Tina Lee Jebely recently established The Roya Agency in Hong Kong – a legal talent agency focused on the exclusive representation of the interests of top calibre and high potential senior attorneys. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Jebely explains what inspired her agency’s founding, her background as a practicing attorney, her previous experience in strategy development and business plan writing in a business incubator, her work as a mentor in Hong Kong’s The Women’s Foundation Mentoring Programme for Women Leaders, and her thoughts on how lawyers can balance a focus on wellness with a career in law.
You’ve recently established a legal recruitment company in Hong Kong. What inspired you to do so, and what differentiates your firm in the market?
2020 was the ultimate disrupter, and so what better year to bring to life a disruptive new model for legal recruitment? The Roya Agency breaks the mould in that it is, in essence, a talent or sports agency much more than a traditional legal recruitment company. Indeed, I see myself as a legal talent agent rather than a legal recruiter.
I had heard enough of lackluster recruiting experiences by law partners and other senior legal talent to know that the market was ready for a new style – a true talent agent, as opposed to a simple facilitator or introducer. I began with a clean sheet (hundreds, actually), spent dozens of hours speaking with my potential market and many more researching the industry, and crafted have what we firmly believe is the finest experience for our clients. I believed so strongly in this design that I summoned the courage to resign from a stable job to launch a “start-up”, which formally launched the same week that I gave birth to my third child, who is fittingly-named Phoenix, though the agency takes its names from my daughter, Roya – a Persian name that translates into “a beautiful vision”.
The Roya Agency exclusively represents the interests of our clients – top calibre and high potential senior attorneys from diverse backgrounds, whom we represent as their exclusive agent. We actually spend time, money and other resources on behalf of our clients to craft wholistic campaigns that create opportunity and best position them to meet their great potential. In that way, we create opportunity.
You previously practiced law both in-house and with leading law firms in Canada, the US, England and Hong Kong. What was your practice focus in these roles?
Years and volumes of actual sophisticated law practice is critical for anyone assisting talented attorneys move firms because, in short, it takes one to know one – and it takes ones to serve one. I tend to be wary of anyone who coaches from the stands without ever having really played on the field. I practiced as a corporate attorney for over 15 years, and served as counsel on almost a quarter of a trillion US dollars of transactions with Latham & Watkins, White & Case, Osler (a top Canadian firm), as well as a French investment bank. I am qualified and practiced as a New York attorney, though I also qualified in Canada after graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. I practiced primarily debt capital markets (doing high yield bond offerings) and M&A, and when I went in-house I expanded into derivatives and sustainable finance as well.
Earlier in your career you worked in strategy development and business plan writing in a business incubator. You plan to apply this experience to your new focus on legal recruitment. Tell us more about this and what other non-legal experience you’ll be drawing upon.
I graduated from university with a business degree and immediately went to work at a tech incubator which developed software and created internet companies. It was during the exciting hey days when incredibly successful tech companies like Google, ebay, Amazon and Paypal were just starting up. As the first non-technical employee of the company, I jumped in with both feet and relished doing everything from writing business plans, hiring employees, executing marketing plans, acting in promotional videos, and flying around North America to pitch clients. It didn’t matter that I was young and didn’t have much experience, it mattered that I could figure out how to do it and to get the work done in the best way I knew how – and I think this kind of attitude is a necessary one for any start-up, and one that has been useful for starting my own agency.
The practice of law is also transforming – from a conservative one with a guild mentality to a more diverse, equitable, dynamic, commercial one being disrupted by legal tech and focusing more on customer service. It’s requiring that lawyers be more entrepreneurial and intentional about the business of their practice. I am using my experience in marketing, strategy development and business plan writing to advise my candidates and help them to articulate their unique value proposition for their next role.
You are a passionate advocate of diversity and inclusion and founded and ran a gender diversity network with a highly successful mentorship program. Tell us more about this and how you will be including this focus into legal recruitment.
The Roya Agency is the culmination of my deep belief in the power of diversity and my genuine passion for championing others, particularly from historically underrepresented groups.
It is at once a privilege and duty to mentor others and facilitate their advancement. I feel especially strong when it comes to doing so for other women and minorities. Having once experienced firsthand toxic female “leadership”, I am cognizant of the fact that genuinely championing others requires, among other attributes, the absence of insecurity. If you do it right, they will surpass your own accomplishments one day. That is progress, and I love to see it.
Before launching The Roya Agency, I undertook a rather extensive formal (and self-funded) study of diversity in the high-end of the legal industry. No matter how you contort the data, there is the inescapable and unsettling fact the industry is far, far behind where it should be, in 2021, when it comes to diversity. One of my conclusions was that recruiters can and should play a more impactful role in law firm hiring of diverse talent than they have historically.
What started almost a decade ago, having to advocate for myself and other nursing working mothers for a “pumping” room at the office, quickly turned into a labour of love to create and run an inclusive gender diversity network. I am proud to say that by lobbying management over the years, my band of women and men was able to achieve better maternity and paternity leaves, advocate for senior female promotions (which doubled from single digits), consult on the start-ups of diversity networks in Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo, and run a successful mentorship program that benefited over 130 people. Currently I volunteer as a mentor in Hong Kong’s The Women’s Foundation Mentoring Programme for Women Leaders. I have made a promise to myself to continue to serve as an advocate to empower woman and minorities, and it is a promise that I will certainly keep.
Lawyer wellness has become one of the most important conversations in the business of law worldwide. How do you balance a focus on wellness with a career in law?
I have personally learned a great deal from the excellent cadre of performance coaches that we connect with our clients as part of our service. I have come to the conclusion that a key to performance, sustainability and happiness in high-end law practice is work-life “harmony”, rather than “balance”. Law is one of the most intense and all-consuming careers out there and chasing after the ideal balance in this context can be illusive. However, tending to physical, mental and emotional wellness is of utmost importance to attorneys who want to maximize their professional and personal success. My mother used to be a professional basketball player in South Korea and was also an avid yoga practitioner so she taught me to practice yoga starting from when I was 9 years old and now I am a trained yoga teacher. The ancient yoga texts say that the purpose of yoga is to quieten your mind and yoga has certainly done that for me. I grew up prioritizing physical, mental and emotional wellness as much as academic and career success and at one point I wanted to become a professional dancer. These days I balance my busy life of three children and my career with a combination of regular tai chi practice with a group of Cantonese senior citizens in my local park (and I don’t speak Cantonese!), a yoga self-practice, long walks in nature (on Bowen Road in Hong Kong and on South Lantau beaches where our family spends a lot of time) with my family and the taking dance classes pre-COVID times.