Conversations with Kenneth Tay

By Jolie Fong and Joseph Khaw

Kenneth Tay is an Associate in the Litigation, Dispute Resolution, and Risk Management department of Clifford Chance Asia. In this article, he shares the lessons he’s learnt from the private legal practice, as well as his take on the current market for lawyers.

I’m an Associate in the Litigation, Dispute Resolution, and Risk Management department of Clifford Chance in Singapore, and have been doing that for 6 years. Broadly, what I do is helping financial institutions, private equity firms, and technology companies navigate a wide range of issues across the Asia-Pacific region. This can range from things like post-mergers and acquisitions (M&A) disputes, investigations, contractual disputes, employee terminations and recently, a lot of data protection and cybersecurity issues.

Although the stages of a dispute or investigation are quite predictable, my workday can be quite unpredictable. This could be due to a variety of issues cropping up in the course of a matter, such as your counterparty or regulator taking steps that your client didn’t expect.

I would say that different people enjoy different aspects of the job. I personally enjoy distilling a piece of writing down to something that’s clear and concise for the client, and setting out strategic advice they can follow easily. It’s very fulfilling to bring order to that chaos. I think clients are very busy and they face very complex problems. Helping to make their life easier is the extra value you add and how you differentiate yourself as a professional advisor.

I think litigation and dispute resolution (and most types of legal practice) can be a very challenging profession since it requires resilience and mental fortitude. Lawyers often work in very demanding environments with huge demands on their time. Often unexpected things that require their attention at short notice will crop up.

It can be quite emotionally draining and in litigation, results might not always go your way. No matter how well planned your strategy is, it may not work out. Sometimes, through no fault of yours, the court doesn’t receive a particular argument very well, or something unexpected happens, and you just have to deal and get on with it. That happens across all professions in general, but I think in professional services like Law, it can be particularly trying at times.

I think diversity and inclusion is a very important priority for the firm, and it really encourages you to bring your complete and authentic self to work. My colleagues are also great professionals and very easy to work with.

I joined Clifford Chance six years ago, and at that time the firm was investing heavily in the APAC region. I was really drawn to how the people were really down-to-earth, how its leaders were really approachable and had a clear vision for a firm. All of those things hold true today.

Like I said, I think the firm has made the APAC region a real priority. We have also invested heavily in technology in terms of our firm’s capabilities and in terms of servicing the sector. The firm also has a very big heart – it has made environmental, social, and governance issues a very visible priority. For example, CC notably supported the constitutional challenge against Section 377A and recently we were able to get a very favourable judgment for a gay man who was looking to adopt his biological son.

There was something about Law I found intuitive. There’s a logical structure to it such that you can often reach the right result by reasoning from first principles. That really appealed to me. It also goes without saying that I enjoy reading a lot and my preferred mode of expression is writing; so those things lend themselves naturally to law.

As a trainee in Clifford Chance, you’re often rotated through different departments. I spent time in litigation, in banking and finance, and in M&A. I was toying between qualifying as an M&A lawyer as well as a litigator, but at the end of the day, the fact that I really got along with my colleagues and that I liked the kind of work we were doing really swung it for me, and that’s why I became a litigator.

I personally think that it’s very important to have strong communication skills. As a litigator, you are constantly putting things in writing – recording meetings, writing letters and submissions – it is critical to be clear and persuasive in writing. Being a strong orator is also important – it’s important to earn the confidence of clients in meetings and calls, and to persuade the court or tribunal in oral submissions.

I would also say that a really good lawyer has strong emotional intelligence, and I think it goes without saying, a fastidious attention to detail.

I think that if anyone believes that a dazzling display of spontaneous genius wins cases, I would suggest you consider strategic decision making and extensive preparation as alternatives instead

As for the idea that lawyers get paid a lot – a certain breed of lawyer does. There are a lot of lawyers who do a lot of thankless work and pro-bono work which doesn’t necessarily pay very well and isn’t very glamorous all the time. Law can be glamorous if your definition of glamour is travelling a lot, meeting clients from different countries, and working on things that hit the headlines.

The level of rigour that goes into research and preparing advice for clients is much higher than you would anticipate. I often tell trainees that when you do research, and when you distil that into a note – what was good enough in university is not good enough in practice.

In university, when you write a note, you’re doing it to convince yourself or to remind yourself of something. In practice, you write a note to persuade someone and give them comfort that your view is correct. It’s a different endeavour. The learning curve may be steep, but I think that’s down to universities taking an academic approach to the law and not really imparting skills necessary to survive legal practice.

I don’t have a lot of regrets. A lot of what I’ve learnt and the skills I have had today come from learning on the job, learning from experience and mistakes, but I knew it was going to be challenging, so I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned.

The thing that I did in school that I found very helpful in life and also in work is my practice of journaling and taking notes. This wasn’t necessarily related to my studies. When I read a book or an article I found interesting, I would try to distil its essence into a note. Over a period of ten years or so, I’ve amassed a huge notebook using tools like Evernote and Notion. I think developing an organised way of managing your knowledge and experiences as you go through school will stand you in good stead when you enter the workforce.

As a student, because you have the time to reflect, I would suggest you invest time reflecting. In legal practice, you are often so pressed for time that you move on to the next task and don’t have time to sit there and think, “Oh, what is it I could have done better?” and capture that learning. All lawyers should do that, but as students, you have the luxury of time so there’s no excuse not to do it.

If you read widely and are curious about the world, that would help you in legal practice as you are often dealing with different industries and people, as such, being a nimble thinker really helps.

I can see myself doing a variety of things in five years. I have intentionally positioned myself as a generalist and been exposed to a wide range of work in my career. The next step for me would be to specialise in something that I enjoy, think I would be good at, and for which there is a market demand.

a. What is your opinion on the digitalisation of law?

It’s very trendy to think that many legal jobs are going to be automated away, but what I would say is it certainly makes sense not to make your employment contingent on doing things that AI and technology could conceivably automate away, and this applies to everyone, not just lawyers.

Having said that, I think that although technology poses a challenge for many industries, there are opportunities as well. There’s a huge demand for what we can loosely call “technology lawyers” and that’s something I would encourage younger lawyers and practitioners to take a close look at and consider pursuing.

b. A few years ago there was a significant fear that Singapore was facing a glut of lawyers. Do you think it still exists and what is your take on it?

Like the narrative about disruption brought about by technology, I think the sense amongst young people that they have to run faster to remain competitive is becoming rather commonplace these days. This applies across all industries and not just to law. Sometimes articles about the glut of lawyers shine an unfair spotlight on the legal industry.

Unfortunately, my advice would be in the vein of embracing the “hustle culture”. I genuinely understand that it is wearying to be constantly told to work harder and be more productive, but that is the reality that young people face today. The rational response to a competitive job market is to try and differentiate yourself by really thinking carefully about what employers want and how to best signal that to them.

c. Especially amongst younger lawyers, we’ve heard that there’s quite a high attrition rate. Is that true from what you’ve seen in practice and why do you think that this perception exists?

I think since the issue got a lot of attention a few years ago, law firms have really improved in giving people flexible working arrangements, sabbaticals and secondments. I think that a high attrition rate is not necessarily a bad thing as lawyers go on to make important contributions in other areas such as public life and management. As a profession, we need to convince others that we have valuable skills and can excel in other areas and not just the law. It’s not enough to expect to earn a comfortable living just because you went to a good university, have a white-collar job, and can string two English sentences together. You need to constantly be learning, improving, and keeping with the times in a crowded market.

d. Since you’ve done a stint in the UK and Singapore, do you notice any difference between local and overseas law graduates?

What I would say is I wouldn’t let your university define you or your experience. I think everyone should take charge of their learning and I don’t think anyone should go to a particular school and come out in a particular mould. It would show that they had not critically thought about what they had gone in to learn and how to shape their own learning. So I would encourage people to take charge and break out of those labels.

As a field of study, sometimes law in university does not prepare you well for the practice of law. There are increasing options to study something else and then become a lawyer and I would encourage people to consider that route. Not that there’s anything wrong with studying law – I just think that there are now options available and I believe in the benefits of being a “cross-disciplinary person”.

I think that an entry-level job in law can be one of the best footholds you can get in your professional life. You learn very useful skills like managing clients, managing your workload, project management, projecting and earning the confidence of seniors, just generally developing your executive presence. I would absolutely recommend it to young people considering a career in law.

I’m going to regularly publish short posts and recommendations on my public Notion page:

I can also be reached by email and I often tell people that if they send me a cold email, they’d be much more successful in receiving a reply than the average cold email.