Friends. Even if you (think you) work best alone, there will come a time when you will need help. Whether it is to cover a court hearing when you are taken ill, or urgent advice on a foreign practice area to help out an existing client, or even some insights into how certain members of the bench operate. I once had to prepare for a very difficult hearing before a new judicial commissioner against a senior counsel. Both of them were complete strangers to me, but I was able to speak to several contacts who had dealt with them on various levels before. I’ll never be able to say how much that eventually contributed to the successful hearing, but at the very least it set me at ease going into it.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chooi Jing Yen.
Chooi Jing Yen is not just one of the top young lawyers in Singapore in his field of practice, he is also an accomplished musician and a former sportsman. He went through law school giving violin lessons on the weekends, and represented his university twice at the national track and field championships. He is now a partner at Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, which was named the Asia-Pacific Boutique Firm of the Year 2020 by Benchmark Litigation.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
I come from a family of scientists. Growing up, my education was very heavily focused on the mathematics and the sciences. When I was a teenager, I got interested in psychology and in particular, the factors that drove people to do the things that they did. Later on, I was exposed to philosophy and started questioning whether science necessarily had all the answers to life. This pushed me towards other fields of study, and eventually I settled on reading law at the Singapore Management University.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
I am primarily a disputes lawyer handling all levels of court litigation and international arbitration work. I do both appellate advocacy as well as trial litigation. Apart from the large commercial disputes, a sizeable part of my practice also includes public interest litigation and criminal defense work.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Time management. This is so crucial because a day in the life of a lawyer is so varied and unpredictable. You may have your day planned out from A to Z, but something will always happen to disrupt that. Planning your days as a lawyer therefore takes a different kind of skill. You need to plan for uncertainty and fine-tune a sense of what is urgent and what is not in order to make snap judgment calls as to when you need to react to something now and when you can put it off until later.
A thick skin. A litigation lawyer is bound to be ticked off by the court at some point, no matter how junior or senior. You need to be able to deal with that professionally and not take it personally.
The ability to write and present from different perspectives. You will be constantly sandwiched between different stakeholders, and the way that you need to deal with them is very different. When dealing with clients, you need to accurately advise on the legal position and the strengths and benefits of taking certain decisions in the litigation process. When dealing with opposing counsel, you need to be firm on your client’s position, yet reasonable enough not to close off any possibility of an amicable negotiation or simply to create a hostile litigation situation, which is always unnecessary. When in court, you have to advocate your client’s position the best you can — yet still accurately state and apply the law.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
Definitely. A lot of success depends on being in the right place at the right time. I fell into litigation after having been exposed to corporate advisory, probate, and generally non-contentious work. I thought that I wanted to try something different, and it so happened that Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, the firm I am at now, had an opening for a litigation associate. So I went and the rest is history.
In my experience, most junior lawyers do not graduate from law school having any clear idea of which practice area most suits them. It takes a bit of trial and error and some are lucky to stumble upon what they love early enough, whilst others have to struggle for several more years before eventually deciding that legal practice isn’t for them. I was lucky enough to discovery my calling within my first year of practice, and to have had the opportunity to develop this since then.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
It does, but ultimately this is a question of extent and also depends on what you ultimately want to do. For example, the conventional wisdom in Singapore is that if you eventually wish to be called to the Singapore Bar and practice in Singapore, then you would definitely have an advantage attending the top two local schools — Singapore Management University or the National University of Singapore. It is of course quite common for persons who graduated outside of Singapore to return and qualify as lawyers in Singapore, but the path towards doing so is definitely tougher as they would not have had as strong a grounding in the local laws, or be as plugged in to the dynamics of legal practice in a local firm.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
When I was twenty-years-old, I was still in the army (in Singapore we have two years of compulsory National Service) waiting to be enrolled into law school. Looking back, I would say enjoy yourself more with all your other side pursuits, because once law school beckons you would have no time for any of that!
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
The challenge and uncertainty that each day brings. Litigation is inherently exciting because you never know what curveball might your opponent or the court may throw your way. You then have to adapt and think on your feet in order to react and take control of the situation.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am currently handling a complex commercial dispute where a very smart individual had run a fraud on his family members and several business associates in order to obtain millions of dollars to feed his gambling addiction. He did so by telling a different story to each party, the result being that round-tripping transactions were created where he was the only party who truly knew the big picture, and each of his counterparts only knew half the story. Things came to a head when he was unable to repay the monies. He then committed suicide which resulted in his business associates suing each other. In the course of this, we the lawyers had a very challenging time piecing together the whole story through the discovery process, and the matter will now head for trial if it is not settled at mediation.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I have been in litigation practice for 5 years, and so far it has been invigorating. The firm is now twice the size it was when I joined as an Associate back in 2016, and we are now looking to expand regionally. Singapore is becoming increasingly popular as a hub for arbitration disputes, but there are also plenty of opportunities for Singapore-trained lawyers to go to countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Hong Kong to make an impact.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
In my third year of legal practice, I was defending a banking dispute that was about to head towards trial. As part of our pre-litigation strategy, I had advised the client that we should pursue discovery of certain documents that I felt sure our opponents would be unable to produce, or provide any satisfactory explanation for why they could not produce them. In short, these documents related to proof of the plaintiffs’ actual ownership in respect of the monies for which they were suing.
Sure enough, our opponents resisted our application for discovery of these documents. After a hard-fought hearing in court, I obtained the order for disclosure. Sure enough again, disclosure did not come and I proceeded with an application to strike out the entire claim for breach of the order for disclosure. The matter then went for mediation one week before trial was to commence, and the plaintiffs settled for a fraction of the claimed sum, with no admission of liability on my client’s part. The settlement saved my client the further time and expense of having to go to trial, and allowed him to conclusively close this chapter and move on with his life.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
I have a home office as well as a traditional office premise. For the simpler hearings, I do them in my home office as that saves me travelling time, especially for very early morning starts. For more complex hearings where I require some support from my colleagues, we do them from our office where we have set up a dedicated virtual courtroom with full video-conferencing capabilities. Many client meetings nowadays also take place over Zoom, and that has meant less necessity to come into the office. But it is often more efficient to get certain things moving by having quick discussions with colleagues, and for this reason I am in our traditional office typically three to four days a week, even if only for a few hours each day. The rest of the time, I work from my home office where there are less distractions. I believe many of my peers are working on a similar arrangement, and I do not think that law firms will go back to a fully work-from-office arrangement just for the sake of it. We are very practical people and ultimately the arrangement that yields the greatest efficiency will be the one that wins out.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
COVID pushed litigation online. Before 2020, the Singapore courts had experimented with holding pre-trial conferences through Skype. This never really took off, whether due to technical difficulties or inefficiencies, or simply the refusal of the older generation of lawyers to adapt (depending on whom you ask). Once COVID hit and physical hearings were entirely out of the question from April 2020, it was either bring back online litigation or halt it entirely. The Singapore courts chose the former, and now Zoom hearings are commonplace and have continued even though restrictions have eased. We still go to court for criminal trials, where cross-examination and witness integrity are important, but there are many civil trials being held entirely online now. International arbitration had an easier time moving online because online hearings and cross-examinations in the arbitration context had already been going on pre-COVID.
Moving forward, I don’t see the legal landscape moving back towards fully physical hearings. With the proper implementation and use of technology, online hearings are just so much more convenient and in fact save a lot of costs for the client (especially where we do not have to fly overseas just for a short arbitration dispute). There will still be physical hearings for the more contentious, higher-stakes disputes, but I expect this to be a rarity rather than the norm.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
Yes. Being a lawyer in private practice in Singapore means also being, in some part, a businessman. Our profession is a fused one (there is no barrister versus solicitor distinction like there is in the United Kingdom). So, if a litigation lawyer in Singapore does not go out looking for work, work will not naturally come to him, unless he belongs to the top handful of litigation lawyers in Singapore who always have more work than they can handle. Networking is important, but there are many ways to do it. Physically rubbing shoulders with strangers at conferences is only one way. Ultimately, networking is about keeping yourself and your practice in the consciousness of your network, and with everything now moving online, tapping the right online resources has become more crucial than ever.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
Personally, I feel that relevant content is the key. If you are using social media specifically to build your practice, then the question to ask is — what is unique about your practice that sets you apart from others? Your social media content should then strive to offer unique perspectives and updates on that practice area thereby signaling you as a thought leader in that field. A lawyer will never be the only practitioner in a certain practice area, but you can strive to be the one that your network thinks about when they have a matter in that area to refer. To be able to do this effectively you would really need to keep abreast of the latest developments in your field, and that is a difficult thing to do without some hard work and heavy dedication.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
- Tenacity. No matter how good think you are or are supposed to be, you will lose hearings and you will face nasty clients. No litigator has a perfect record. The key is to learn from that and not lose faith in your abilities. I lost many cases as a junior lawyer and I am grateful for that. I since employed many of the techniques and strategies that I picked up whilst losing in my later successes.
- Humility. Likewise, it is important to be gracious even in victory. You never know when the shoe will end up on the other foot. You also never know when your opposing counsel can become a friend who refers your next case to you — or better, be elevated to the bench one day. I once handled a contentious dispute between two ex-lovers who were quarreling over how the condominium that they had jointly purchased should be dealt with following the end of their relationship. We eventually settled the case following a lengthy mediation session, and two weeks after that, my opposing counsel brought a new client to my office.
- Authenticity. Litigation is tough. Lawyering is tough. No one lasts long who is in it just for the money. Choose a practice area and handle cases in a way that speaks to you and your values, so that when the going gets tough and your clients default on payment, at least you would have remained true to yourself. Personal growth is achieved that way, and with that comes the conviction to take on the next case and carry on.
- Hard work. This cannot be avoided. A lazy lawyer is not a good advocate in court. Apart from knowing the case inside out (yours and your opponent’s), you also need to know the law. An easy way to do this is to keep abreast of the latest legal developments on a weekly or even daily basis. This way, you not only do your legal research faster, you can also impress prospective and existing clients by referencing current judicial thinking on the fly.
- Friends. Even if you (think you) work best alone, there will come a time when you will need help. Whether it is to cover a court hearing when you are taken ill, or urgent advice on a foreign practice area to help out an existing client, or even some insights into how certain members of the bench operate. I once had to prepare for a very difficult hearing before a new judicial commissioner against a senior counsel. Both of them were complete strangers to me, but I was able to speak to several contacts who had dealt with them on various levels before. I’ll never be able to say how much that eventually contributed to the successful hearing, but at the very least it set me at ease going into it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
It would be easy to say John Grisham, because I grew up reading his novels. Whilst the vast majority are legal thrillers, he did publish a true-crime title, The Innocent Man, in 2006. I think we might have some shared experiences to talk about.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!