AT THE HELM: IAN TEO ON CULTURE & CREDENTIALS
Why he turns away top candidates if they don’t gel with his Helmsman team.
BY ASHUTOSH RAVIKRISHNAN
Helmsman is an apt name for a firm that has been specialising in shipping law from day one. After all, a “helmsman” is a person who steers a marine vessel. In this case, the steering is done by Mr Ian Teo, the managing director of the firm and one of its two founders. But Ian shies away from such notions of hierarchy, telling me that he’s proud to have built a firm with a much flatter structure than the norm.
Buoyed by this structure, the team dabbles in every aspect of shipping law, including commodity trading. And soon, they will welcome to their fold other practice groups, namely commercial disputes, employment and corporate, banking and finance. “We’re transitioning into a more multi-service firm,” explains Ian, describing it as an organic process. “Our clients are asking us to do more, in fields beyond shipping. So we’re growing to serve our clients.”
Ian has roped in former law school classmates and colleagues to lead the new practice groups—but his own bread and butter will still be in shipping. That’s been the case since the late 1990s, when he first encountered shipping cases in law school. “I was hooked because of the international element. Shipping by definition is international and that raises a lot of challenging issues.” The international factor was particularly appealing because of how rare it was when he entered practice in 2001. “Today, it wouldn’t seem like a big deal to have an opponent from another corner of the world. But that wasn’t the case back then.”
But it wasn’t just glamour: it was also lots of hard work. Ian recalls the first few years of practice being extremely taxing and demanding. His mentors held exacting standards, which in hindsight, he can appreciate. “In shipping, you have a lot at stake. Every day that the ships don’t move could cost your clients hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s an urgency and an expectation of a quick turnaround—and accuracy, you can’t forego that.”
“You really need to be a specialist in shipping law because there are a lot of possible pitfalls. If you’re not careful, it’s quite easy to make mistakes that could come back to haunt you.” Having earned his stripes in the field, Ian is keen to wear them: he was in the inaugural batch of SAL’s Senior Accredited Specialists in Maritime and Shipping Law back in 2018. “They were recognising my area of work, so why not, right?"
BUILDING A TEAM
Ian (second row, in white) says forging a positive team culture is a priority at Helmsman.
He’s also keen on helping others earn their stripes, often working directly on files with associates. It’s part of a wider culture he is trying to build at Helmsman. “I enjoy the camaraderie it brings. You don’t always find it in bigger firms, where people can get siloed into teams. I remember feeling quite lonely at times.”
He continues, “There’s all this talk of lawyers leaving and yes, stress and the long hours are a big part of it. But what we may be overlooking is the lack of social bonding, guidance and support, especially from older members. Some firms may feel the need to maintain a certain pressure, like, solemnity and intensity in the office environment. It might have worked in the past but I think it’s quite unsustainable in today’s context.”
Perhaps to prove his point, he turns his camera to show me an associate sitting next to him. Associates of a certain era might have quaked in their boots at such proximity to their managing director, but the nonplussed one I see is a picture of calm. Ian is evidently proud of this culture—and one that he’s willing to preserve at all costs. “We’ve turned away Oxbridge candidates because they wouldn’t be a good fit with the team.” It’s a bold statement to make—but judging by Helmsman’s expansion, one that’s aided its success.
Ian joins his Helmsman teammate Ms Maureen Poh and Mr Loh Wai Yue (Incisive Law) for a webinar on the importance of letters of indemnity in shipping and international trade. Registrations for the 25 August session are open.