Whither That Silver Lining
Things may be looking bleak this year, for young and not so young lawyers alike, and across many sectors and industries in the overall economy. However, if we harken back to 2003 and 2008 which was the year of SARS and the global financial crisis respectively, others before us have also trodden a path of challenges. We hear from two members who share their experiences from those two earlier crises and how things worked out, despite those seemingly dark days.
Some Thoughts for Newly Qualified and Younger Lawyers in a Time of a Pandemic
1. First, congratulations on your call to the Bar! You join the ranks of this honourable profession, with all its attendant duties and responsibilities.
2. I was invited to pen some words of advice for our incoming and younger lawyers for this special issue of the Law Gazette, one of the reasons being that I was called to the Bar in 2003 when the region was hit by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). It was an uncertain period then, as it is now.
3. I prefer the term thoughts to advice because I am hardly qualified to give any advice! Also, the points raised herein are by no means novel. In fact, they may already have been imparted in some shape or form to you by your seniors in your firms, or by the honourable judicial officers during your call to the Bar. Nevertheless, repetition does not diminish the wisdom or truth of these thoughts.
4. At this juncture, some background may be helpful to explain why I am hardly qualified to give any advice. I graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2001 having chosen the LLB for no particular reasons other than my father being a lawyer and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service application deadline coming up. I then missed out on a pupillage place with a large firm because I was unaware of the application timelines but was fortunate to be accepted as a pupil with Messrs. Thomas Tham & Company during which I was also completely ignorant of the requirement for counting time and due to my regular trips home to Kuala Lumpur, I missed out on the Mass Call with the rest of my batch. That, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I had the privilege of a smaller call with others who were similarly situated during which we were admitted to the Bar before the late the Honourable Justice Lai Kew Chai in one of the court rooms at the old Supreme Court building.
5. I was again fortunate in 2004 to join Drew & Napier LLC’s Dispute Resolution Department where I worked for Mr Harpreet Singh Nehal, Senior Counsel and on some matters, with other Senior Counsel. In 2007, I left Drew & Napier LLC to join Allen & Gledhill LLP’s Corporate Department and returned to Drew & Napier LLC’s Dispute Resolution Department in 2008 before leaving for Quahe Woo & Palmer LLC (2013), followed by Trident Law Corporation (2015) and then Valensea Law LLC (2016).
6. In 2018, I co-founded Avant Law LLC.
7. Today, in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic 17 years after SARS (not forgetting the 2007-2008 financial crisis sandwiched in between), your thoughts naturally turn to economic issues, survival and the continued viability of legal practice. As a result, you may wonder whether the term honourable profession has continued relevance or vigour in a fast- changing legal and economic landscape where legal practice seems to be ever more stressful and beset with perils; and whether these words are a relic of a distant, halcyon past where practice was more sedate.
8. The unqualified answer is “absolutely”. Indeed, you ought to embrace the term and use it to guide you, especially during your early years in practice.
9. With that in mind, all I can respectfully offer to the newly qualified and younger lawyers amongst us are a few thoughts based from personal experience and observations of friends I respect greatly:
9.1 first and foremost, always remember your ethical duties as an officer of the Court even while giving your all for your client’s cause. Keep fast to them and never neglect (or worse, breach) them to secure a (fleeting) victory. Though I suppose opinions differ on whether this is fortunate or not, your legal career is likely to be a long one and you should zealously guard your professional reputation at the outset;
9.2 second, our Bar is a small one and you should be courteous (legal professional rules aside) at all times to your opponent. Resist the urge to retaliate or respond in similar fashion when faced with the latest barbed communication from your opponent in a particularly acrimonious matter. We may be opponents, but we are never enemies, and today’s opponent may well be tomorrow’s colleague;
9.3 third, keep learning at all times! Even though you may feel that you barely have enough time to eat a proper meal or exercise after spending yet another 15 hours (at least) in the office, you should never stop learning. Mandatory Continuing Professional Development courses and requirements aside, you can learn much from your peers, colleagues, and even opponents (both good and bad). For younger litigators, you should pop into the public gallery in the courts to observe Senior Counsel in trial even if you are unable to follow the proceedings closely because, inter alia, you do not have the background knowledge of the matter. You can at the very least be inspired by the court craft on display and the seamless conduct of the trial by the ablest advocates in the Bar;
9.4 fourth, do network, and do conduct business development activities. After a number of years in practice, your ability to just get the work done will be regarded (perhaps unfairly) as a given, and you will need to be able to bring something else to the table. With that said, these networking and business development activities ought to be carried out in a manner which you are comfortable with and which accords with your personality and belief system – for example, if you are not big on socialising or spending time on what you view to be “small talk”, then you will need to approach business development activities in a slightly different manner, perhaps by organising seminars / webinars or giving talks instead of wining or dining prospective clients. As for networking, similar principles apply, but above all, be sincere in your interactions with the other person;
9.5 fifth, you may aspire to be a partner in the firm you commenced practice (which is pretty common and a laudable goal), but life and fate may have other plans for you. Try not to burn bridges in such situations; and
9.6 sixth, over time (but preferably sooner rather than later), you should develop a keen sense of practical and professional judgment (with your ethical duties as the guiding principles) instead of mindlessly obeying your client’s instructions only to be rewarded with the prospect of facing professional misconduct inquiries for your troubles. This is perhaps even more relevant in these times when business development is an essential component of legal practice as you may, in your early years, feel the need to be compliant in order to keep the client happy.
10. Finally, at the risk of contradicting paragraph 3 above, the only advice I would give you is to “find what works for you” while you commence practice in these challenging times. I wish you all the very best in your career and hope it will be a fulfilling and enduring one.
Chew Kiat Jinn
Avant Law LLC
E-mail: [email protected]
Called in a Crisis – Lessons from a Decade Ago
I started my training contract period (or pupillage, as it used to be called) in early June 2008, together with about 40 other trainees. Most of us were bright-eyed, fresh out of university and looking forward to starting our professional lives as lawyers and enjoying the salaries that came with that.
The world, as they say, was our oyster.
As we discussed our future plans over lunch and coffee breaks, none of us had an inkling that we were just a few months away from a severe international financial crisis which was described by well-known economist Charles Bean as being “a once in a lifetime crisis, and possibly the largest financial crisis of its kind in human history”.
As it turns out, the 2008 financial crisis was neither a once in a lifetime event nor was it the largest financial crisis in human history – that mantle has been taken up by the present financial crisis we are facing as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Having lived through a crisis right at the beginning of my legal career, I have been asked to share some thoughts with the newest members of the Bar. The three main lessons I have learnt are set out below.
1. With Crisis Comes Opportunity
While some may call it clichéd, my experience in 2008 and today have shown me that there is much truth to the saying that with crisis comes opportunity. While the 2008 financial crisis resulted in a reduction in the volume of corporate transactional work, there was a huge increase in other areas such as banking litigation. For a good number of years, lawyers from firms of all sizes were acting for clients in banking disputes across all levels of the Singapore courts. These cases continued to be filed until 2014, with some of the later cases only being resolved this year.
Similar trends can be seen this time around. While there has been a slowdown in certain sectors, there has been a surge in the number of clients seeking advice on force majeure clauses, frustration of contracts, and disputes relating to these issues. Plummeting oil prices have meant an increase in oil and gas disputes while the economic downturn coupled with the increased need for employees to work remotely has resulted in an increase in fraud which in turn means more investigations and criminal law work. On the corporate front, investors have already started eyeing potential bargain deals while many restructuring lawyers have been working at full throttle in the past few months.
The bottom-line – while there will be a slowdown in some sectors in a crisis, there will invariably be other sectors where the volume of work picks up.
2. Be Adaptable
In order to make the most of opportunities that arise during a crisis, it is critical to be adaptable. I recall friends of mine who could not be retained in the corporate departments of their firms in 2009 due to the crisis and decided to try their hand at litigation. Some ended up enjoying litigation and are successful litigators today. Others, like my wife, did litigation until the corporate market picked up and then jumped back to do what they always wanted to do – they have shared that the few years they spent doing litigation have been very useful for them as corporate lawyers today.
Adaptability remains important in the present crisis. Lawyers have had to quickly learn how to handle hearings and meetings online so that they can continue to discharge their obligations to the Court and clients alike. Marketing efforts have also moved into the online realm, with many lawyers now realising that webinars are not only easier to organise than physical seminars, but also offer increased reach and interaction. Lawyers have needed to move their practices online quickly or risk being left behind.
3. Be Thankful and Do Not Lose Heart
While it is understandable to be worried in such uncertain times, as lawyers, we should also be thankful that we operate in an industry where almost everything we do can be done online – there are many other industries which are much harder hit by lockdowns and the inability of workers/customers to access physical office/retail spaces.
Ultimately, regardless of what area of law we practice in, there is a unifying thread to what we do as lawyers – our job is to take the case that we are given by a client and to get the best possible result, within the confines of the law and ethics. In order to do so, it is often necessary to be determined, adaptable and innovative – the very same traits that will help you survive and thrive in a crisis like the one we are facing today.
My very best to all of you and a warm welcome to the Bar.
Drew & Napier
E-mail: [email protected]
With thanks to my wife for providing me with a corporate lawyer’s perspective