Putting on the Boss Hat
There’s a running joke amongst young Australian lawyers about becoming “the other kind of barrister”, i.e. the barista. In Singapore, we’ve all heard of the young lawyer who quit their job to start their own business – nightclubs, Japanese food, skincare products, just to name a few. Comparatively less has been written about the young lawyer who quit their job to start their own law firm.
In this article, Alicia Zhuang (“AZ”) speaks with three gutsy lawyers who did just that. Susan Tay Ting Lan (“ST”), the lao jiao of the lot, started OTP Law Corporation 26 years ago. The other two, Wilbur Lim (“WL”) and Hazell Ng (“HN”), started WMH Law Corporation just last year. In addition to asking them “why”, “when”, and “how”, this interview attempts to explore the mindsets of the three, and their motivations.
AZ: Let’s begin with a brief introduction for the readers. Could you tell us your age, educational background, and areas of practice?
ST: 51 years old going on 30. I was from NUS and was called to the Bar in 1989, so long ago that sometimes I forget which year it was. Where the law is concerned, I am now mainly handling family and matrimonial, and civil litigation relating to shareholders’ disputes, property and trusts. I have also done commercial transactional work and conveyancing.
WL: I am 29, I studied law at Singapore Management University (“SMU”), and practised at one of the Big Four law firms for a few years before starting WMH Law Corporation. My areas of practice are construction, commercial, criminal and matrimonial. I’m also concurrently teaching as an adjunct faculty at SMU School of Law.
HN: I am 27 this year and went to University of Manchester. I did my training contract at a small firm and then transitioned to a Big Four law firm before starting WMH. I handle matrimonial, probate, insolvency and defamation matters.
AZ: What made you decide to start your own firm?
ST: When I was 12, I knew I wanted to start my own business by the time I turned 28. I also told my mother when I was six that I would leave home when I went to university. Maybe it was because I was the eldest child in the family, you know, that strain of disease called needforindependencema found commonly in firstborns? But at two PQE I knew that I did not want to be an employee. I wanted equal say. I wanted partnership.
WL: The younger generation of lawyers tends to have a different outlook on the practice of law and how cases ought to be handled. There is no right or wrong. However, rather than lamenting over the areas which we hope to change, I think that starting my own practice is the most effective way for me to effect the changes.
I have known Mark Lee, our other joint Managing Director, since day one of law school. In our early years, we had dreams of running our own practice. We wanted to be able to customise our practice, to run our own cases, have a say in legal fees, do more pro bono, and create an environment in which colleagues would have each other’s back. We strongly believe in fixed fee or fee caps so that clients understand the costs involved right at the outset, and legal technology.
HN: I believe in Wilbur’s visions and wanted to support him. In addition, I wanted better control over my own files. And if people want to get married and have kids, there will usually be events that they need to take time off for, like if their kids got sick. I’d want to take my kid to the doctor, and even if someone else could do it, I’d still be worried.
AZ: I think that in most law firms, only partners get to attend to urgent family matters during working hours without having worry about urgent leave approval. And being viewed unfavourably for it.
L to R Mark Lee, Wilbur Lim, Hazell Ng
HN: Yeah, I felt that junior lawyers don’t get to enjoy this flexibility and are forced to choose between work and family. Starting my own firm was a solution.
AZ: When did you start your firm, and why at that particular stage?
ST: The year I was turning 26, I was suddenly impatient. I asked myself why wait another two years? Just do it already! I am quite the dogged type, especially about getting what I want, and am probably the kind to look for opportunities than to wait for opportunities to knock on my door. So just before it was time to renew my practising certificate after two PQE, I went to my boss’ office (who was also my pupil master) and told him I was ready to be a partner. He said many things, but all I can remember now is “no, you are not”. Within a few months I tendered my resignation.
I spent time speaking with people about setting up my own firm – parents, friends. People started introducing to me other lawyers who had set up their firms, and that was how I met Ong Ying Ping, a sole proprietor of one year who had started Ong & Associates straight out of pupillage. We really clicked, mainly because he immediately offered equal partnership. In 1991, we set up Ong Tay & Partners.
WL: WMH Law Corporation was launched in November 2016. It had always been our plan to set up our own law firm when we were ready.
AZ: When you were ready… that wasn’t tied to PQE? Or say upon hitting partnership?
WL: No, there is never a perfect time. No matter what your seniority is, there will always be naysayers who think you should wait a few more years. When you ask what they think the golden rule is, they either throw out an arbitrary number of post-qualification experience or avoid the question altogether. Some senior practitioners had even told me that despite their seniority, more than 20 years in practice, they still did not feel ready to start their own practice. Again, there is no right or wrong. It just goes to show that there is never a perfect time. What is important is responsibility to your clients, your dependents, the Court, and yourself.
HN: To add on, prior to the Law Society’s requirement that you must have been in practice for at least three years to start your own law firm, there were lawyers starting their own firms just after one year in practice. Some are doing very well now.
AZ: So, probably everyone has an opinion about how a law firm should be run. Or how they would like to run their own law firm. What got me curious about running successful businesses were computer games like SimCity, Railroad Tycoon and Civilization. But that’s all a different kettle of fish from actually starting a business yourself.
I mean, when things start going south in a computer game, you can always go back to a save point or restart from scratch. No consequences. You have the benefit of hindsight to avoid making the same mistakes. Here, you’re starting a real life business, a professional one at that, carrying with it many additional professional and ethical obligations, and early in your legal career. There are no save points. Time travel doesn’t exist.
Apart from worrying about having the financial wherewithal, I think I’m not alone when I say that I’d also be worried about not having a senior lawyer around as a sounding board… someone who’s had to be responsible for business plans and budgets, someone who’s had much more experience in the practice of law.
Did you consider starting your firm with a senior lawyer, or bringing one on board after starting?
ST: There were so many considerations one should be concerned with that if I had started worrying about every detail, I would likely be frozen in fear and stayed in my first job which by the way, was a good place. Nobody thought about what if I got sued for negligence, definitely not me. Sometimes, all it takes is to have luck on your side, meet someone you believe shares the same fundamentals and then take that leap of faith. Thus it was with a crazy ambition I set for myself at 12, plenty of luck and that chance meeting that I left associateship behind to become a partner in my own firm.
As luck was on my side, we did have a mentor. He was Lim Seng Siew, two years our senior, who was then practising on the sixth floor while our firm was on the eighth. Today, I can tell you confidently that your mentors and seniors may guide you but lessons are often learnt from your peers and your staff.
WL: We were comfortable starting out without a senior lawyer. We do not think that age or seniority is a big factor. I am also very fortunate to have worked with some of the best and most respectable and ethical lawyers in the field in my early years of practice. It goes a long way to ensure that I am equipped with the skills and knowledge required. As to whether we have considered bringing senior lawyers in, we are always open for discussions as long as he or she believes in what we are doing.
AZ: Can you tell us about the process of setting up your law firm?
WL: We spent a few years preparing for this, from thinking about business structure and management, to attracting and managing clients, and doing our due diligence in relation to compliance with all applicable regulations.
HN: The lawyers setting up the firm must be very hands-on in relation to all cases and administrative matters.
WL: We applied for a license for our law firm with LSRA [Legal Services Regulatory Authority, Ministry of Law]. Among the things you will need to submit with the application are a draft constitution and organisational structure. If you are sharing office premises with someone else you will need to seek approval.
Once we received interim approval from the LRSA, we registered the firm with ACRA [Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority]. We spoke with the professional indemnity insurers to arrange for insurance, informed the Law Society when we intended to launch the firm, and applied for an exemption from the Law Society’s Legal Practice Management Course. After all of this was done we went back to LRSA for final approval.
AZ: Just a note for the readers that a brief write-up on the LRSA and its answers to commonly asked questions can be found in the December 2016 issue of the Law Gazette at pages 8 to 11.
HN: Remember to apply for an eLitigation account, file your notice of change of particulars, and set up your office account and client account with a bank.
WL: There are numerous rules governing the client account that you need to watch out for. We also spent some time discussing about security and client confidentiality, and setting up a library of books and precedents. We have also invested substantial resources on network drives to ensure that all lawyers in the firm are adequately connected to their respective folders.
ST: Back then, it was really easy to set up your own firm. There was no three PQE requirement or management course you needed to pass. The abbreviation “PQE” hadn’t even been invented yet! You just had to inform the Law Society, get your insurance, apply for a practising certificate under the new firm, file notices of change for all your cases, and that’s it. Oh yes, and change your signage and name cards.
AZ: What did your firm look like in the early days?
ST: Our first office was a long, narrow, teeny but neat cubbyhole in Colombo Court. Two rooms, and enough space to put two more desks outside the rooms, plus a small two-seater grey sofa. It was maybe 200 square feet? With rental at $800 a month. I remember each of us had a giant desktop computer with Wordstar which I didn’t really use. Both Ying Ping and I had our own secretaries. We went to the High Court library for research. We were also next door to the Law Society and loved it. We popped by every so often and knew everyone who worked there.
AZ: And what does your firm look like now?
ST: If you mean physical space, we keep getting smaller. We share a 1,300 square foot space with two other law firms. My own room is shared with two other lawyers, but it is big enough for six people for lunch or a birthday celebration. In terms of people, the only people in OTP Law Corporation are lawyers. We sub-contract the running of the firm and all non-legal aspects to PracticeForte Pte Ltd, an entity which takes care of the premises, software, hardware, peopleware, and vapourware. This lets OTP focus on the practice of law. We are also more wired than ever – tablets, mobile phones, laptops. I am in the office four days a week and work offsite on Fridays.
L to R Lim Seng Siew, Susan Tay Ting Lan, Mylene Chua, Sandra Yong, Serene Ee
In terms of the practice, OTP has been a part of a network called PracticeForte Advisory since May last year. This is a network of independent professional firms of lawyers and accountants. As at the time of this interview, it is 14 professionals strong. With the Advisory and a system of collaboration, a law firm can pitch for more complex work as we now have a bigger team with wider expertise.
WL: Our office is located at High Street Plaza just opposite the Supreme Court. We chose High Street for its close proximity to the Supreme Court. It was also the location of the Attorney-General’s Chambers in the past. The history junkie in us thought that it was far too good a location to be missed. Our office has a waiting area with a sofa, a large meeting room, a smaller room that we use as a pantry and for storage, and an open-concept work area where our desks, printer and network attached storage system are. Everything was paid for using our own savings. We didn’t take out any loans. At the moment it’s just Mark, Hazell and I.
AZ: What are the biggest challenges you have encountered?
WL: Hiring the right people. We want to be confident that the people we approach share the same vision as us in relation to the practice of law. We have been actively looking for lawyers and support staff.
ST: Managing people. I dare say I was one big bad boss. In early 2000, Ying Ping’s secretary, Sandra Yong, quit because of me. I pleaded with Sandra to come back after one year, and she did. She has been with us since. She’s like family now, and our epoxy glue. She was the one who taught me a lot about caring for your team. Because she knows, she makes sure the support team feels valued and cared for.
Other than that, collections. We were so bad at collecting our fees that we had people owing us more than what we owed the bank. Eventually we learnt about finance from an accountant and hired a finance person to take care of billings and collections.
AZ: Why do you say you were a bad boss? And what have you learnt about managing people?
ST: I was impatient, short tempered and careless, hurting my colleagues with strong words or being downright unreasonable in my expectations. Things like timelines for example. Practice in the early years was so stressful that I did not spend any time trying to get to know my colleagues but instead took out my frustrations on them. When Sandra quit, she had just given birth and I did not even visit her. Instead, I was just piling on the pressure. I am still impatient but I don't think I am so careless anymore. I also try to keep my temper in check. I laugh a lot more now. People management is still tough but thanks to the great people in my team it gets better.
AZ: Yup, “take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your business.” There are people who think that this saying is a load of woo woo codswallop, but I have seen that culture and values are key. [ST nods]
Did any of you have any doubters?
ST: Apart from mummy, everyone doubted. They thought that coming out after only two PQE was nuts – not enough experience, and where were you going to get clients? Only my mother thought it was a good idea to leave and set up my own firm. Even better if the firm bore my name. When I borrowed $20,000 from my mum to set up Ong Tay & Partners, some people called me “idiot” behind my back for paying so much. But it was the best investment I ever made in my life. I paid my mum back within a month.
WL: There will always be doubters and naysayers. By way of example, in a matter that we were instructed on, we have the other side making snide remarks about the age of our firm, which were eventually conveyed to our clients. Our general approach is to brush those comments aside and let the outcome speak for itself. We believe that age does not determine your capabilities as a lawyer. For example, we have some of the brightest minds taking up important roles in the Singapore Legal Service at a young age.
AZ: How about your sources of support or inspiration?
ST: Family. Very luckily, I come from a close-knit clan of siblings. Until my dad passed, he was a huge inspiration and support. Needless to say, mummy is my pillar always. Also, good friends. And definitely my team, Sandra, Serene, Seng Siew, and Mylene. When Mylene joined OTP Law Corporation in 2015, she brought a lot of energy and new ideas to the firm. PracticeForte was started thanks to her. I am also inspired by heroes who lead ordinary lives, and some of the young people who have interned or worked with us. I am amazed by how bright those young people are, and how earnest they are in seeking what is meaningful for them.
HN: My family members. My mother runs her own law firm in Malaysia and gave me a lot of tips on things like admin and client management. We visited her law firm a couple of times.
WL: My family has been incredibly supportive. When I told my parents that I wanted to quit and start my own practice, they told me to go ahead, do a good job, and be an honourable and respectable lawyer. They trust that I knew what I was doing.
AZ: Let me ask you this. What if running your own law firm didn’t work out?
ST: Air hostess? A bit too old now. Truth? I had no Plan B.
WL: You should plan for the worst, but I don’t believe in going into a business venture with a quick and easy exit plan. If I believed in safety nets I would have asked Hazell to remain at her previous job while I set up the law firm.
AZ: That reminds me of what the founder of Theranos said: “The minute you have a backup plan, you’ve admitted you’re not going to succeed”. But even if you didn’t have a backup plan, what would you probably do if it didn’t work out?
WL: I love the law. If it doesn’t work out, I will continue to be the best lawyer I could be in another firm.
HN: My answer is the same as Wilbur’s.
ST: Speaking with the benefit of hindsight, I would have started something else. In 1996, we co-owned a café and in 2000, a law dot com. In 2015, PracticeForte. So yes, I would definitely have started something else but maybe after finding some time to lick my wounds and learn from previous failures.
AZ: Where do you see your law firm in five years?
ST: For OTP, another incarnation, being part of a bigger set-up, being run by a group of younger and very capable people. Change has been constant for OTP.
WL: We are looking to grow and expand our practice. Right now we are litigation focused, but we want to become a full service firm with corporate and conveyancing practices.
AZ: What’s your best advice for young lawyers who dream of starting their own law firms?
ST: Three things really: (1) just do it already; (2) after you do, keep at it, don’t give up; remember that failure is part of the landscape of success; and (3) until you have given all your best and the fun is well and truly over, then walk away and never look back. Don’t forget the important ingredient of course – good and supportive partners. But be one yourself first.
And I must repeat the trite but true saying, "there is no better time to start than now". You should pursue what you want and disregard the naysayers. They are everywhere at every corner. Use them to spur you, not to stop you. But beware the biggest and most effective naysayer and that is the part of us that is afraid of the unknown.
HN: There will always be high points and down points. When you are running your own law firm you have to accept that there will be dry spells, and just persevere. You should set up a rainy day fund for yourself and your law firm.
WL: Think about it very carefully. Don’t jump into it. Weigh your commitments. Don’t start a law firm for money or fame. If you want that, you should stay in the big firms. Starting a law firm is a lot of work. You will have doubters, and you have to manage the business aspect of the firm. You need to have at least a two-year plan for the firm. You need to look into minute details such as when you should engage an accountant, who should keep track of regulations and compliance.
At the end of the day, the best job security is the one you create for yourself. Whether you are in a big or a small firm, the important thing to do is to carve out a practice for yourself that is not easily dispensable and replaceable. This applies to everyone.
► Alicia Zhuang
Advocate & Solicitor