Legal eagles who do not fly away

Ms Gladys Chun, Mr Paul Tan and Ms Foo Yuet Min.
Ms Gladys Chun, Mr Paul Tan and Ms Foo Yuet Min.PHOTO: GLADYS CHUN, RAJAH & TANN, DREW & NAPIER

By their first decade of work in a law firm, three out of every four local lawyers would have opted to leave their practice.

That striking figure was first highlighted in 2014 by then Law Society president Lok Vi Ming. While such an exodus from a seemingly coveted profession is worrying, there are high-flying lawyers who remain upbeat.

Senior Law Correspondent K. C. Vijayan talks to three among the cream of the crop who stayed on in award-winning ways as practising lawyers or in-house counsel and who, with others like them, are able to hold their own in an increasingly internationalised legal scene.

Thrill seeker with entrepreneurial streak 

Ms Gladys Chun, seen here during a trip to Bhutan, says a successful in-house lawyer should show a consistent track record of outstanding communication skills.PHOTO: COURTESY OF GLADYS CHUN

In-house lawyer Gladys Chun believes one of her major strengths is an appetite for risk management that appears seamless, extending beyond her legal work to the cliff jumping, paragliding and zip-lining that she tackles when out of the office.

When she bagged the Singapore Chief Legal Officer award last month in the category of best corporate counsel in the regional office of a multinational company, it was her 10th honour for the year.

This inaugural award was conferred by the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association.

Ms Chun's other professional accolades this year include Top 10, 30-Somethings award by the Association of Corporate Counsel in New Orleans; Most Innovative Team of the Year in the Asian Legal Business South East Asia Awards; and In-House Counsel of Distinction at the The Asia Legal Awards.

She spent five years as a practising lawyer and another three at a United States multinational before joining online retailer Lazada Group in 2014 as general counsel.

Ms Chun, 35, was part of a team that led the organisation's $1.4 billion acquisition by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group in April last year.

It remains the largest South-east Asia acquisition, and eventually resulted in Alibaba Group increasing its stake in Lazada Group to 83 per cent.

Ms Chun has also grown the legal and compliance team under her charge from just three members in 2014 to over 30 counsel across eight countries today.

"I would say it's the entrepreneurial streak in me that drew me to the in-house opportunity, as I've always wanted to be closer to the business where the action is, and to be able to make a direct impact," she said.

But she made it clear that private practice as a lawyer is "a great place for foundation training in core legal skills, with no better substitute".

She added that in this "current time of disruption, we need to shape holistic talents who are disruption-ready, adaptable and resilient critical thinkers with strong skills in communication, and these skills are not necessarily taught in law schools or law firms and are often best learnt on the job".

She said a successful in-house lawyer should show a consistent track record of outstanding communication skills, including negotiation, influencing and advocacy, "and the ability to rapidly distil the most complex issues of law or facts into decision point for the board and management".

"This is particularly important in the context of the rapidly growing e-commerce environment that is highly charged, fast-paced and continually changing," she noted.

Ms Chun said that she did not have any e-commerce experience before joining Lazada but has always enjoyed retail.

"When I think about it now, what I do for recreation is an extension of the same trait - I enjoy seeking new inspiration, going out of my comfort zone and trying new experiences, like jumping off a cliff and paragliding, canoeing through wondrous caves, and zip-lining across the open sea."

Future office-holders on his mind

Mr Paul Tan is also a legal author and amicus curiae or "friend of the court" .PHOTO: RAJAH & TANN

If there is anyone more surprised by how far lawyer Paul Tan has come, it is perhaps Mr Tan himself.

That is because at present, only about 10 per cent of his school cohort remain in active practice.

"Surprisingly, I'm still practising . I'm a partner of Rajah & Tann. Thirteen years out of law school, I've gained a bit of weight and recently, spotted a few strands of white hair. Thankfully, my blood pressure is still healthy."

Mr Tan, who successfully ran to be a Law Society Council member for the "middle category" of lawyers, said "the reasons for the exodus of (these) lawyers are important; but the more urgent question is how we can develop the middle category".

"It is they who will form the next generation of lead counsel, judges and office-holders."

Mr Tan, 37, is no single-issue lawyer; his legal bandwidth of abilities is reflected in the high-stakes cases undertaken. He is also a legal author, among other things.

Earlier this month, he topped the London-based Who's Who Legal (WWL) as one of the preeminent lawyers under 45. The WWL research covers 521 individuals from Europe, Americas and Rest of the World. He led the Top 10 partners list for the Rest of the World.

Mr Tan is also co-author of the upcoming edition of the renowned Mustill & Boyd's treatise on commercial and investment arbitration.

His recent cases included representing governments in their international law disputes, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Lesotho. He has also acted against governments such as Madagascar.

"This is an intense profession. There is pressure from every direction - clients, the courts, and sustaining a large pool of associates," he notes.

"Three things keep me going. Masochism: an inexplicable love for the challenge to solve legal problems. Generosity: the support and tutelage of my seniors and colleagues, and my own role in nurturing others... makes it meaningful.

"And spontaneity: I try to catch the breaks when they happen. It is not sustainable to operate at 120 per cent all the time. I have to make strategy calls and it's not possible to do that when tired or distracted."

Advocate of diligence and patience

Ms Foo Yuet Min says her most memorable cases are the ones she did pro bono.PHOTO: DREW & NAPIER

Drew & Napier legal eagle Foo Yuet Min is another Singapore lawyer named in the London-based Who's Who Legal Arbitration list of future leaders 2018 aged under 45.

Ms Foo, 35, was also identified by Asian Legal Business last year as one of 40 bright legal minds in the region under the age of 40.

Heavyweight legal briefs are par for the course for her, but she says her most memorable cases are the ones she did pro bono, helping the needy to access justice.

"My first pro bono matter was a case involving outrage of modesty, where the accused I was representing had very low IQ," she recalls.

Graduating with first class honours from the National University of Singapore in 2006, Ms Foo was also a member of the law school's debating team for the 2006 Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition.

She served as a Justices' Law Clerk in the Supreme Court before joining Drew & Napier in 2008, where she is now director in dispute resolution. She was also appointed to the Supreme Court's Young Amicus Curiae Scheme in 2010 and 2011.

A rapid career rise like hers does not come by chance but through "diligence, resilience and an open mind".

She says: "Never say no to work; you learn something from every task, no matter how small. Maintain a healthy dose of self-doubt always and be willing to learn from others, senior or junior to you. Be there always for your clients and colleagues. Thereafter, be patient and progression will find you."

Ms Foo adds that "middle category" lawyers "don't necessarily leave because of push factors in the industry and some stay simply because of inertia".

"Middle-category lawyers have some level of experience, are more marketable and are usually at a stage of life where we start thinking whether there is something else we should try before it's too late.

"So some decide to take the leap for a change. Some focus too much on the negative aspects of practice and overlook the positive - the satisfaction, the flexibility, the exposure and the long-term prospects.

She advises this group to be patient: "Take affirmative steps to make your practice more interesting and... always have a positive mindset and surround yourself with like-minded people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2017, with the headline 'Thrill seeker with entrepreneurial streak '. Print Edition | Subscribe