Conversations with Terence Fong

Terence Fong, a lawyer by training, is an Associate with Clifford Chance, a law firm with branches across five continents and that engages a wide range of clients, including corporates from all the commercial and industrial sectors, government and trade bodies, and not-for-profit organisations. Specifically, Terence is a finance and capital markets lawyer, helping people raise funds and finding different but effective ways to do this. The course of his work takes him throughout the globe, from Europe to Southeast Asia, to meet his clients. Part of what he does also involves business development, which is to meet new clients – people who have yet to work with the firm – and speak to them about what a productive partnership between both parties could bring to bear.

Terence: As a lawyer, there are a number of components in my workday, most of which are to address queries and emails from clients. I work in Clifford Chance, an international law firm with international clientele and colleagues, where work is sometimes round the clock. When I come in to work, at 8 or 9 am, I will have emails which were sent during the night as they come in from overseas – the United States, the United Kingdom, and so on. I address those questions, then I attend to a number of client meetings. I meet my clients, talk to them, understand the problems that they are facing and then address their questions. It tends to get really busy around 4pm as that is the time when most people in the UK and Europe awake to their day. That is the time where you get a lot of emails and follow-up questions to whatever you sent out earlier that morning. In order to address those questions, I sometimes do research into the law in Singapore and draft memos and documents to, for instance, say: “If you want to do this particular thing in Singapore, you have to be aware of these items A, B and C.” I do this all the way till 8 or 9 pm, then log off and they can take my advice, or give me their responses during the night, which I will then reply the next morning. These day-to-day activities take up around 80% of my time.

In my line of work, as a finance and capital markets lawyer, I help people raise funds, and there are different ways to do these. Part of it involves a lot of travelling – when I am in London, I travel around Europe; when I am based in Asia, I travel around Southeast Asia – to meet my clients and understand their business. If they need money, I also need to figure out the best way to help them raise funds. Apart from that, we also do business development, which involves meeting new clients – people who have not worked with us – to talk to them about what we can bring to the table and how we can help their businesses.

We often do our work in teams. The most senior member in the team tends to be the partner in the law firm, and we tend to have one senior associate. The partner makes the judgement calls and decides on the general direction of the file, while the senior associate manages the associates who run the files on a daily basis. A typical team size is about four to five members. It is a team effort, and involves juniors, who are trainees, as well. The teams may also be cross-jurisdictional. Sometimes, my boss may be sitting in London, but at other times my boss may be sitting in Hong Kong – depending on the team. We are not always physically in the same country.

T: I like helping my clients solve problems. They sometimes need to raise certain funds but do not know how to do it, or they need the funds for certain purposes, and I like helping them solve such problems. I once did a project where my clients tried to build a power plant in order to supply surrounding villages with electricity. I have also worked on helping communities obtain the funds needed to build a bridge to connect two different regions. Seeing these projects being implemented successfully, you know that the lives of the villagers have improved. For instance, the villagers’ journey to school may have been 5 hours before the bridge was constructed, but now it takes only 45 minutes. They may have been studying by candlelight in the past, but now they have electricity to power lights. It changes your perspective of things when you know that what you are doing helps someone else in a tangible fashion. I guess what motivates me is this desire to help someone else, such as my clients, and knowing that helping my clients has the further added-on effect of helping a community.

T: I wasn’t always practicing as a finance lawyer; I started out as a litigation lawyer, and went to court for a lot of commercial cases. Once, I did this pro-bono case where we were helping a drug-trafficker who was on death row. This ignited my passion in a certain way; I discovered how I could help others through my work. I still take on these cases now on a voluntary basis, but I also decided that I wanted to do more work where I do not just help someone get richer, but instead going further to help a community.

Starting out as a litigation lawyer is similar to law school, but what you don’t get in law school is the emotional involvement you have in a case. For example, in that pro-bono case, if you fail, in the real world, that guy goes to the hangman and dies; if you succeed, he lives. These are emotions you do not really get in school. In the courtroom, seeing how people fight with each other is very emotional and challenging.

Eventually, I moved over to doing more corporate and finance work where it is a very different environment from litigation: you have to learn something new every day. The fact that every day is different and offers new puzzles for you to solve is quite frightening, especially with the thought of not doing it well. However, after a while, you realise that there is an excitement in the process as you learn how to learn, and know that you can learn fast enough to do good work, and can improve. What used to scare me – having a new problem every day – now increasingly excites me.

T: With Artificial Intelligence and automation of the knowledge economy coming up, I think the threat is to the portion of legal work that is both time-consuming and of little value-creation, such as document review and drafting of very simple documents like leases. Such work also takes up a lot of time without much recompense. Lawyers who make these their bread-and-butter business would be threatened because such work is highly repetitive can be more easily replaced by machines.

A deeper problem for the legal industry related to technology is more of a mindset issue. I think lawyers can be quite risk-averse and understandably so, as they are paid to be risk-averse; people wouldn’t want a risky lawyer who could cause them to lose their case. As a result, there are lawyers who tend not to be too excited about new technology. Also, the model of lawyer work right now is one that makes money based on time. Lawyers charge an hourly rate of around $500; but this means that the more efficient you are, the less money you make, which is why some lawyers could be less than enthusiastic about automating certain areas of their work.

T: Lawyers create certainty. For example, if you are going to Argentina to start a business or to study the next day, there would be so much uncertainty, and lawyers help to make things certain, such that you know to expect A, B, C … to happen. If something goes wrong, you know that you would not lose all your money either. Lawyers play a big role in ensuring certainty, and with this certainty, it encourages more people to embark on creative projects. It encourages people to explore more countries around the world. It also helps people to do things which they would normally not have dared to do. On the other end of the spectrum, lawyers help people to solve their problems – through dispute resolution. Sometimes it may get ugly, but at least the problem is solved in the end. These are the two twin pillars: the certainty that helps people to go to new places and do new things, and helping people solve their problems.

T: Something that is very important is the adaptability and the ability to learn – the faster you learn and the more comfortable you are in this wilderness of unknown problems, the better you become. Applied learning and the ability to apply things you learn to your clients’ problems is very important. At the end of the day, law is a very personal business, and – yes, while technical / professional knowledge and skills definitely help to solve problems faster – at the end of the day, when you are facing a problem, when you are going to court, when you are nearly bankrupt, you do want a human face to stand beside you and say, “Don’t worry, count on me and I want to help you out of this.” I think that relationship-building is a very important skill. People may understand its importance, but not really appreciate it. Other important skills in this trade include negotiation, stress-tolerance, continuous learning, customer focus, and decision-making.

T: Quite plainly, you first need to have a law degree. If your law degree is from Singapore, that is great, but if it is not from Singapore, you need to look at a list of universities online. The Ministry of Law has a list of scheduled universities which are recognised for purposes of qualifying as a lawyer in Singapore. If you studied overseas, you need to come back to Singapore and do “Part A” exams, which is basically a series of exams that are very Singapore-law centric covering areas such as land law, corporate law and constitutional law. Even though our laws are 80% similar to those in the UK perhaps, there are laws that are unique to Singapore, so this is where this exam comes in. For overseas graduates, they would also have to engage in a relevant legal training period for 6 months which is different from the training offered under the training contract. If you study in Singapore, you are exempted from the “Part A” exams and relevant legal training, and only need to do the “Part B” exams – which everyone needs to do. For “Part B”, it focuses more on professional skills. After candidates pass the bar exam, they would all need to do a training contract with a local law firm for 6 months, after which you can become a lawyer. To summarise, the requirements are to: get a law degree, make sure the law degree is recognised, sit for the relevant exams, pass the exams, obtain the relevant training, then you can successfully become a lawyer.

T: I think that when students are still young in school, they should read a lot as there are a lot of readings in law school, and try to write a bit, as writing is a very important skill.

Also, try to get out of your comfort zone – learn new things, have new experiences, learn new languages. In a way, try to get comfortable in a foreign environment and try to get up to speed as quickly as you can, because sometimes you might feel like you have been thrown into the deep end with no idea of what is going on.

The school is also a very safe place for you to try out new things, so try as much as you can. Doing new things also helps you to start building confidence, which is important for a young lawyer, in order to be able to stand by what you stand for. It also depends on what kind of law you want to do, which is very important, as it is a jurisprudential gut instinct. A lot of lawyers can tell you how the law is, for example if you traffic drugs you will be caned and potentially killed by being sentenced to death, which is what the law is. However, it is also very important for lawyers and law students to be able to think about what the law should be. We know that today, if you traffic drugs, you would get a death sentence, but whether the law should be so harsh is something you should think about. In other words, it is also about what the law ought to be, whether it is right or wrong. It is only when you go through this process that you can be a better lawyer, because you do not just know what it is, but also know the rationale behind the law. Even if you disagree with it, as with all law cases, there are two sides, and if you disagree with it, it is even better for you to argue on the other side. In summary, read a lot, think about things, be curious about the world. This includes foreign affairs and current affairs, and generally being a well-rounded individual would be helpful.

T: For students, it is very important for them to think about why they want to do things. If you become a lawyer, you must know why you want to do so – for the money, the prestige, or because you want to solve interesting problems. Another thing is what kind of lawyer you want to become – criminal, finance, corporate or another. Knowing why you want to do it keeps you motivated to stay in the profession. Some do it for very short-term goals, such as to make a lot of money, which may not be able to motivate you in the long run. In the long-term, you must enjoy what you are doing. I am still trying to find my ways; but for some of my bosses, they shared that even if they are not paid to do it, they will still do so, because they enjoy it – helping people, going to court and negotiating agreements. Thinking about why you want to do something is important, as opposed to deciding on law school just because you got good grades, or deciding to be a lawyer just because you graduated from law school. Avoid merely going with the flow; or else one day when you wake up you may come to the sudden realisation that you have passed the past 10 years doing something you do not particularly enjoy. If you are going for your final examinations or in university, take some time to think about why you want to do a particular type of work – these reasons will give you the motivation to do it and do it well.