IBA Annual Conference 2019; Seoul, South Korea
Derric Yeoh was one of the recipients of the Law Society’s sponsorship for young lawyers to attend overseas conferences. As part of the sponsorship, the recipient must submit a paper on the conference that he or she attended.
On 22-27 September 2019, I attended the International Bar Association (IBA) Conference 2019 in Seoul, South Korea, which saw thousands of legal professionals from around the world gather to attend the five-day conference.
For starters, the IBA is the leading international organisation for legal practitioners, bar associations, law societies, and was established in 1947 shortly after the creation of the United Nations. The IBA was born out of a vision that an international organisation consisting of the world’s legal professionals would be able to contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.
This year’s IBA Conference had 230 working sessions covering a sweeping and diverse range of topics such as agricultural law, mergers and acquisitions, humanitarian law, international arbitration, mental wellness, with these being just a sample of what is on offer. The IBA Conference also presents a great opportunity for legal professionals from around the world to share knowledge and experiences, build contacts, and develop business. Indeed, I was able to learn about what lawyers in other jurisdictions were doing to address issues common to the legal profession around the world and to get inspiration for new ideas that would be beneficial to our legal profession.
I attended many work sessions across the five days and being mindful of the fact that I was only able to attend the IBA Conference as a result of the generous sponsorship from the Law Society of Singapore, I attended a number of sessions which I felt could be of benefit or interest to the junior bar.
Introduction to Networking
I attended a session which was organised for newcomers to the IBA Conference to help them with what can be a rather intimidating experience. What was noteworthy about the session was that it focused on the psychological barriers to networking, such as self-limitation, inferiority complex, and shyness. It was an interactive session in which the coach sought to demonstrate these problems to us through activities. One such activity which stood out was when the coach asked us how many times we could jump on one feet within one minute; after getting our answers, he decided to put our estimate to the test by having all of us jump on one feet for a minute. As it turns out, the estimate that we gave was much lower than what was actually achieved. This exercise helped to demonstrate the self-imposed psychological limitation that we have and to have greater self-confidence in meeting and networking with people at the IBA Conference.
Singapore Convention on Mediation
On a subject closer to home, there was a session on the Singapore Convention on Mediation (Singapore Convention). On the question of how the Singapore Convention was received by other countries, one of the panellists shared that lawyers in Brazil had enthused over the Singapore Convention as mediation was introduced relatively recently and was very popular there.
Some of the panellists who were involved in the negotiation and drafting process of the Singapore Convention remarked at the difficulties posed by delegates from various countries and how it was through the able management of Mrs Natalie Morris-Sharma, the Singaporean chairperson of the working group, in mediating the differences between the various delegates which allowed the treaty to be finalised. Mrs Morris-Sharma, who was one of the panellists, also shared how a snowstorm had threatened to derail the momentum of the negotiations but was averted when she managed to convince the delegates to continue the negotiations in a small conference room.
The significance of the Singapore Convention was not lost on the members of the audience and with it also came some form of jealousy. One German attendee questioned why the convention was named after Singapore and opined that Singapore was not a very mediation friendly country. He explained that he had this impression due to a meeting with the president of Singapore many years ago who had stated that “a sovereign never negotiates”. Apart from the fact there was probably a different context to the statement (if it were true) and that negotiation and mediation are not the same, the veracity of his story remains doubtful and I personally took it with a pinch of salt.
Wellness of Lawyers
The IBA Conference did not focus solely on the commercial aspects of practice and there were also sessions on the welfare of lawyers. One of these sessions touched on the issue of wellness for partners and lawyers and some of the panellists there shared their own personal experiences of stress, depression and breakdown as well as the practical steps that they took to address these issues.
It was a very insightful session as I was able to learn about the issues which lawyers faced from other jurisdictions and to compare them with those of our own. What stood out to me was the progress made in the UK with the launch of the Mindful Business Charter, which is different from other initiatives due to the collaborative approach of partnering law firms together with corporate clients to introduce behavioural change. It also came as a surprise for me to learn that the Mindful Business Charter was actually initiated not by the legal profession, but instead by Barclays bank.
One member of the audience endorsed the effectiveness that a client-led initiative would have by sharing a story about his firm’s diversity initiative. He said that he was unaware of what the diversity initiative was until a client required that he provide a legal team that was in accordance with a diversity initiative. He said that his firm quickly became an expert on diversity as a result of the client’s requirements.
Singapore Evening Event
I also attended an evening social event organised by the Law Society of Singapore in order to support Singapore’s bid to host the IBA Conference. There I witnessed the tremendous amount of work done by the various stakeholders such as the Economic Development Board, the Law Society of Singapore and Singapore lawyers who had attended to support the event. There were Singapore snacks available and there was even a miniature Merlion present to support the event. The President of the Law Society, Mr Gregory Vijayendran SC, gave the opening speech and he went on to market all the Singaporean lawyers present at the event and was very kind to even mention my name even though I was the most junior lawyer with the least to contribute.
North Korean Defectors
With the IBA Conference held in South Korea, there was bound to be some interest on its neighbour to the north, North Korea. I attended two sessions of dialogue with two North Korean defectors, Mr Thae Yong-ho and Ms Hyeonseo Lee separately. I noticed that these were the only sessions where I had to go through a security check, possibly because of the sensitive nature of the topic.
On the question of how to effect change in the North Korean regime, the two had quite different views. Mr Thae was of the view that change would occur when a newer generation takes over the leadership roles in North Korea, as it is very difficult to change the mindset of the current war-hardened generation. He was of the opinion that the younger generation of North Koreans, who have been exposed to contraband American and South Korean films, music, and books, would be more open to change than their predecessors.
However, Ms Lee in a separate session had a very different view; she believed that to have positive change in the regime more political pressure and economic sanctions should be imposed on North Korea, as any form of aid alleviating the hardships in North Korea would legitimise the regime and increase its support by the North Korea citizens. She also shared about the hardships that she had to endure when defecting to South Korea, as well as the discrimination and difficulties she faced in trying to assimilate into South Korean society.
The dialogue sessions with Mr Thae and Ms Lee were an eye-opening experience about a subject which many are aware of but do not have a deep understanding of the issues involved. Video recordings of these sessions are available for public viewing at the IBA Conference 2019 website and I would encourage those interested to have a look.
The IBA Conference can be quite daunting for a newcomer and a junior lawyer as most of the attendees were senior partners. The many working sessions and networking events can also be physically exhausting but it certainly was a great experience and opportunity to meet lawyers from other countries and to learn about other areas of law which I would not normally come into contact with as an international arbitration lawyer.
It was very helpful in my development as a well-rounded lawyer and I am grateful to the generous sponsorship and support by the Law Society of Singapore in its initiative to give junior members of the bar the opportunity to attend international conferences, as the high and prohibitive cost would usually mean that only partners would be able to attend it. I strongly recommend my fellow junior lawyers to apply for this sponsorship when it opens for application next year as the trip has greatly expanded my perspective and I hope that it does the same for you.