Written by Josh Lee

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the May 2015 edition of the Law Gazette (a publication of the Law Society of Singapore). We would like to thank the Law Society and its Publications Department for graciously allowing us to reproduce this article on this site for our readers.)

Introduction

Since the start of the year, the legal fraternity has been involved in much debate. There has been the on-going discussion about the glut of lawyers in Singapore. There was also a big debate over the dropping of certain UK universities from the approved list of overseas law schools. These discussions have spurred much thought about the attractiveness of lawyering as a career (especially among fresh-faced undergraduates) and the changing role of lawyers in society.

Thus, it was fortuitous that on Friday, 13 March 2015, the Young Member’s Chapter under the Professional Affairs Committee of the Singapore Academy of Law and SCCA PEERS Sub-Committee jointly organised the Singapore Legal Career Forum 2015, entitled, Being a Lawyer in the Next Five Years. Mirroring the on-going discussion in the wider fraternity, the aim of the Forum was to give those present an idea about the changing role of Singapore’s lawyers amidst the fast-evolving legal landscape. Held at the Viewing Gallery on the eighth floor of the Supreme Court, the impressive skyline of the Central Business District provided a fitting backdrop to the Forum.

The Forum brought together a panel consisting of distinguished practitioners from different fields of legal work. The high-powered panel, chaired by the Honourable Justice Quentin Loh from the Supreme Court, consisted of: the Honourable Judicial Commissioner Chua Lee Ming, Mr Harpreet Singh Nehal, SC (Managing Partner, Cavenagh Law LLP), Mr Adrian Tan (Director, Stamford Law Corporation (now known as Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC)), Mrs Stefanie Yuen Thio (Joint Managing Director, TSMP Law Corporation), and Mr Wong Taur-Jiun (President, Singapore Corporate Counsel Association).

From left to right: Mr Kabir Singh, Mrs Stefanie Yuen Thio, Mr Adrian Tan, the Honourable Judicial Commissioner Chua Lee Ming, the Honourable Justice Quentin Loh, Mr Wong Taur-Jiun, Mr Harpreet Singh Nehal, SC,
Ms Thng Shin Min

 

Local Lawyers, Global Practitioners

Kicking off the forum, Mr Singh spoke about where business opportunities were going to be, and what skill-sets would be needed to make the most of such opportunities. He first reminded the audience to think about where the real lawyering opportunities were going to be in 15 to 20 years, rather than deciding one’s career path based on short-term interests.

With the region becoming the world’s next economic centre of gravity, the real opportunities in lawyering were going to be cross-border in nature. In particular, these opportunities would be Asia-centric. Further, given the nature of Asian economies, areas such as international investment, construction, energy and resources, international regulatory work, and international dispute resolution would be fertile areas for growth.

Thus, lawyers had to prime themselves with skills that would help them take advantage of these opportunities. Besides having proficient lawyering skills, a crucial differentiator would be the willingness to spend time outside of Singapore. This was because, Mr Singh noted, “the real opportunities to shine will lie in places that right now might seem less comfortable compared to Singapore”. Moreover, lawyers should have a broad mindset, cross-cultural awareness, and business skills. This meant that lawyers had to read widely, be able to work well with cross-cultural teams, develop long-term skills by thinking like a businessman, and understand how macroeconomic and geo-political events could impact business.

Adding on to Mr Singh’s views, Mrs Yuen Thio said that practitioners had to learn how to be “technology lawyers”. In other words, lawyers had to understand how technology could enable or disrupt clients’ businesses. Mrs Yuen Thio also noted that Singapore lawyers were no longer the lowest rung in the global legal pecking order. Increasingly, Singaporean lawyers were heading international teams. This meant that one had to be a good leader and manager, on top of being a good worker.

Being Adaptable Decision-makers

The notion of being a good leader also resonated strongly in Mr Wong’s views. Representing the perspectives of in-house counsel, Mr Wong pointed out that in-house counsel was, more than anything else, about solving problems. Unfortunately, Mr Wong noted that “people nowadays like to give everyone else options, and nobody wants to make a decision”. Thus, to Mr Wong, the most important quality of lawyers was to be able to make good decisions.

Furthermore, Judicial Commissioner Chua observed that in-house work was another hotbed of lawyering opportunities. The in-house legal profession continues to develop and the demand for in-house counsel will increase. Tying the initial discussion together, Chua JC pointed out that law is a flexible discipline which equips one to work in different fields. Chua JC reminded the audience to be adaptable and to be willing to take up any opportunity that came one’s way.

Upcoming Changes in the Next Ten Years

A Change in How Clients View Lawyers

In response to a question by Justice Loh, Mrs Yuen Thio quipped that lawyers were no longer treated as Gods. The idea that people went to lawyers to receive sage advice was no longer relevant today. Rather, clients today saw lawyers as just another service provider. Clients expect lawyers to help them look at their situations, and explain the best way to sort things out. Thus, for lawyers to develop long-term business relationships with clients, lawyers had to adopt a client-centric, service-minded approach.

Adapting to Computerisation and Commoditisation

A big topic that garnered discussion was the commoditisation and computerisation of work. The fear was that this would end up diminishing the demand for lawyers. For example, as Justice Loh pointed out, using the example of IBM’s Watson supercomputer, data-mining could already be done so well by computers, at a fraction of the cost of hiring three trainees to do the same amount of work. Would law firms and clients still need lawyers?

Thankfully, the answer was that lawyers would still be in demand. Lawyers must, however, be prepared to change their mindset fundamentally. With regard to commoditisation of legal work, Chua JC noted that lawyers must upgrade themselves to be as productive and efficient as possible. To make his point, Chua JC referred to an article about the former General Counsel of Kia who developed a test to assess the digital productivity of lawyers (how efficient they were in using productivity tools, like Microsoft Word). More than half of the lawyers who took the test failed. Thus, lawyers had to do a lot more to ensure that they provide their clients “more bang for the buck”.

Mrs Yuen Thio added that “everyday work will get commoditised, but what law firms need to provide as much as possible is customisable work” – in other words, work that computers and non-lawyers could never do. Computers, for example, still could not devise a good litigation strategy for clients. They could not tell clients how to best frame their case. Thus, as long as lawyers were able to tap on the power of computers to enhance their services, there was no need to be afraid. Moreover, as Mr Wong noted, computers could never completely replace humans. That is because, to build a sustainable practice, law firms would still need to groom their own trainees and associates to be successful lawyers and directors in the future.

To have a leg up over others with regard to experience in Court, Mr Tan suggested trying the public service route – in other words, becoming a DPP in the AGC. To Mr Tan, while this was “not a route to riches”, it would give young lawyers a good grounding as regards Court processes. Mr Tan also warned that traditional law firms may one day become extinct. Thus, to him, it also made sense to explore opportunities provided by international law firms in Singapore.

How Law Students and Lawyers Can Respond to the Changing Structure of the Legal Industry

Responding to a question about changes in the structure of the legal industry, Mr Singh noted that the legal industry in Singapore is experiencing substantial change, with local law firms facing increasing competition and reviewing their growth strategies to remain relevant and competitive for the longer term.

In his view, firms that focused purely or heavily on the domestic Singaporean market would find themselves plateauing and risk missing the real growth opportunities – cross-border work. Given shifting economic trends and growth opportunities, he foresees increased tie ups between Singaporean and international firms. Adding on to Mr Singh’s views, Mrs Yuen Thio believed that overseas tie-ups would help the partnering firms build on each other’s resources to serve a larger client base.

With this glimpse into the future of the legal industry, Mr Singh encouraged law students and young lawyers to pursue opportunities with firms that had a systematic growth strategy. Nonetheless, Mrs Yuen Thio added a touch of pragmatic idealism when she counselled law students to find a law firm that “allows them to end each day a better lawyer than they started it”.

Mr Wong added that law students and young lawyers had to be aware of their personal branding. To Mr Wong, the reality of practice was that, regardless of one’s brilliance, one would probably still not get far staying in a relatively unknown firm. Getting into well-known firms adds to personal branding, however, that also meant having the pre-requisite abilities and potential to do so.

Turning from big and medium-sized firms to small firms, Mr Singh believed that there was no need to fear for the viability of small firms in Singapore. This was because small firms would continue to play a key role of providing legal services that were accessible to many people in Singapore.

Where and What Kind of Education Should Lawyers Seek?

On to the topic of hiring, the panel touched on two topics: first, whether there was a need to expand one’s knowledge base, and second, the removal of approved overseas universities.

In response to a question of whether it was prudent to learn things outside of law through a second degree, Mrs Yuen Thio pointed out that it was ultimately up to each individual. This was because it was more important to focus on what one was personally interested in, and what one thought would make him or her, a better thinker and person.

Mr Singh and Mr Wong, however, pointed out that there were specific areas that could be useful to study. Mr Singh felt that it was useful for lawyers to be dual qualified in Singapore law and either English or New York law. This was tied to his belief that the real growth opportunities of the future would be cross-border in nature. Similarly, Mr Wong advised the audience to be able to speak and understand the lingo of one’s clients. In that respect, an MBA could be helpful.

On the issue of approved overseas universities, the panel had a consistent view: it did not substantially matter if one came from a local or overseas university. This was for three reasons. First, firms were on the lookout for people who had good aptitudes and were a good fit with the firm, not necessarily the university name that appeared on their CV. Second, firms were sufficiently sophisticated to judge people by what they brought to the table. Third, even if one’s school were taken into account at the point of entry, a lawyer would eventually be judged by his/her ultimate performance at work. After all, as Mr Tan, pointed out, partners and firms quickly forget which university you come from. This must come as a welcome relief to everyone, especially to overseas law graduates. Nevertheless, Chua JC raised a caveat (as was the case with anything that had to do with law): in practice, HR (especially in large organisations) may filter and short-list applicants based on their degrees. As a result, talented individuals may not have the opportunity to be interviewed. Chua JC noted that the short-listing criterion depends on each organisation’s policies.

A Word of Encouragement from the Panellists

Justice Loh wrapped up the entertaining and informative discussion by asking the panellists for their concluding thoughts. In response, Mr Wong reminded the audience to pursue their dreams if they could afford it and if their circumstances allowed them to do so. This was because everybody is “only young once”.

Mr Singh noted that in spite of the uncertainties that lay ahead, young lawyers should not be overly anxious or fearful. After all, as he quipped, “life always has a way of working out.” He reminded everybody that being legally-trained made lawyers one of the most adaptable groups of people. He also reminded the attendees to pursue their long-term goals, and not be afraid to take the road less travelled.

Mrs Yuen Thio had perhaps the most heart-warming advice of all: “Do something that you love, and live life with the goal that you want to know that when you look back, you’re happy about the journey that you walked. Life is made up of the relationships you’ve formed, the friends you’ve made, the times you’ve had. If you live your life every day with that in mind, then that’s fine. Do something that’s for you. Stand up for what you believe in.”

Concluding Thoughts

As Mrs Yuen Thio ended the discussion with that sentence, I almost expected the audience to actually stand up and clap – such were the conviction in her words. It was an inspiring finish to an informative and entertaining session. Even as a salary-less student, the $20 admission fee I had paid felt fully justified. It was a meaningful night spent interacting face-to-face with so many formidable and respectable individuals. I thank the Academy and SCCA for putting the Singapore Legal Career Forum together for the legal fraternity.

 

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