Friday, April 5, 2024 - 13:39


Starting on your own may sound appealing at first, but it’s a tough slog, as Dawn Tan of Ashurst ADTLaw shares.



It’s hard not to gasp when you enter the sleek offices of Ashurst ADTLaw, which offer sweeping views of Marina Bay. These views are decidedly different from the ones that Ms Dawn Tan, the firm’s founding director, used to enjoy at her previous office. Situated in the Balestier enclave, it was a markedly more colourful affair. “There was a durian stall (Combat Durian) and KTV lounge next to our office building, and my two associates would walk to Whampoa market for lunch."

But its simplicity was accompanied by a jovial atmosphere among Dawn and her two associates, one of whom continues to work with her, nearly 10 years on. "Life was also simpler then."

However, this levity didn’t detract from the challenges of running a small firm. “The idea of autonomy has been romanticised, especially in today’s age of the gig economy” reflects Dawn.

Not one to mince her words, she adds, “But the truth is, and those who have run or are running smaller firms will relate to this, it’s a tough slog.” It is a challenge to win the respect of the clients and sometimes, even that of others within the firm. However, she adds that hard work does pay off, and it is always worthwhile investing in yourself. The rewards may not come immediately, but come they will.

Her next point is one that many in smaller firms set may relate to. “It’s no fun doing a High Court trial on your own, but that was precisely what happened on one occasion in the past". She notes that it is important to be mentally prepared for the challenges of practicing in an environment without the support functions that are typically in place in larger firms, noting that she was unprepared for this.

Then there were the cost pressures. “People may not understand the pressure of worrying about bills at every waking moment. If you don’t have the branding of a big firm, the truth is that there’s always a certain kind of work that you might never be able to do,” she adds, listing institutional and big corporate work as examples. "I decided that I did not want to be 'pigeon-holed' in that way and I wanted to be known for doing high quality work in good briefs for good clients."

So when a big project first came up, followed by other substantive briefs, that gave her the chance to showcase the quality of her work.“That’s when we started to earn people’s respect and the word spread from there." 

Now, however, the perception of being in a smaller firm has changed somewhat. "People recognise that there are a lot of opportunities to do the work you want to do, and you can be agile at the same time."


Dawn with her teammates at the 2024 Litigation Conference


Coincidentally, around that time Ashurst, a leading international firm, approached her regarding a collaboration and this eventually resulted in a Formal Law Alliance (FLA). The rest, as they say, is history.

So, have the hopes for more varied kinds of work materialised at Ashurst ADTLaw?  Without a doubt, says Dawn. “We work on matters for private equity funds, big-name corporates and more matters with a cross-border focus or with litigation across multiple jurisdictions.”

“One example that comes to mind is a Canadian financial institution that wanted to go into cannabis-linked equities. They were aware of Singapore’s strict drug laws and wanted to know whether it was something they could do. So we advised on that and there was a Malaysian aspect to it as well, because they wanted to branch out into this region from Singapore and Malaysia."

"Another was a matter involving corrupt employees who had been stealing contracts and siphoning funds from their employer, the Singapore subsidiary of a global industrial services provider. Although the offences took place in Singapore, the employees' conduct had implications for the client in other jurisdictions under the law of those jurisdictions.”

It would be easy to point to the partnership with Ashurst for bringing in the bigger work, but Dawn deserves due credit as well for getting her name out there through her writing in addition to her work.

She has published several commentaries for the Singapore Academy of Law Journal. Finding the time to write can be challenging (“it does take away from your evenings and weekends,” she admits), but the rewards are worth it.

“You get to explore concepts, ideas and trends from an academic point of view and help the profession understand them,” she adds, citing a 2022 paper that studied the factors for Singapore’s success as a preferred dispute resolution centre. "In the process, you clarify your own thoughts and position."

Such academic exercises have also helped sharpen her practice, which was especially important post-FLA. Dawn realised early in the FLA that she and her colleagues had to "level up" in quick order to assimilate the norms and expectations of life at an international firm.

“They approach matters in a unique way—something we had to train ourselves to do initially, before we built our own capabilities and moved on from there.” Taking a step back and from a broader perspective, because the stage for an international firm is global, their worldview is too, she adds. They approach trends and developments that impact global practice from a strategic growth perspective, something which some Singapore firms are just beginning to do.



Growing her practice has also meant growing her network along the way. She realised early on that she had to expand her network fast, and she set about doing that purposefully.

Initially, she sought structured platforms to do so, in addition to her informal networks. Today, she is the Chairwoman of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce leading a Board comprising influential business people — the first practising lawyer (and only the second woman – the first being Jennie Chua, the CEO of Raffles Holdings) to hold that position in the Chamber's 187-year history.

“People don’t usually think of lawyers as having one foot in the business world, because we may be so focused on our own needs—and understandably so. But having to straddle both worlds has been a learning – and enriching – journey,” she reflects.

She encourages others to find similar platforms, which can be a great way to network and meet people they usually might not. “I’m an introvert by nature, so I didn’t always like to step out. I’m happy with a good book at home. But I forced myself to go to many events and make connections because I had to keep the lights on in the firm. And this was a growth process in itself.” 

Not every contact proves useful—but Dawn stresses that isn’t as important as people think. “You can’t approach relationships like a transaction. Sustaining and building relationships takes time. And the relationships also evolve over time. But it can be very rewarding.”

In her spare time, Dawn keeps herself grounded by practising the art of Sogetsu Ikebana. She has given exhibitions and demonstrations of her works in Singapore and overseas, and is currently preparing for her upgrading examinations to First Grade Somu.


One of Dawn's creations

"It is a lot of fun, calms me down and allows me to think about something else other than the law," she adds, laughing. 

The Singapore Academy of Law Journal (SAcLJ) welcomes articles, case notes, commentaries on Singapore law or laws of other countries that are applicable to the practice of law in Singapore. Please submit your papers via the online submissions portal on Journals Online or contact [email protected].