Interview by Amelia Chew & Stella Chen
Alex Toh is currently pursuing a Masters in Law, Science and Technology at Stanford Law School. After graduating from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Law in 2007, Alex started his legal career with the Litigation & Dispute Resolution department of Drew & Napier, and worked as legal counsel for Asia Pacific at American semi-conductor company Xilinx. Alex was a committee member of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA), and founded their young lawyers committee – Peers.
In this interview, Alex shares about his own experience searching for what he wants to do, how he ended up at the intersection of law and technology, and how law students should approach their future careers.
Tell us a bit about your background. Where did you study law, what did you do after graduation, and where have you gone since then?
I had always liked science as a kid in school and I became quite interested in intellectual property while doing my law degree at the National University of Singapore. During an internship in Drew & Napier’s Intellectual Property practice, my mentor advised me to start in general litigation, and so I practised for four years under now Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah. After she left to join the Ministry of Law, I wanted to try something different. I subsequently joined Xilinx as an in-house counsel because it offered regional experience and involved tech.
After four years of working in a semiconductor company, I decided it was time to do something different. I had toyed with the idea of doing an MBA since a while back, but what struck me was that an MBA was a way of finding out what I wanted to do with my life. Many MBA students already kind of know what they want to do, and I would essentially have been moping around hoping that something would stick. I realised I didn’t know what to do with an MBA, and that’s how I ended up pursuing a Masters in Law, Science and Technology at Stanford. Doing my Masters now, I realise that this is what I want – to be involved in advising people on tech issues.
What was the switch from a law firm to working as an in-house counsel like?
As an in-house lawyer, it is crucial to be very practical and concise with your advice. You don’t have to show your client your working; they just want to know the answer. It’s also important to understand the business and develop soft skills. Your most important tool as an in-house lawyer is trust. If your clients trust you, they will listen to you.
Another thing is that as you become part of the company, you tend to lose touch with what’s happening within the legal fraternity. When you are in a law firm, you’re in constant contact with lawyers and you know what is going on by osmosis. As an in-house counsel, I made a conscious effort to attend conferences and maintain contact with the legal industry.
In terms of skills that are transferable from litigation to corporate work, there are a couple. Learning to spot issues remains important. Having a good legal grounding is important. You may not always know the answer, but you should roughly have a sense of the answer from first principles.
Essentially this was all part of a narrative where I was searching for what I was passionate about. You think you know but you don’t actually know.
Was there any point at which you considered completely leaving the law?
Well, at some point I did consider opening a café since I like to cook and host private dinners. But I found out that it was a tougher profession than lawyering and I’m not cut out to be a chef. While I was still in litigation, I also tried to start an events company. We spent Saturday afternoons discussing projects and we managed to make a modest amount of profit. However, over time we realised that it wouldn’t be sustainable in the long run, especially since we all have day jobs and it wouldn’t take off unless someone committed to it full-time, so we closed it after a year.
Essentially this was all part of a narrative where I was searching for what I was passionate about. You think you know but you don’t actually know. I thought it was food, or events, or business.
Things clicked when I applied to Stanford. I was obsessed with the Harvard food science lectures, because they have an option where you can watch everything online and just take a week to fly up and do the practical portion. Then I thought – wait, what I’m interested about in food is not writing reviews about how tasty it is, but the science behind it. I realised I’ve always been interested in science, even in law school. I had done an IP research paper with Professor Burton Ong back in NUS and interned in IP in Drew first. After some soul searching and looking back on what I had done, I realised I had stumbled upon what I was passionate about. So I thought, why not look for a law school that has a technology programme?
Do you have an idea of what you will do after finishing your Masters at Stanford?
I want to work in a law firm doing technology transactions, or a similar practice with a company in-house that does innovation. I want to do it because I realise that after eight years I now have the skills to help tech companies make and strategise deals.
Paying it forward
Tell us a bit about your work in the SCCA’s Peers sub-committee. In your experiences interacting with young lawyers, did you get the sense that they were set on staying in the industry or were they looking for something else?
I helped to set up the SCCA’s Peers sub-committee around the time I left practice and was looking for something different and I found my work there very purposeful. Many young lawyers leave their law firms around their fourth year and this causes problems for the firms. These are essentially well-trained lawyers who can now run their own files and are on track to becoming partner. They have become valuable assets to the firm, but they choose to leave right at the time when they become very valuable.
This trend also changes how the in-house community works. While in-house work used to be done by senior lawyers leaving practice, now in-house work is a profession in itself. I realised that I was not alone and that my experience starting in a law firm and then going in-house was not unique.
I started the Peers sub-committee for two reasons. The first was to build a community for young in-house lawyers. Many in-house teams are pretty small and new in-house counsel may not have people to seek advice from. I wanted this to be a community where young in-house counsel could figure out the answers to questions such as Why don’t my clients want to read my well-written five-page document?. The second reason was to provide lawyers the opportunity to explore the option of moving in-house in a place where their peers can candidly tell them what it’s like.
If we are serious about an innovative startup culture, one solution may be legal technology.
During the How Technology is Changing Your Future Careers panel discussion held at the NUS Faculty of Law last October, you mentioned that when students think about their future career options, they tend to think about it in terms of two big categories: in-house or law firm. What do you think is a better way of thinking about one’s future career? What career opportunities would you urge students to consider as viable options?
I think the better way to think about your future career is to look for something that you want to do. My own path took me a long time, but it is a necessary process. It’s important to know that you are not alone. You may look around and see that everyone is progressing so well, becoming senior associate after a few years and all that, and you may think that you’re the only one experiencing doubts about whether this is the career for you. But you’re not alone. In fact, it’s rare to not experience doubts.
If you feel that law is not for you, ask yourself what is. Sometimes it may be because your current situation seems tough. It may not be your dislike for law. That’s an important realisation to make. I don’t have an answer to what else you should do, but I think the general rule would be to search honestly for what interests you.
I think this is a good time to make headway into legal tech as well, because in the last few years a lot of options have opened up. The Legal Technology Vision published by the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) signals that Singapore is serious about adopting legal technology.
If you think about the bigger picture, what law firms do is provide professional legal advice. Legal tech can assist the delivery of such services and make the process more efficient. It can also enhance access to justice for the public. If you’re a law student interested in legal technology, this is a great time for that. Not everyone can pay for a law firm to give legal advice, especially early stage startups. If we are serious about an innovative startup culture, one solution may be legal technology.
Sizing up Singapore’s legal tech scene
There’ll be supporters and naysayers, but it’s up to you to defend your idea.
How does the legal tech scene in America compare to that in Singapore?
Over at Stanford, there is the Center for Legal Informatics, or CodeX. It’s like a think tank for legal technology. It creates an epicentre for people to gather around. People are here because of the startup scene. You have engineers and business students and it’s very infectious. There is a strong entrepreneurial vibe here and you are encouraged to do cross-faculty stuff. You think “I want to do a startup too!”. They don’t say “it’s impossible”. There’ll be supporters and naysayers, but it’s up to you to defend your idea.
An example of a legal tech startup that originated from Stanford is Ravel Law. It was started by a Juris Doctor (J.D.) student from Stanford and it improves the way people search through cases. Legal.io was started by two Masters students from my programme five years ago. It is a marketplace platform that improves access to justice. Asia Law Network does similar work in Singapore and Asia, serving both commercial and pro bono needs. It is also currently the only online marketing tool approved under the Tech Start for Law Programme that provides funding for law firms looking to adopt these platforms.
Would you ever see something like CodeX at Stanford replicated in Singapore?
I am a strong advocate for building a strong entrepreneurial vibe in Singapore.
Big businesses and having a stable job may be for some people, but it may not be for everyone. Some people want something different. These are your innovators and entrepreneurs.
I don’t know how it will happen yet, but I think we should create this scene. I would say that it’s possible, but with some differences in localising for Singapore. It requires everyone to pitch in. Stanford works because there’s a lot of sharing of information, there are venture capitalists willing to take bets on your company, and there are legal and professional services supporting it. Some law firms defer their fees until the startup secures funding. They do that in the hope that the startup becomes big and they recognise that they don’t get paid if the startup fails, but they do it to invest in the startup community.
Inspiration is a very important part of what keeps you going in your career.
We’ve heard that when you’re not lawyering, you can be found reading up or droning on about food and cooking. What are the three books you would recommend law students to read?
I’m going to throw a curveball and not recommend three books, but two books and something else.
The first book is Tomorrow’s Lawyers by Richard Susskind. It’s grown very popular in the last few years as it’s a great book on how technology can revolutionise legal services. It was a game changer for me.
The second book is The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer. I really enjoyed that because it taught me that sometimes you’re running around so much to figure out what you want to do that you don’t have time to sit down and think about it. Give yourself some space to think. It’s counterintuitive, but necessary these days.
The last piece of advice is to watch TED talks. As they say, it’s ideas worth sharing. Search for things that inspire you. Inspiration is a very important part of what keeps you going in your career.
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, Alex. This was a fascinating conversation. How can our readers get in touch with you?
People is a series that aims to feature individuals who have taken the route less travelled. We sit down for a chat with people who have interesting careers and perspectives to share. There are only two criteria to qualify for a feature in this series: (i) a background in the law (whether this is a law degree or a job related to the law); and (ii) a job that is not in a law firm. If you know of anyone with a perspective to share or if there is someone you would like to hear from, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org!