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The Singapore Law Gazette

In Ten Years’ Time, I Will Be …

Being called to the Bar is an honour and a privilege. Being a part of the noble profession opens up many possibilities for you. Some of you will stay, some of you will go. This article looks at some of the career paths taken, through the (weary) eyes of those who were called before you.

Congratulations and welcome to the rest of your life! Say goodbye to droning lecturers, late night mugging and most importantly, exams!

Now that you have said your goodbyes, let me make the introductions. Say hello to a new set of beasts: crazy bosses, crazy deadlines and perhaps worst of all, crazy clients!

Most of you will begin your lives as pupas at law firms then burst out of your protective cocoon, metamorphosing into glorious butterfly associates, able to bill by the hour and stammer your way through court mentions. After that, some will stay while others may blaze a trail into commerce, leaving the legal world behind.

Truth be told, when I started out, I imagined only the one path. In 10 years I would be a fearsome litigator, partner in a law firm, driving a Merc and beginning every morning checking my investments on my Blackberry. The reality is quite different, but I will let you have your dreams while I commiserate the reality of life at the Bar, at the bar tonight.

Fact is, you stand on the brink of boundless possibilities. Your law degree opens up opportunities you probably haven’t even thought of yet. I can’t put it better than Bill, can I?

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.1 William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”, Act II, Scene VII.

Razer’s Min-Liang Tan is a graduate from NUS Law. Apparently, he is a billionaire as well. That’s quite cool. We also have a number of Parliamentarians who were called to the Bar before crossing over to Parliament House. Other lawyers have taken a different path: some are in jail, and others are on the run. Unfortunately, I have not managed to speak with many of the above interesting characters.

I have though, managed to get some thoughts from friends on how their careers have panned out over the years. Here are some thoughts from those who have gone before you …

Graduated from NUS Law in 2006. Called to the Bar in 2007:

Now a Director at small law firm which I set up on 1 February 2018 (Actually, it’s not small. It’s miniscule. It’s just me, a paralegal and a trainee. For now.)

Since graduating:

Years 0–1: Pupiled at one of the larger local law firms and signed on as an associate

Years 2–3: Associate at an even bigger local law firm

Years 4–11: Associate – Senior Associate – Partner at a medium-sized local law firm

Year 12: Set up my own law firm

Where I thought I would be: Rich.

Where I am now: Not rich.

If I could change one thing about my career: I would have struck out on my own earlier.

Thoughts on where I am now: It was nice working at a law firm where everything was taken care of. Starting your own law firm is a whole new matter though. It takes guts, passion, your parents’ money and a certain element of foolishness. I do not know where I will be a decade from now but I really do hope that this works out and I won’t be back at another law firm, taking orders from somebody I don’t quite like taking orders from. For those of you who have entertained the possibility, go for it. You do not want to look back and think of what could have been.

My two cents to the graduating class of 2018: Take a listen to “You Get What You Give” (New Radicals). You guys made it this far and definitely have the ability. The only issue is that of application and hard work. And be nice to each other, and other members of the Bar. Disputes between clients are not disputes between lawyers. Being nice to each other makes everything easier. It pays off in the long run.

Graduated from NUS Law in 2007. Called to the Bar in 2008:

Now a Partner in Allen & Gledhill LLP’s Litigation & Dispute Resolution Department

Since graduating:

Year 0: Part-time PLC (the then equivalent of “Part B”) student and Pupil at Allen & Gledhill. Also a tax-free resident.

Years 1–10: At all material times, a fee earner at Allen & Gledhill. They did say, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”. Paying taxes yearly.

Where I thought I would be: Big room with a great view.

Where I am now: Tiny room, filled with boxes and boxes of documents. A large beam in the room obscures the view outside.

If I could change one thing about my career: Would go back in time and work on developing a specialist practice. A general commercial practice is fun, but has its challenges.

Thoughts on where I am now: I never quite saw myself as a lawyer in a large law firm. And, I will admit to thinking that my time in a large firm practice would be a stepping stone to something else. Ten years on, I am pleasantly surprised by how wrong my early prejudices were about practice in a large, corporate-focused firm. One doesn’t simply get “lost” in the crowd; as long as you make a real effort of it. Sure, there are (many) difficult days, and there are times one wishes clients appreciate just how challenging a task is and would cut you some slack. I’ve come to accept that it all comes with the territory – it is, after all, a huge privilege that someone would trust you with their most knotty problems. Everyone is looking for some meaning in what they do. In my own way, I seem to have found that.

My two cents to the graduating class of 2018: A point for each cent. (1) Early on in practice, someone at the firm said to me: “Don’t look for validation from others – it won’t be forthcoming.” Those words ring true to this day – in fact, more so today than before. Be astute to realise when you have done something well, and allow yourself a pat on the back. More importantly, know when something didn’t go quite as well as you had hoped – work harder to deserve that pat on the back. (2) Take responsibility for your own development and well-being. Everyone else is busy caring for themselves – you should too. But remember, people will help you if you are of help to them.

Graduated from NUS Law in 2007. Never called to the Bar!

Now an Associate Professor at one of the local law schools, specialising in criminal evidence law and moot court.

Since graduating:

Years 0–2: Justices’ Law Clerk and Assistant Registrar with the Supreme Court of Singapore; Adjunct tutor with NUS and SMU

Year 3: LLM at Harvard University

Years 4­–10: Assistant Professor

Year 11: Associate Professor

Where I thought I would be: PE teacher.

Where I am now: PES C.

If I could change one thing about my career: Wrote and networked more as a student.

Thoughts on where I am now: Academia is not for everyone as being a blank canvass seems daunting, but it is definitely an under-explored, last-resort or only-for-the-dreamy sort of option for many. Which is unfortunate, because academia has been greatly enriching for me. Having control over my own research agenda means I get to investigate what interests me, and being a teacher and watching students grow under your care and coaching is a wonderful responsibility. There is a lot of constant pressure to publish, but if you enjoy your job, such pressure can be stimulating.

My two cents to the graduating class of 2018: If you want to be great at something, you need to be patient and you must persevere. The way modern practice is set up doesn’t quite allow young lawyers to flourish naturally, so resilience is all the more important. If you make hasty decisions, you only set yourself back – and there is a difference between that happening in school and in working life.

Graduated from NUS Law in 2007. Called to the Bar in 2008:

Now the Founder and Principal Trainer of Singapore’s first dedicated legal skills training firm, focusing on the training and mentoring of young lawyers.

Since graduating:

Years 0-5: Pupil, Associate, then Senior Associate at one of the Big 4, practising commercial litigation. At the same time, Adjunct Tutor at NUS, Mediation Trainer for SMC, Mediation Trainer & Negotiation Tutor for SILE, Advocacy Trainer for Law Society. Published several legal articles. Overall experience: Too much work, not enough sleep.

Years 5–6: Assistant Registrar at the Supreme Court. Continued adjunct teaching. Overall experience: Still busy, but managed to catch a bit more sleep. Extremely meaningful work.

Years 7–9: District Judge at the Family Justice Courts. Co-wrote a chapter in a textbook. Gave up all teaching appointments due to crazy work schedule. Overall experience: No sleep at all, but enjoying making a difference.

Year 10: Left the Courts, and set up the first legal skills training firm in Singapore. Did LLM. Started writing first solo textbook. Overall experience: Working from home and determining my own charge out rates is awesome. Dedicating my days to nurturing young lawyers, and reigniting passion for the law.

Where I thought I would be: Overworked and unhappy.

Where I am now: Busy, but couldn’t be happier.

If I could change one thing about my career: Absolutely nothing. Every detour was an opportunity to reinvent myself, and discover new passions and strengths. And this applies equally to my professional and personal lives.

Thoughts on where I am now: I am exactly where I am supposed to be, at any given moment. So, even if it’s not ideal, there is always something to learn from the experience and to be grateful for. And if it is good, enjoy the ride. Also, sleep is good. I wish I had more of it.

My two cents to the graduating class of 2018: This might sound like weird career advice, but please take good care of yourselves and your health. This means taking care of your overall well-being, not just physical but mental health. I had a few health scares along the way because I was just too busy to care for myself, and this is a very serious problem in the legal profession. Too many lawyers give so much to their work that there is nothing left for the family, or for themselves. Too many lawyers give up their passions. Too many lawyers suffer from depression and anxiety. Remember that you can’t pour from an empty pitcher, so take care of yourselves, and you can have a long and fulfilling legal career. Also, never be afraid to ask for help. It is ok to not know everything. All the best! I will be rooting for you!

Graduated from NUS Law in 2007. Called to the New York State Bar in 2008.

Now a real estate investor/developer and real estate agent in San Diego, California

Since graduating:

Year 0: Pupil at Rajah & Tann, Admiralty and Shipping Practice

Year 1: Moved to the US, lived in Miami briefly; admitted to the New York State Bar and moved to New York

Year 3: Moved again from New York to San Diego when first child was born; became a full-time parent

Year 4: Started real estate investment and development business

Year 9: Shifted focus to being a full-time real estate agent

Where I thought I would be: Partner at a big law firm in Singapore, or senior associate in an international law firm in New York, Hong Kong, or London.

Where I am now: Sunny Southern California! Juggling many full-time jobs: parenting, real estate agent, project manager.

If I could change one thing about my career: I would have gone all in and leveraged up when I first started (and real estate prices were nearly half what they are now) instead of being so conservative. Also, over the course of all the places I’ve lived, I have met many interesting and successful people with whom I really should have done a better job of getting to know better and keeping in touch with over the years. 20/20 hindsight!

Thoughts about where I am now: Life here is both harder and easier than in Singapore, as you don’t have a helper to help take care of your home and kids. Having a career can be very difficult. On the other hand, the cost of living and items like houses and cars are infinitely less expensive.

My life definitely did not take the path I anticipated, but I’m much happier for it. A lot of great opportunities came my way that I didn’t even realise the value of until later, like having my kids early on (they’re almost self-sufficient now), buying my first property when prices were at historic lows after the market crash, and even inadvertently getting a ton of experience in building and remodelling when our contractor failed all his inspections and disappeared – which led to completing the project ourselves in four months and making a record-priced sale on the block, and in turn doing more properties and remodels. It’s not as easy as it looks on TV, but I now can build anything and run any power tool you can think of!

I am also a certified mediator, but Americans are really as litigious as their reputation, and mediation has been slow to take off.

Finally, being a real estate agent isn’t that different from being a lawyer; it takes discipline, a lot of research, and being there for your clients to give them the answers they need, except you get to be nice to people instead!

My two cents to the graduating class of 2018: Life might lead you down an entirely different road from what you planned. Just roll with it. Your law degree will always be a useful tool, whether you choose to be in the legal field or any other, as it will teach you how to research what you need to know, to be analytical, and to ask questions rather than just accept what others tell you.

Also, take the effort to make friends and acquaintances, and respect everyone. It doesn’t cost you anything or hurt you, and making the effort to be a person of good character and reputation with the willingness to make the first move and make others feel appreciated will pay bountiful dividends in your business, social, and family life down the road.

Well, that is our two cents’ worth. Actually, at approximately $600 an hour, that’s about $2,400 worth. To sum up, being a lawyer is a job like no other. But like any other job, you need to put in the graft to succeed. You are privileged to be where you are, but you need to hustle to make it work out in the long run. It’s a marathon, not a sprint so pace yourself. Be good to those around you and to your good self.

We hope this read was enlightening! Now go out there and strut your stuff!

This article is part of the August 2018 Special Issue produced for the newly called lawyers of Mass Call 2018.


1 William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”, Act II, Scene VII.