade Serena to do it. But she changed her mind after a while. Was it because you turned 50?
S: Did I change my mind? I don’t know. She just gave me a bag to spit into [laughs].
C: Anyway, we did the test.
S: We sent it overseas.
C: The results came back and our friends took bets. We bet that we were identical.
S: My mum bet that we were not.
C: It turned out that we were identical! We weren’t sure last time. We never had that “you feel what I feel” kind of telepathy. We looked quite different. But I think we are quite similar in some ways, and in an uncanny sort of way, the years where significant things have happened for me, were significant years for her as well.
LOTL: Were there any such similarities between your law school experiences?
S: I found law school itself quite unmemorable. I liked studying the law a lot, but I just didn’t think it was very memorable in terms of forming bonds.
C: Likewise. I think my fondest memories were from CHIJ. It was kind of downhill from there…
S: That’s probably not very good for your article [laughs].
But, if anyone asked me today whether they should study law even though they don’t want to become a lawyer, I would say ‘certainly’. I think it is very good training. In fact, law school, in terms of preparing us for a career, I think it was better then than it is now. That’s my guess.
LOTL: Better back then?
S: Now, the way I see it, a lot of the things that first year lawyers do can be automated. And they teach you nothing of that at all in law school. The whole cycle is quite depressing. You work very hard, you come out, and then you burn out so quickly. Not because you’re not hardworking, but because you do realise that a lot of things that you’re doing can be automated.
My technology slant was something I had no clue about at all because we went through law school without computers. I am lucky in that whatever I learnt in my first eleven years as a lawyer is still relevant to my work today. All my technology today is about helping lawyers work more efficiently.
While I didn’t really enjoy law school, I was very appreciative that I did go through law school. Everything that has come from that [experience] is still something that I use today.
LOTL: You both mentioned burnout. Corinna, yours was when you were thinking of shutting down Bizibody. Serena, you were talking about young practitioners. What is the solution to that? Is it finding something meaningful in what you’re doing, or is it finding a gap to exploit, like how you two started Bizibody?
C: I think those are two different kinds of burnout. For mine, it was not that what I was doing was not meaningful. It was too meaningful. You become very passionate about what you do and sometimes it takes over. I still struggle with that.
For me, I don’t think I burnt out in law. I burnt out most when there were things I was most passionate about. That’s probably a better kind of burnout than the kind Serena was talking about.
LOTL: Both kinds of burnout are problems that I’m struggling with, myself. For instance, for yourself, there are times when there are so many things that are really, really meaningful and you want to do them all but you can’t. Do you have any tips for how to channel your energy in the best way possible? Coping mechanisms, perhaps?
C: I don’t think I do it very well actually. But I find ways of coping, such as taichi. When I do that, at least for that one hour, I am not thinking about work. I am just into my body. And that’s nice. The solution would be figuring out how to make that feeling part of your whole life. Right now, I carve out certain times [to do taichi]. That’s one way to be disciplined. But it is a constant struggle.
S: That sort of burnout is in a way better than the other one.
We see so much happening now that suggests to us that the practice of law is going to be very, very different tomorrow from what it is today. The reason why it is as bad as it is now, in terms of unhappiness and people leaving the profession, is that we are only now transitioning to what it will be like. It’s not just law. It’s actually the whole world. It has to do with technology. You will see that while technology is supposed to help us work less, we are now working harder than ever. That isn’t what the promise of technology was supposed to be. We are still striving for growth, but at some point, you cannot keep growing. There is just too much production.
My proposed solution is that we all work less hard. For my company, I’m just thinking that—
C: 4-day work week?
C: Me too!
S: That would solve a lot of problems. To me it’s quite a simple thing. What is work about? Yes, you need sustenance. But people just don’t look at it that way at all. There’s no end to how much you want to improve. It’s knowing when to stop and it’s all about consciousness. It’s all about taking time to really think about what you are doing, and seeing what other options you have.
I remember being in KhattarWong and thinking… all the wars have been fought. I could see myself 20 years in the future, and I knew exactly what I would be doing, and it was really boring. I would just be a partner. There’s nothing for me to strive towards in a law firm. That’s why I wanted to do TCM. Who knew that this whole Internet thing would come in and give people so many options?
I’m working now with third year law students from alt+law. They approached me to say that they want to help lawyers to reinvent themselves. I think that’s very promising—seeing what is needed and seeing how you can actually play a role in that.
LOTL: Do you have any tips for fresh law grads to make themselves more automation-proof? How do we train ourselves to be more than just machines?
S: Actually, the gap is between these fresh law grads and the senior partners. The senior partners think, we did it that way so why don’t you just do it that way? When I show young people what can be done, they all get very excited, but they don’t have the decision-making power. Hence, they feel disconnected and discouraged.
LOTL: Other than not having the power to make decisions, sometimes that resistance to change is in the fresh grads, too. Sometimes you think that you should just do it the way everyone else does it. But what leaps out at me from both your experiences is something in your personalities, to see an institutional problem and actually do something to change it.
S: I hadn’t thought about it that way, but yes, that’s true. It’s just that I chose to do it the capitalist way [laughs].
LOTL: You said you didn’t have much tech background when you started Bizibody. What was that like?
C: Serena is much more techie than me! She’s got five more phones than me.
S: I still struggle with it. It was a challenge for sure. But because everything was so logical—and again I come back to this whole discipline of learning the law—it puts you in a very good position to actually pick up anything that requires logic and reasoning from first principles.
LOTL: What would you say to law students who feel fearful about not going down the traditional track of practicing law? What would you say to those fearful of pursuing alternative careers?
C: [to Serena] Did you feel any fearfulness at any point?
S: Yeah, I did. I felt fearful when I first went into KhattarWong. I didn’t even know how to write a simple letter. I tried to learn as much as I could on my own. Six months later, when I got called, they said, you’re completely on your own and you can sign any letter that you want!
Everyone’s experience in their first year after graduation is very, very different. When you come out of law school—would it be a big blow if you didn’t get your training contract (TC)?
LOTL: [unanimous] Yes.
S: Because you go into law school wanting to do that.
S: Would you feel like you have failed?
LOTL: Yes, but it’s not just that. There’s also a sense of comparison that is very prevalent in law school now. You just look at other people and think, they all have TCs, they’re going to big firms, what am I doing with my life?
S: I think that will have to change because while during our time everyone would get a place in a law firm regardless of their grades, it’s not like that anymore. That expectation has to change. People just have to see law school as a means and as good training ground for doing anything that you want.
LOTL: Sometimes the problem is in knowing what we want to do. Some people are just born with that knack of knowing where they want to go, where they should go. It’s about knowing yourself, I think.
S: You will find that out even if you can’t get a place in law school. That’s what life’s journey is about – knowing yourself. It can come very late. For me, when we started Bizibody, we were 35 and I had no idea about anything techie at all. That realisation can really come by way of accident. If I had to write a letter to my younger self, that’s what I would say—I would say, don’t worry. You will find what you are good at and what you want to do. The fact that you think right now that you really want to be a lawyer might not be true. Life will bring something that will be good for you.
C: That’s the same letter I would write to myself. Now, when you look back, it seems like you made so many bold decisions. But actually, at the time that you did it, you would never have foreseen taking this journey at all.
Allen & Gledhill was a starting ground for me. Being in a law firm was both where I was most comfortable and least comfortable in my entire career. At the time, Allen & Gledhill had 40 lawyers. It was really cosy and I really loved my colleagues. But in terms of the work, I never felt that it was me. That’s why I started doing my non-profit work on the side. Then I found legal counselling—and I realised, oh my God, now I know why I am a lawyer. And that made sense.
People worry a lot about where they will end up. You’ve got to go with the flow. The flow does come. There were so many points when it was just like the natural thing to do. I never felt fear in making a transition.
One thing I will always remember is this memory from when we were looking for investors for Bizibody. The Bank of Singapore then had a venture arm called BOS Ventures. The CTO there knew we didn’t have a technology background, but he looked at our background as lawyers, and said that they would put their money in us because they knew we wouldn’t die. He kind of knew that whatever we did, even if this business model flopped, we would make something of it. He was right. There are so few dot coms that still exist today as a business. Bizibody is one of them.
He was right that we just wouldn’t die because somehow we would find a way of succeeding. Once you have that foundation as a lawyer, you should have some confidence. What’s the very worst that can happen? Maybe it was not our legal background that he looked at per se, but rather the people that we had. I thought that was really intuitive of him, even though he was supposed to be looking at it from a technology point of view. That’s why he made the decision to go with us. He said ‘won’t die’. He said it in Hokkien.
S: Buay see.
C: Yeah, something like that.
Corinna and Serena were interviewed by Grace, Gideon, and Amelia. The photographs in this interview were taken by Grace.