With his youthful looks and sunny disposition, Paul Tan is not exactly what comes to mind when you imagine a partner in a law firm, much less Rajah & Tann, one of Singapore’s Big Four comprising over 300 lawyers. Having made partner at the age of 34, he became the youngest person in the firm at the time to receive the promotion.
A specialist in commercial litigation and international arbitration – which includes cross-border negotiation and dispute resolution – Tan, 37, bested two senior counsels and other international law practitioners to become the Disputes Star of the Year in 2016. This accolade, awarded by Hong Kong-based research outfit Asialaw, fetes the best legal minds across 14 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Tan readily admits that he does not fit the classic lawyer archetype. “In people’s minds, lawyers are aggressive personalities. I don’t find that you need to do that to do well in practice,” he says. Indeed, he is more dolphin than shark. Like the cetacean, Tan has an altruistic streak: He is committed to improving the training and lives of young lawyers in a profession where mentorship is hard to come by.
In the current world order, cases are large and complex, and often international in nature. Clients are not limited to choosing from only local law firms. As a result, it has become harder for young associates to find their niches. Opportunities for them to argue their own cases have also dwindled. Often, they have to wait seven or eight years before getting the chance to lead a case. One can only imagine their frustration.
As one of two recruiting partners in the firm, he is in touch with sentiments on the ground. “Young lawyers feel that if they don’t have the thrill of going to court, what’s all the hard work for?” he explains. Some associates end up leaving the profession as a result. A decade into his career, Tan realised that roughly 10 per cent of his cohort remain in practice.
“THE SUPPORT OF TALENTED, YOUNG LAWYERS IS IMPORTANT. THERE’S NO SENIOR LAWYER OR COUNSEL WHO CAN RUN ENTIRE CASES BY THEMSELVES.”
To thwart this brain drain, he and another council member at the Singapore Law Society set up the Young Lawyers’ Task Force. “The support of talented, young lawyers is important. There’s no senior lawyer or counsel who can run entire cases by themselves,” Tan maintains.
The Task Force made a series of recommendations, some of which are already being considered by committees set up by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon to reform the training contract of law students. Meanwhile, the Law Society of Singapore is putting into action some of the recommendations pertaining to the treatment and training of young lawyers.
Trailblazers Under 40 – They’re young, but effecting great change.
As an advocate for change, Tan walks the talk. He provides constant feedback to his associates, often at the expense of his own time. He also actively finds ways for them to argue smaller cases, or smaller parts of bigger cases.
Part of his motivation stems from having had solid mentorship from the start. In the first two years out of law school, he worked as a law clerk in the Supreme Court. One of the judges he clerked for was Menon, who happened to be returning to legal practice at the time. Tan decided to join Rajah & Tann and subsequently worked alongside Menon for three years.
“I know I struck it lucky, but the same opportunities may not be open to others,” he says. “If you have the ability, we have to try and find ways to help you succeed.”
Tan remains optimistic about local legal talent. He says: “I’m quite a strong believer of the Singapore brand. Substantively speaking, we’re as good as anybody in the world. However, the perception is that international firms or lawyers are better.”
“Some (Singaporean) lawyers have already made it on the world stage, and I hope to become one of them in time to come.”
“Few people know that I’m an introvert. But as a lawyer, I have to project a certain image or an extroverted persona if clients are looking for that.”
TELEVISION’S BEST LEGAL DRAMA
“Silk, a BBC production about barristers in London, is my favourite. It focuses on the cross-examination and arguments made in court. It’s quite realistic.”
AN ALTERNATIVE CAREER
“I’m happiest when spending time with family and friends. Occasionally, I cook for them. In a different life, I would be a chef. I like food, and cooking is incidental to that.”