Beyond the Bar
Lawyers leaving the legal profession to pursue interests in other fields is not an uncommon trend. Statistics by the Law Society of Singapore in 2017 reveal that about eight per cent of lawyers do not renew their practising certificates every year. Many get burnt out or tire of the workloads and pressures of the industry and decide to roam seemingly greener pastures.
There is, however, a growing phenomenon of our learned friends who enjoy both – the practice of law and their other interests – and who demonstrate that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Many lawyers are into music, writing, collecting, technology and sports – not just law. These featured lawyers show that juggling both the practice of law and their interests can indeed be a reality.
Tan Boon Wah
Partner at Allen and Gledhill LLP, Real Estate. Music Writer.
Tell us about an interest you have? I write Chinese pop music during my free time. Some of my works have been published and performed by artistes who include Stefanie Sun, Tanya Chua, A-Mei, Andy Lau and Jolin Tsai.
How did you start getting interested in writing music? It started when I was serving national service around the late nineties. At that time, there was a growing shift of interest towards Chinese pop music and I, together with some like-minded friends, spent quite a bit of our time learning how to sing and play the popular Chinese songs back then. I started thinking about what it would be like hearing my own compositions being performed by my favourite singers and that got me motivated to start writing my own music.
Is it possible to juggle both practice and writing music? To be honest, when I started practice, it was quite difficult as I had to start learning the ropes from scratch and there was not much “creative energy” left after dealing with legal matters during the course of my work. But it got better as time progressed. These days, I try to set aside maybe a week or two every year to go on a “music retreat” where I would travel to KL or Taipei (where my fellow music collaborators are based) to work on collaborations together.
Any rewarding moments you recall? Just last year, one of my songs (embedded below) won the “Best Musical Arrangement” at the Golden Melody Awards held in Taipei, which is the Chinese equivalent of the Grammys.
Were there situations where you had to give more time to one than the other? For me, it’s always work and clients first. Music is good for the soul but ultimately one still has to prioritise.
Any support from your colleagues and family? Sometimes, it seems like the entire firm (and even clients and some partners and associates from other firms) know about what I do during my free time. Everyone I have met during the course of my work has been very supportive and encouraging and I am grateful for that.
What keeps you in practice? The belief that I am making a difference to clients, the strong relationships with clients built steadily over the years, a sense of duty when it comes to mentoring the younger lawyers and sometimes, the thrill when I read in the news about the transactions that I am involved in and knowing that I had a part to play in those deals.
Advice for other young lawyers on how to continue with their interests while still being in practice? I would say continue to keep in contact with support groups and friends who are also pursuing the same interest/passion, share with your bosses and co-workers what you do during your free time and slowly have them appreciate and support you in your pursuits after work.
Are there other dreams you want to pursue in writing music? Yes certainly, there are so many well-known local musicians and producers who are amazingly talented and accomplished and I really hope to work with them one day!
Koh Kok Kwang
Director at CTLC Law Corporation, Civil Litigation. Owner of Impact MMA gym.
Tell us about an interest you have? Martial Arts, specifically Mixed Martial Arts related martial arts (MMA).
How did you start getting interested in MMA? Back in the early 90’s, I happened to watch some early Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events. As a kid growing up with a healthy staple of Chinese Kungfu movies, martial arts was always interesting to me. A lot of the movies I watched in the 80’s involved “style vs style” showdowns, where, say, a Kung Fu exponent would face off against a Karate black belt. So I was always very intrigued as to what really worked. The movements and techniques in Tae Kwan Do are quite different from that of Muay Thai. Many of the Chinese traditional martial arts had very unique moves. So what actually worked? The early UFC events were a prayer answered. Essentially, the UFC pitted top exponents from various different martial arts against each other. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. I was shocked to see that the winner of the early UFC events was a smallish guy wearing a gi using moves which I had never seen before. It was a revelation and I immediately wanted to learn more. I was hooked.
Is it possible to juggle both practice and MMA? Yes. It’s all about striking the right balance and keeping a firm eye on what’s important in your life. I think it’s quite easy to get caught up in one or the other.
How has being in practice helped you in MMA? I learnt that MMA is really a very intellectual game. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is one of the key martial arts which is used in or influences MMA. One of the leading BJJ teams in the world is known as “Checkmat”. BJJ is fought on a “mat” and obviously there’s a Chess metaphor in there. So it’s highly strategic. In MMA, so many weapons are available. You can punch, kick, elbow, throw, grapple, submit. The more options you have, the more strategic the game. So I believe that strategic mindset is something that is common to both litigation as well as MMA.
Any rewarding moments you recall? In the MMA world, the UFC is the largest and most prestigious organisation. It’s like what the National Basketball Association is to basketball. We always dreamed that one day, we would produce a homegrown Singaporean fighter who could compete in the UFC. In 2014, that dream came true when Royston Wee was signed by the UFC. There was scepticism when the UFC signed him because he was, at that time, not experienced in fighting on the big stage. His first fight was against the reigning champion of the Universal Reality Combat Championship and he was the heavy underdog. Royston rose to the occasion and won. He fought three fights in total in the UFC and left with a 2 win, 1 loss record. So not only did we get the first (and still the only) Singaporean into the UFC, but he actually proved himself worthy by leaving with a winning record.
How do you balance between legal practice and MMA? Most of my time is still spent on legal practice. I have a very good team at Impact MMA who has been with me for a long time, so the day to day running is left in their hands.
Were there situations where you had to give more time to one than the other? Well, by default, law takes up most of my time, but when we first started Impact MMA in 2010, naturally the business needed a lot of attention. Fortunately, I was younger with a bit more stamina!
Any support from your colleagues and family? Yes, it could not be done without them! I am very blessed.
What keeps you in practice? The law is still my first love! I am motivated by helping people. I know it sounds cliché, but honestly, at the end of the day, that’s the most rewarding part of practice.
Advice for other young lawyers on how to continue with their interests while still being in practice? Always be clear about what is important in your life. It’s useful to do a stock take from time to time. Time flies. In the blink of an eye, you’ll be a senior lawyer. When you look back, be sure to have no regrets.
Are there other dreams you want to pursue in MMA? My dreams are still being met. We are still producing homegrown fighters fighting in the biggest organisations, so every individual trainee who develops, whether they end up competing or whether they are just training to improve themselves, is a success story in my eyes. We also work with underprivileged youths as I believe the ecosystem we have at Impact MMA is nurturing and character building. So, broadly speaking, I guess I can say that my dream continues to make a difference in each of our trainee’s lives and it will be a never-ending pursuit.
Partner at Allen & Gledhill LLP, Co-Head of Corporate & Commercial and Competition & Antitrust. Published Writer and Poet.
Tell us about an interest you have? I collect independent music vinyls and volunteer in the special needs, low-income and nature conservation sectors. I also write fiction and poetry.
How did you start getting interested in writing? I was inspired by writers I admire, such as Milan Kundera, Albert Camus, Wislawa Symborska and Goh Poh Seng.
Is it possible to juggle both practice and writing? Yes, I believe it is, as long as one is disciplined about time management. I am not a big fan of unwinding by doing nothing. <laughs>
How has being in practice helped you in writing? Although literature and legal practice both involve writing, the two processes are actually very different. As a corporate lawyer, drafting is all about precision. If a particular clause is capable of more than one interpretation, disputes can follow when the contractual parties are no longer amicable. Whereas in fiction and poetry, ambiguity is often a virtue; adopted to allow readers to arrive at their own conclusions.
Any rewarding moments you recall? Meeting Goh Poh Seng when he finally returned to Singapore. I helped Poh Seng’s estate when he eventually passed on and his family kindly gifted me an unpublished piece of writing which I included as a posthumous contribution to an anthology I was co-editing. Also, running into, and speaking with, JM Coetzee at a literary conference in Canberra. Finally, seeing “O”-Level literature questions months ahead of time (my first book is an “O”- and “N”-Level literature textbook)!
How do you balance between legal practice and writing? No, because work, for me, is always a priority. That is not to say that an individual cannot prioritise other pursuits; it is a personal choice – but I would say that it is good to focus on practice for at least the first 10 years.
Were there situations where you had to give more time to one than the other? No, because work, for me, is always a priority.
Any support from your colleagues and family? Everyone has been very supportive. My former Chairman, the Honourable Attorney-General Lucien Wong, gifted me a Mont Blanc pen from the firm when I received the Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award in 1999, which I still use till this day.
What keeps you in practice? Genuinely enjoying the practice of antitrust law, and my talented and fantastic colleagues.
Advice for other young lawyers on how to continue with their interests while still being in practice? Read widely, manage your time, prioritise.
Are there other dreams you want to pursue in writing? I recently contributed to a writing workshop programme for prison inmates, which was very fulfilling; I intend to do it again. On the personal front, it would be my next book, which has been years in the making. Wish me luck!
Director, Engelin Teh Practice LLC, Litigation, Family Law. Performs in Lunarin band.
Tell us about an interest you have? I play bass and sing in an alternative rock band, Lunarin.
How did you start getting interested in it? I started the band with two of my secondary school classmates back in 1994.
Is it possible to juggle both practice and music? Yes, but it requires discipline and good time management.
How has being in practice helped you in music? Because I have been playing since 17, I am hardly nervous when I go to court.
Any rewarding moments you recall? So many – playing to a full house in Bar None on Monday nights, huge crowds at the Esplanade during Baybeats festival, forming relationships with fellow musicians and music lovers. I have more friends in the music scene than in the legal fraternity. Also, the rush I get playing live can never be replicated elsewhere. It is very addictive.
How do you balance between your legal practice and music? Discipline and good time management.
Were there situations where you had to give more time to one than the other? Yes when the kids arrived.
Any support from your colleagues and family? Support from family – they help to watch the kids while I jam.
Advice for other young lawyers on how to continue with their interests while still being in practice? So long as you are prepared to work hard, are focused and disciplined, you can always find time.
Are there other dreams you want to pursue in music? Release another album and play more shows.
Tan Cheow Hung
Director, Beacon Law Corporation. Performs in Chain Reaction band.
Tell us about an interest you have? Other than the practice of law, which I am still rather passionate about, my other passions are singing and cooking.
How did you start getting interested in it? About three and a half years ago, a group of friends got together to organise a fund-raising concert for “Daughters of Tomorrow” (DOT), a charity with a mission to empower underprivileged women, with volunteer performers. I asked Sharon Wong of EN Films if she could also perform with her band members. Sharon agreed to perform and suggested that I should also sing with her band, Chain Reaction. It was really tough at first, getting used to singing in a band, having previously only sung at karaoke and in the privacy of the bathroom. The band musicians were exceedingly patient in teaching me the ropes and we managed to pull it off. My friends were incredibly supportive and I managed to sell S$10,000 worth of tickets and together, we raised almost S$30,000 for DOT. Two months after that, the band had a gig at the Sundown Marathon and I was invited to stay with the band. I have stayed on ever since as one of the vocalists even though some of the original musicians are no longer playing with us.
Is it possible to juggle both practice and music? I think it’s definitely possible. It depends on how much you want it, I believe.
Any rewarding moments that you can recall? Almost every performance has been a rewarding one for me. Whether it’s performing at a dear friend’s wedding, performing at charity events or entertaining a senior audience, it has been a very meaningful journey. As our band performs many old favourites from the 1950s to the 1970s, whenever we perform for an older audience, watching their faces light up with pleasure in recognition of the songs we play and watching them dance or sing along, is an especially heart-warming experience.
How do you balance your legal practice with music? I think it’s probably easier for me because I run a humble legal practice that allows me to have some flexibility. I think it also helps that I am single and don’t have to answer to anyone.
Were there situations where you had to give more time to one than the other? Certainly. Sometimes urgent work beckons or there are hearings to prepare for and music has to take a backseat for a while. When we have a gig coming up, we tend to intensify rehearsals, so sometimes work may be affected. On my part, I try my best to keep the week of an upcoming gig clear of any demanding hearings.
Any support from your colleagues and family? My parents used to attend the gigs when they were open to the public. Unfortunately, my mum, who introduced me to the music that we play when I was growing up, passed away earlier this year and can no longer support me. She was profoundly missed at the Just Makan fund-raising dinner organised by LSPBS; she would have loved both our music and the unique culinary creations at the event; she used to hum to some of the tunes and she was an amazing cook, whom I draw inspiration from. My colleagues have been very supportive too, not only attending the gigs but also helping out whenever they can. For our first charity concert, even our former interns volunteered to help out backstage.
What keeps you going in practice? As long as I feel I can still make a meaningful difference, I would continue. I still feel I do.
Advice for other young lawyers on how to continue with their interests while still being in practice? We all have 24 hours a day and seven days a week. If you want to pursue a passion, then something’s got to give. Don’t neglect the bread and butter issues, but remember to be kind to yourself and also do what makes you happy or gives you meaning in life.
Are there other dreams you wish to pursue other than your current interest? With Chain Reaction, we hope to do a ticketed gig at the Esplanade one day. Recording something at a recording studio would be wonderful too; something to listen to and remember fondly when I’m old and toothless! A dream (or daydream) I would love to pursue is to be a home or private chef of sorts, creating home-made dishes that ma would have been proud of. Maybe, I’ll take up oil-painting again too … oh well … you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one …
Associate, BR Law Corporation, Civil Litigation. Actor and Presenter.
Tell us about an interest you have? My passions are acting in film and television and presenting.
How did you start getting interested in acting and media work? My first time on a film set was for Jack Neo’s army movies Ah Boys to Men 1 and 2, so you can say I was thrown into the deep end! What I found when I was involved on set was a great joy from being able to bring characters to life on screen and bring joy to moviegoers who reminisce about their army days. Since then, I knew that acting was definitely a passion of mine.
Is it possible to juggle both practice and your media work? Absolutely. I believe that if you want something enough, you will be able to find a way to take action to make that dream or passion a reality.
How has being in practice helped you in media work? Interestingly enough, I find that acting for films and being a lawyer actually complement each other very well. There are a great many similarities. Being a lawyer involves a great deal of convincing. You have to convince judges, you have to convince lawyers, sometimes more often than not, you have to convince clients that a certain course of action is not in their best interests. The same applies with acting; you have to convince the audience that there is a very real person behind the camera whose life you are portraying. As a litigator in the courtroom, you have the judge listening intently to your submissions while on a film set, you have the director listening to you fervently deliver your lines to make sure that they resonate emotionally. Being in practice has taught me that advocacy and the ability to convey your argument cogently and in a lucid manner is paramount. The same applies for acting, you have to be acutely aware of how you present yourself and deliver your lines clearly.
Any rewarding moments you recall? I had a Summons hearing where my opposing counsel vehemently objected to my application and I had to be on my toes making submissions for an hour, after which my application was granted. I remember thinking that if I had not had my experience in acting and hosting, it would have been all too easy to have lost that application as the opposing counsel was far more senior. I think being a litigator is exciting and rewarding in that sense, you literally have to sing for your supper and ensure that your client’s rights and interests are protected.
How do you balance between your legal practice and media work? I believe it comes down to prioritising what is important – and in that sense, sacrifices will have to be made. Sometimes you have to know when to say “no”. If I have a trial coming up, I know I need to factor in time for getting-up and drafting of submissions and opening/closing statements, therefore I will turn down film/television projects scheduled during that period. Being selective actually gives you more power over your time, instead of saying yes to everything.
Any support from your colleagues and family? I have been very fortunate in that my family has always been supportive of whatever I pursue.
What keeps you in practice? I enjoy going to court and helping people who are unable to help themselves. A mathematician solves problems using equations. Lawyers are at heart, problem-solvers too. We solve life problems and help people to find closure and move on with their lives.
Advice for other young lawyers on how to continue with their interests while still being in practice? I would tell them that it does not have to be all or nothing. You do not have to give up on your passion to practise law and vice versa. Instead, devote a small amount of time every day to work on and improve yourself in the area of your passion. It all adds up and you have the added benefit of keeping your dreams alive.
Are there other dreams you want to pursue in your current interest? I would love to do more films in the action genre as I am mainly known for comedic roles. I believe it will not be easy, but it is important to keep challenging yourself and pushing the status quo, otherwise as a human being, you will stagnate.