DANNY ONG ON STARTING OUT AGAIN
He reflects on his journey in the law and its latest milestone: Setia, a boutique firm focused on dispute resolution, fraud and financial crime, international enforcement, and corporate distressed situations.
BY ASHUTOSH RAVIKRISHNAN
It’s not every day that a managing partner approaches law students on LinkedIn, asking them to consider an internship at their firm. But that sums up Mr Danny Ong’s approach to snagging fresh talent at Setia LLC, the firm he set up seven months ago.
“I still look through LinkedIn and other platforms, see who’s doing well on the academic, sporting, and mooting fronts, to identify find those who might be a good fit at the firm.”
A good fit is key at a boutique set-up like Setia, which currently hires 12 lawyers, with plans to grow further. “Fit is everything. It is not just about stellar qualifications but also about who would gel with the team’s culture and values.”
Danny’s naturally protective of his team, given the painstaking journey he’s been through to bring the firm to life.
“The idea of starting up something of my own has always been at the back of my mind,” he says, pointing to the freedom it offers. “You decide what kind of team you want to build, the cases you want to take on, the way you want to train and develop your people. It’s quite liberalising.”
But starting out on his own was not an easy decision, especially because he was already in a leadership role at a large firm at the time that he started toying with the idea.
As a leader at the large firm, he had amassed a reputation for being an expert in fraud and financial crime, and was a regular fixture in large, complex insolvency and restructuring cases.
Still, he felt something was missing for him.
“I don’t quite know how to describe it; it was a strong yearning for continued growth, and a feeling of wanting to achieve more meaning for myself that bubbled up over the past few years.”
He remembers talking to his wife, Eu-Yen, also an accomplished lawyer, about it.
“At first, she was engaged in the analysis of pros and cons, but I weighed it out so often and over such a long period of time, that one day she told me to either just do it or stop whining about it! It was obvious to me then, that I needed to just do it or shut up!”
With that decision, Danny met the key senior partners of his former firm for what he calls “a difficult and emotional conversation for me frankly, not least given the deep relationships built over 16 years there. After appreciating where I was coming from, they gave me their blessings, which I was truly grateful for.”
Danny then started discussions with the team that eventually formed Setia. Suddenly, Danny was responsible for a lot more than just the running of his practice.
As he takes me through the firm’s swanky offices at One George Street, he lets on that he had viewed more than 30 spaces in the CBD. “Starting your own business does offer those freedoms that I talked about earlier, down to even choosing how your office looks. But it also means a lot more on your plate.”
That includes setting the firm’s culture and ethos. As he shaped Setia with his co-founder, he was guided by his own experiences in law practice. His first few years were fulfilling, but hectic.
“I might have been offered my first job because I told the senior partner that I was willing to work 16 hours a day and manage the rest of my affairs, including sleep, over the remaining eight!” he quips, half in jest.
The long days took their toll and like so many of his peers, Danny found himself burnt out. Two particular incidents signaled a need for change. “The first was a car crash, literally. And the second, also involved driving: I worked until 4am then drove to my parents’ home in Ipoh in the dead of the night for Chinese New Year. At that point, I thought, ‘Enough is enough’ and went on a nine-month sabbatical.”
Perhaps inspired by these events, Danny has made it a point to hire more lawyers than the bare minimum. “Practice will always involve crazy periods, and we hope as much as possible to minimise extended periods of insanity, because that’s not sustainable. The work and the team all suffer for it. So if having more lawyers on board goes some way towards maintaining a sustainable practice for all of us, we will invest in that.”
The Setia team at its launch party earlier this year. Danny jokes that he was still on a conference call when the photo was taken.
Danny also hopes to emulate the opportunities he was given early in his career by his mentors while practising in Singapore and Hong Kong. One case that stands out in his early years involved a cross-border trail of stolen money from the Cayman Islands that eventually ended up in Nigeria. He was a second-year associate representing an international bank, among a team of lawyers from New York, London, Geneva and Hong Kong, in seeking freezing and disclosure orders, an experience that he relishes even today.
That was soon followed by playing an active role in the then largest cross-border restructuring case seen in the region involving an Indonesian conglomerate, again learning from some of the best restructuring and insolvency international lawyers.
“I want to give my team similar opportunities to grow. Nothing makes me happier than if I’m second chair and observing a junior make their case as lead counsel, or better still, from the gallery. That would be a privilege for me.”
I wonder what inspired this attitude—after all, Danny is only 48 and still has many good years in his career. But he sees it a bit differently.
“Looking back, I’ve been so fortunate to have gained much cross-border exposure across multiple practice areas, developed solid relationships across the globe, and learned much on the management front.”
“Of course, there’s much more I can do and learn, but for now, I think it’s my turn to focus on giving the juniors the same opportunities and set them on the right path for success. They may be here today or somewhere else in a couple of years, but at least we would have done our best to equip them with the skill sets necessary to succeed in the ever more competitive landscape, and more importantly, to ingrain in them what we see as the right core values.”
As one associate from another firm puts it, maybe that’s why when Danny comes calling on LinkedIn, many will pick up.