GREGORY TAN ON STARTING OUT IN THE LAW AND CONTINUING TO FIND MEANING IN IT
BY GREGORY TAN
…ON STARTING OUT
I had the privilege, after university, to work with the Judges of Appeals as a Justices’ Law Clerk. Even though I was fresh from law school, I found the judges extremely patient and understanding. They would take the time to let me explain why I took a certain legal view, listening and testing the arguments, and always in a respectful manner even when they disagreed. They could have been dismissive and didn’t have to spend all this time as they were, after, all important and busy people. I didn’t realise then but I now know how incredibly rare it is to have bosses willing to nurture you this way. It was a very valuable stage of learning for me and set me up for the next phase of my career.
…ON GOING IN-HOUSE
My decision to go in-house followed after a long career working in private practice and living overseas. After legal service, I joined an international firm in Singapore as a corporate lawyer which led me to live and work in the US, Japan and China for many years. I had a young family when I started private practice. It was a bit of an adventure then, but the overseas opportunities allowed me to learn about different cultures, make new friends and absorb new experiences while cutting my teeth in cross border M&As, credit deals and other transactional work. When I went in-house, apart from family reasons, I wanted to try something different and new but still related to my prior M&A experience. Working from the client’s side was the natural next step and I have never regretted my decision.
…ON TAKING ON PROJECTS OUTSIDE OF WORK
The practice of law can be so all-consuming that it’s hard to imagine setting aside time for anything but work. But I encourage you to do so because these projects can be as fulfilling as the daily grind. In my case, as a member of the Promotion of Singapore Law Committee, I am involved in the Venture Capital Investment Model Agreements (VIMA) project. I should set the context that the project is a ground-up effort by many lawyers (local, in-house and international lawyers) who have volunteered their time and effort to create model agreements based on Singapore law for early-stage venture capital financing. And I am just part of this broader collective effort to help transacting parties reduce friction and enhance efficiency in negotiating and documenting early-stage financing by establishing standard terms for what is “market” in the region. Given how Singapore has positioned itself as a venture capital hub, complemented by the many government policies and agencies’ support, this project was a natural fit for what’s needed today and a practical step towards making a small legal contribution to the venture capital ecosystem.
Projects like the VIMA are a way for lawyers to not only demonstrate thought leadership in their fields but to also give back and share their knowledge with the rest of the profession. And we all upskill and learn together in the process. Being part of the VIMA working group has certainly given me a better understanding of how the industry works from different perspectives, and an opportunity to learn the legal approaches that lawyers are using today to address issues. Of course, there are many other ways to give back, through pro bono work, joining a committee in SAL, Law Society or participating in some other legal initiatives. And I believe they will all in their own way contribute towards enriching your lawyering experience.
…ADVICE TO NEWLY CALLED LAWYERS
I will not go into the importance of integrity and honesty – those qualities are a given for lawyers. Instead of advice, let me just share what I would say to my younger self from the perspective of a corporate lawyer.
First, Persevere. Now that you have gone past the carbolic smokeballs and bottled snails, you are ready to embark on the practice of law. This journey of legal practice will require lots of perseverance. In fact, I would liken the practice of law to a marathon. In the old days, you would probably start in a musty and windowless storeroom reviewing documents as part of due diligence. Today, you will be directed to a VDR (virtual dataroom) and pore through thousands of pages of documents. All this work seems so far from the interesting cases in law school. And it may make you wonder if this is what you have bargained for. But I assure you this is all worthwhile, so long as you approach it with the right mindset and with perseverance. You have to play the long game. This seemingly mundane work will all aggregate towards the foundational knowledge needed to negotiate and put a deal together, and every little piece is a building block of that knowledge. But it’s important to pace yourself, avoid burn-out, and know that there is a bigger goal in the end.
Second, Be Curious. Lawyers will have to keep themselves constantly abreast of not only legal developments but societal and business changes to stay relevant. If you are a corporate lawyer, being aware of business trends will help you to counsel your client more effectively. It’s therefore critically important that we remain relevant, and to do that you need a sense of curiosity, not only about the law but what goes on around, and to adapt your skillsets to the needs of your client, be it in new cutting edge practices like AI, blockchain, emerging acquisition techniques like SPACs or understanding new regulatory trends. Some of the most successful commercial lawyers I know are those who are able to continuously remain relevant by adapting their skillsets, often in adjacent practices, and in the process become even better lawyers through the breadth of experience and expertise they have acquired.
Third, Find the Right Mentors. Especially for young corporate lawyers, this is exceptionally important. There are no shortcuts, starting from the humdrum of due diligence, putting signature pages together to finally being able to advise, negotiate and pull the transaction together. Each step along the way will help you understand the different moving pieces and their importance. In my view, the only way to learn it is through practical experience. And this experience is given to you when you find the right platform for such work with mentors to teach you. Good mentors will also guide you in the practical dimensions of law, including interpersonal skills, effective communication, drafting skills and, most importantly, learning from your mistakes.
Let me end by congratulating each and every one of you. You have achieved a milestone in your legal journey, and I wish you good luck and the very best in your next lap.
The author is Deputy General Counsel, Legal & Regulatory at Temasek. This article first appeared on a dedicated portal created by SAL to welcome newly-called members in 2021. Access it here. In last week's edition, Mr Alexander Woon (SUSS) wrote about the continued relevance of lawyers, even in a time of big tech. Read it here.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the individual author/interviewee and do not represent the views of SAL Group or its subsidiaries.
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