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The Life Interview with Paul Tan: Top legal eagle is a people person

Lawyer Paul Tan, winner of this year's Disputes Star of the Year, is committed to improving the training and lives of young practising lawyers

Mr Paul Tan, partner at local law firm Rajah & Tann and this year's Disputes Star of the Year for Singapore, has his feet planted firmly on the ground.

"Perhaps if I applied to NUS Law today, I wouldn't even have gotten in," says the law faculty alumnus of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

"I got two As, a B and a C - for mathematics obviously - when I graduated from Hwa Chong Junior College. I was very much a quintessential humanities kid."

But get into the faculty he did, and now, just nine years into private practice as a specialist in commercial litigation and international arbitration (cross-border negotiation and dispute resolution), the 36-year-old has bested two senior counsel and other international law practitioners to become the Disputes Star of the Year.

The award, given by Hong Kong-based research outfit Asialaw, celebrates the best in 12 practice areas across 14 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and the winner is chosen through submissions from regional and international firms. Market feedback from private practice lawyers, in-house counsel and barristers is also taken into account when choosing the winners.

Last year's winner was Mr Davinder Singh, the 59-year-old senior counsel and head of local law firm Drew & Napier.

Whether it's in the legal industry or otherwise, it's important to help those who are just starting out in their careers so they can tap on their potential. It's such a waste to see talent being lost because they didn't get the right guidance when they needed it the most.

MR PAUL TAN on his drive to help young lawyers succeed

The award was a "pleasant surprise" to Mr Tan, but it is the people he works with that drive him - clients, mentors and younger peers.

"I've always felt really lucky to have worked with some really exceptional people - both clients and colleagues - who have been reasonable, encouraging and given me recognition when it was due," says Mr Tan, who was made equity partner in his firm at age 34, at the time the youngest person to receive the promotion in the firm's history.

"It's why I'm so invested in making the industry better for succeeding generations of lawyers. Without good people around you, it can end up being very trying."

To that end, besides taking on the role of recruitment partner at his firm two years ago, he is also a council member at the Singapore Law Society and part of the Young Lawyer's Task Force, set up to examine ways to improve the professional training and lives of young practising lawyers.

Since earlier this year, he has also been working with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon to look into improving the training contracts for law graduates looking to practise.

People, it would seem, have always fascinated Mr Tan. It was an area of interest that surpassed even the draw of toys or television when he was a child.

His mother, retired teacher Cheah Lay Hwa, 67, recalls: "He was not very outgoing as a youngster and would instead spend a lot of time quietly observing people.

"He was in some ways not an easy kid to raise. While most children wanted to play with friends or with their toys, Paul was quietly curious. We had to open our flat door so he could stand and look out at people passing by, for hours on end."

His quiet and observant nature might have come about as a result of a spate of bad allergies as an infant - it saw him going in and out of hospital and subsequently developing a fear of strangers.

Although Mr Tan, the oldest of three children born to English and General Paper teachers, outgrew his aversion of strangers, the curiosity and observant nature remained - his mother recalls often hearing him conduct imaginary tuition classes in his room, mimicking perfectly the way she tutored students in their home.

His family's humble beginnings also played a big role in making Mr Tan more resourceful and creative as a child.

Growing up in a four-room Housing Board flat in Bedok, he recalls the family stacking boxes to use as cabinets and not having a television set at home until he was about three years old.

Without much in the way of luxuries, he and his siblings made the most of the situation with lots of make-believe play.

"My mum would sew us costumes and we would dress up as gongfu characters. I once even brought home bags of soil from my uncle's home because I decided I wanted a garden in my home," the bachelor recalls with a laugh.

"Instead of scolding me, my mother let it slide. We were allowed for a time to have that makeshift garden in our hall."

His 35-year-old brother is also a lawyer, at the Attorney-General's Chambers, and his 27-year-old sister is a teacher.

Family dinners honed love of debate

Their parents, despite being teachers, did not put any academic pressure on them. Mr Tan, who attended St Gabriel's Primary and Secondary and later Hwa Chong Junior College, was raised in a rather free- wheeling and laissez-faire manner.

In the Tan household, there was an emphasis on encouraging different perspectives, often through bold and argumentative conversations at the dining table.

During family dinners, any manner of diverse topics was up for discussion, including taboo subjects such as why certain long-standing traditions were practised by the family.

"It taught us to see different perspectives and, incidentally, probably nurtured my argumentative side," says Mr Tan, who was on the NUS debate team.

"It's something that has continued till today during our weekly Sunday night dinners at our home in Serangoon Gardens. We love talking and getting one another's reactions on different issues."

While in NUS, he says he "coasted" through much of school and spent much time with the debate team, but still managed to graduate with first-class honours in 2005.

Considering a career in academia at the time, Mr Tan became a justice's law clerk as part of the judiciary and taught legal writing part-time at NUS and Singapore Management University (SMU).

After two years, on the advice of his mentors, he decided to have a go at private practice, where he became passionate about international law and arbitration cases from his initial years as an associate at Rajah & Tann.

In 2010, he left for England to study for his master's at the University of Oxford and explore international law further on a British government scholarship. In 2012, armed with a distinction from Oxford, he returned to Singapore as a junior partner with Rajah & Tann and, two years later, was made equity partner - meaning he was entitled to a percentage of the profits of the firm.

Since then, he has gone on to lead and successfully win a whole host of complex disputes, including one before the newly minted Singapore International Commercial Court, which involved a dispute over a joint investment of a portfolio of shares worth about $150 million.

His work in international arbitration also prompted an invitation last year to co-author the third and latest edition of the Mustill & Boyd textbook on international arbitration, one of the world's most famous textbooks on the subject - making him the first Asian to collaborate on a book of such international standing.

But Mr Tan says the cases he has fought for the everyman are what resonate most deeply with him - such as a pro-bono case where he represented a woman who had been accused of shoplifting from a convenience store.

"She had a difficult family background and was suffering from depression. It took a long time, but we finally managed to get her off without a fine or jail time," he says. "She volunteered to get treatment and later sent me small gifts because she was so thankful. Those are moments that really stand out when I think back on my career."

Outside of his routine 9.30am to 7pm work schedule, he dedicates his free time to travelling, scouting for good food and working with fellow Law Society members to provide feedback and give recommendations to help nurture the next generation of young lawyers.

"I was lucky enough to get the guidance and face-time I needed to grow, so I think it's important for me to give back in the same way," he says, when asked why he is so passionate about helping the younger generation.

"I would like to see the day when a majority of our home-grown lawyers are criss-crossing the globe and handling international disputes and transactions. We have the talent, but we need to actively promote and nurture it."

He is serious about putting Singapore on the international map. Last year, an 888-page book titled Singapore Law: 50 Years In The Making, which he co-authored with associate professor Goh Yihan from SMU Law, was released.

The tome, which was written over six years, explores how Singapore's law has developed dynamically and been cited internationally since the country's independence.

Mr Lee Eng Beng, his mentor and a managing partner at Rajah & Tann, says: "It is a mystery to me how Paul finds the time, drive and energy to do all the things he does, and to do them that well.

"In his relatively few years in private practice, he has already contributed immensely to the legal profession, but what is even more striking is that all these achievements are wrapped round by humility, decency and a very likeable personality."

In fact, often during this interview with The Straits Times, he often has to be prompted to spell out his achievements. Praises that are sent his way are in turn accepted rather sheepishly.

"I'm the sort of person who takes things as they come - I don't think I've arrived in any way," he says, when asked what he hopes to achieve in the future.

"I have a lot of passions outside of work, but I'm glad to really love what I do. I don't think you should work expecting rewards. My goals are simple: I just want to be a better lawyer and mentor for the younger generation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline 'Raising the bar'. Print Edition | Subscribe