THE KC COUNSELS: CAREER EXPERIENCE AND ADVICE FROM NG JERN-FEI KC
He starts a new journey in Singapore, practising from JFN Chambers LLC, a member of Duxton Hill Chambers (Singapore Group Practice).
Jern-Fei has relocated to Singapore with his family (pictured) and his two children have started in schools here
BY SEAN LEE
For a sense of just how cosmopolitan Mr Ng Jern-Fei KC’s practice is, look no further than one of his latest LinkedIn posts.
“I am delighted to announce that, going forward, I will be practising in Singapore from JFN Chambers LLC, which is a member of Duxton Hill Chambers (Singapore Group Practice),” he wrote on 10 May 2023. “I will continue to be a member of 7BR Barristers’ Chambers in London and an arbitrator member of Temple Chambers in Hong Kong SAR.”
That cosmopolitanism, like much of his career, wasn’t planned—a fact that may surprise his peers. But by finding opportunities and taking alternative paths, he excelled in the field, culminating in his taking the silk in 2018, making him one of the youngest Asian lawyers to achieve this.
“I was not what you would describe as a “cookie-cutter” barrister candidate. It never crossed my mind to pursue a career in England. Twenty years ago, the UK legal profession was very traditional; it was difficult for anyone who did not fit the ‘accepted’ mould of a barrister to break into it.”
“There was a point in time where I felt that I wasn't getting the type of work which a lot of my peers were getting. And I almost called it quits; pulling the plug and going to practise in Singapore.”
But looking back, Jern-Fei is glad that he stayed and stuck it out. “I looked for ways in which I could grow my practice in a non-traditional way. I did a lot of marketing for instructions in various jurisdictions including Singapore and Hong Kong, even though I was just a junior barrister then.”
“I have finally ended up in Singapore, but I do so from a position of strength, not because I couldn't hack it in London, but because it was a natural progression to everything that I had achieved in London as a barrister,” adds Jern-Fei.
Expanding his practice to Singapore was an easy decision. “Singapore is at the intersection between eastern and western jurisdictions and cultures. It is increasingly becoming a centre of legal excellence for lawyers from other civil law jurisdictions in the east, such as China, South Korea and Indonesia.”
On his choice to practise as an independent advocate from JFN Chambers LLC, a member of Duxton Hill Chambers (Singapore Group Practice): “This allows me the independence of being instructed as counsel and to work alongside different law firms in different cases, which is an aspect of my practice that I truly enjoy.”
His practice has constantly evolved over the years and is now predominantly Asia-centric. “Besides English, a lot of my work is done in Chinese and to a smaller extent, in Malay,” says Jern Fei who was born outside Petaling Jaya, Malaysia before heading to the UK to further his studies on a scholarship.
Fluent in five languages (English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay and Indonesian), Jern Fei attributes linguistic versatility as the new cutting edge for today’s lawyers. “Singaporean lawyers are increasingly proficient in multiple languages,” he notes. “They are also just as comfortable undertaking transaction or disputes work in languages other than in English, whether it is Chinese, Tamil or Bahasa or even Korean and Japanese. That’s a sought-after trait.”
Career advice from Jern-Fei
- There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Unlike the one yellow brick road that leads to the Emerald City, you may sometimes need to use a red or green brick road. But the point is to reach Emerald City.
- Decide the practice that suits you best. Choices are aplenty, with the proliferation of boutique firms and arbitration work. “You don’t have to start at a big law firm. While some may thrive in a big firm, others may fare better in mid-sized or smaller firms. Still others may find their true calling in working for the Legal Service, academia or NGOs.”
- Experience different areas of practice to get a sense of whether a particular type of work is for you. “During my student days, I worked at both solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers to sample criminal, commercial and personal injury work. It is only by trying something in practice that you discover what you are best suited for. As a new entrant into the legal profession, you need to be open to different options.”
- Interact with colleagues and friends from different areas of law to learn about their worlds. They can help you to make an informed decision should you wish to try something new.
- Younger lawyers should consider leaving the comforts of home and experience life abroad. “You will experience operating in a different jurisdiction, in a different context, and without the safety net of home. While this can be stressful and even challenging, I believe it makes you a more holistic person, a more accomplished practitioner and a better lawyer when the time comes for you to return to Singapore. But if you do leave, just make sure it's not permanent, because there is no place like home!”
- Discover what makes you unique. “Sometimes it's about your linguistic ability, your professional experience or even your hobbies. Very few KCs, for example, can operate in different linguistic environments. If a client is looking for a Chinese speaking KC, I am probably the only in the market.”