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Passion for law and family
Published on Friday, 17 Sep 2010
Jennifer Van Dale
Partner at law firm Baker & McKenzie
Photo: Edmond So

Jennifer Van Dale developed a passion for law when she was conducting historical tours of Philadelphia after she finished college. The self-proclaimed "history geek" was thrilled by her privileged access to early American monuments.

"I was like, 'this is where [third United States president] Thomas Jefferson sat', and I could touch it," says Van Dale, a partner at law firm Baker & McKenzie.

To gain knowledge and help her work as a tour guide, she read up on the US constitution and declaration of independence, which sparked her interest in law.

After arriving in Hong Kong in 1991, Van Dale worked for Human Rights Watch and researched Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, while pursuing a law degree at the University of Hong Kong.

She says she enjoys her work as an employment-law specialist because it enables her to find solutions that will have a positive impact on people's lives. 

Van Dale says she has built a good network of contacts and a support system throughout her career, and that her exchanges with lawyers have proven to be valuable.

She adds that she works in different areas of law and that she is a good legal negotiator.

"I'm very good at navigating relationships," Van Dale says. "Sometimes this comes easier for women."

Despite more women graduating from law schools, there are not many female partners at major firms. Van Dale says her main challenge has not been breaking "the glass ceiling", but dealing with the different sets of expectations placed on working women, particularly those with children. 

"If my kids don't get their homework done, or they are supposed to bring in cupcakes and they don't, people will say, 'oh, her mom forgot'," she says.

"And I'm keenly aware of those kinds of expectations."

As a mother of three, Van Dale says she has learned to balance her work and home life, and that it is possible to have a family, while still being a successful professional.

She says that she has also been working from home for a number of years, and she leaves the office much earlier than her colleagues.

Van Dale says her employers are more concerned about her profitability to the firm and whether she is keeping her clients happy. "If one of the big partners walks around at 7pm and I'm not at my desk, I'm not penalised for that," she says.

Van Dale still finds time to have family dinners, and reads bedtime stories to her children before going online to finish work. She has two helpers to assist her in caring for her children. As for her husband's role, Van Dale says that "our family has two parents and both do their jobs as parents".


Home truths  

  • Some companies view work-life balance as a special concession
  • Family-friendly policies are good for business
  • It's hard for employers to retain staff if they are not treated with respect. Having to train new recruits leads to higher costs.