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The Singapore Law Gazette

Called During COVID – Thriving and Staying Relevant

Congratulations on your admission. The 2020 cohort has already left its mark as trailblazers, being amongst the first lawyers to have been admitted to the Bar virtually. These traits of flexibility and resilience will be important qualities in the days ahead where much remains uncertain.

Much ink has already been spilt on these pages and elsewhere on how to make the most of your legal career (see in particular the excellent articles from Cameron Ford in the Young Lawyers’ Supplement for 2014 and 2015). I reflect here some thoughts on how one can stay relevant and thrive in the present climate.

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, but this is certainly not a novel situation. The Bar has weathered similar challenges and emerged stronger each time. These include the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the SARS outbreak in 2002 and the global financial crisis of 2008.

In the words of Winston Churchill, never waste a good crisis. Examine the shifts brought about by the pandemic, and consider whether any of these represent untapped opportunities for growth.

For example, whilst transactional practices tend to contract during market downturn, market difficulties, stimulus programmes, regulatory action and employment issues can provide potential alternative sources of work. Similarly, whilst sectors such as travel and retail are experiencing an unprecedented downturn, others such as technology, sanitation, medical supply are enjoying sharp increases in demand. Litigation and restructuring practices also generally continue to do well in downtimes.

If you are a finance or transactional associate, consider getting involved in restructuring or regulatory advisory work during this period. For the disputes associate, think about branching into insolvency, regulatory or employment disputes as they arise during this time. Be proactive and keep a keen eye out for trends and potential gaps. You might emerge from all of this with a newfound speciality, whilst continuing to provide good value to your firm (or company).

The Human Connection

The practice of law is an extraordinarily interconnected enterprise. We work with our partners and associates, court our clients, plan against opposing counsel, persuade judges and arbitrators, and do our best to fall in line with the regulators.

Social distancing therefore takes a greater toll on lawyers than most. All of a sudden, lawyers no longer socialise outside courtrooms, and cannot even look forward to the food that accompanies (or mitigates) yet another business development event. These changes can be bewildering, disconcerting, and leave one feeling terribly isolated.

It is in these times that it is even more important to stay in touch, even with our adversaries. As the lesser known Shakespeare quote about lawyers goes, “do as adversaries do in law, strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends”. Make special effort to find out how your colleagues (yes, even your bosses) are doing. After badgering an opponent for a concession, try to take some time out for an informal chat, if you can. Drop clients and contacts a friendly note to find out how they are doing. A little goes a long way during times like these.

And yes, please remember to turn on your video during Zoom calls.

The Importance of Upskilling and Flexibility

The legal industry is a competitive one, now more than ever. Law firms are on a global austerity drive, as are their clients. Cheaper, faster and better remains the mantra, and the pandemic has pushed lawyers to adopt ever leaner and more efficient methods whilst delivering the same or superior results.

In this climate, it is crucial that one has an eye on distinguishing oneself. Are you an arbitration lawyer? What separates you from the many other disputes lawyers who can also market themselves similarly? The beauty of being a junior lawyer is the opportunity to try new areas and methods of practice. Take the chance during a lull period to properly explore the available opportunities. This could be as simple as volunteering to do work in another practice area, obtaining specialist certification in an area of law, getting on the committee of a professional body, or considering a client secondment.

The post-pandemic economy belongs to those who upskill and adopt a mindset of continual improvement. It will look a lot less rosy for others that simply hope for things to return to the pre-COVID world.

Leverage Technology

The COVID pandemic has literally opened a Pandora’s box of digital transformation. In a matter of weeks, lawyers have transitioned their businesses almost fully online. Court and arbitration hearings are now remote as a matter of default, and Zoom meetings are the new norm.

Like Adam and Eve post-apple in the Garden of Eden, things will never be the same again. Clients have now seen what can be done digitally, efficiently and more cheaply, and are likely leveraging much of the same technology. At the same time, technology’s exponential growth has accelerated the growth of a whole new complementary industry, encompassing legal technologists, legal project managers and legal knowledge engineers and alternative legal service providers. These can represent opportunities beyond the traditional legal roles for the technology-inclined.

The genie is well and truly out of the law’s bottle. It is now more important than ever to ensure that you fully embrace and stay ahead of the curve on the technology. As part of Generation Z, this should hopefully be a cinch.

I wish you all the very best as you embark on your legal career.

Emmanuel is a senior dispute resolution lawyer specialising in complex cross-border disputes and restructuring matters. He last held the position of lead counsel overseeing disputes and investigations for the Chevron international downstream business, and prior to this was a senior member of the market-leading international arbitration practice at Herbert Smith Freehills. Emmanuel also sits as arbitrator.