By Caleb Thien
Richard Young is a Partner at Allen & Gledhill. A law graduate from NUS, he has extensive experience working on complex transactions involving cross-border mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, amalgamations, and corporate reorganisation. His expertise also extends to other aspects of corporate and commercial law. Highly regarded by the top legal publications, Richard has been praised by clients to be “highly proactive”, “commercially minded”, “a relationship builder”, and “a very safe pair of hands”.
Today, Richard takes some time out of his busy schedule to share with us his views on what it takes to be a successful lawyer in this modern day and age, as well as timely wisdom for youths aspiring toward a legal career.
I have been working at Allen & Gledhill for more than 25 years. This has been the only job I have had since graduating from university, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As a Partner in the firm, my role is multi-faceted. While mergers & acquisitions (M&A) form the main part of my practice, I also deal with transactions in the area of corporate and commercial law, which sometimes involve my colleagues from other practice areas.
These types of transactions are becoming more commonplace in today’s evolving business world, and are an exciting part of my work at the Firm. These transactions highlight the strengths and depth of expertise that we have in our Firm, and more importantly, allow me to continue learning in my journey as a lawyer.
This is one of the things I try to impress upon the Associates that I mentor, that your journey as a lawyer does not end with you being called to the Bar, or being admitted into Partnership. It is a lifelong journey of education and learning, and that we must be willing to learn and willing to adapt to different situations, in order to be effective lawyers.
There are many things that I find fulfilling in my career as a lawyer. I would have to say that chief among them is the opportunity to interact with, and make a difference in the lives of, those around me. I believe that in every position we are placed in, it is important for us to think about what we can do to better the lives of those around us. While being a lawyer may not have the same impact as that of a doctor, or a frontline worker, I still find fulfilment in what I do because I know that it makes a difference to my clients by helping them achieve their commercial objectives. I also know that what I do contributes to our economy, sustains jobs, and in some way helps Singapore to remain an attractive global business hub.
Another area I find fulfilment in is how I am able to make a difference in the lives of the young lawyers I mentor. It is very gratifying to see how many of my young (and not so young) mentees have grown in their capabilities as lawyers. Being able to help them develop professionally, and seeing them able to engage with a client and close a transaction by themselves is something that always brings a smile to my face. That has always been my end goal, for my mentees to be able to “fly” on their own, and go on to become the future thought leaders of our legal industry.
I would have to say that specialising in M&A was a serendipitous occurrence for me. I knew from the start that I wanted to deal with non-contentious matters as the often antagonistic features of Litigation would likely not resonate with me.
Based on the subjects I took in school, I wanted to take on a more corporate-based practice. When I applied to Allen & Gledhill 25 years ago, I was allocated to the M&A department and the rest as they say, is history.
Similar to many other professions, academic competence is certainly a prerequisite, but that alone does not guarantee success. In my experience, those who are considered highly successful in their career do not necessarily finish at the top of their class. Rather, one must also have excellent EQ skills. Clients choose their lawyers not only based on their experience and legal expertise, but also on their likeability and their ability to connect on a personal level. Oftentimes, clients prefer lawyers who take a genuine interest in their transactions, and who take time to understand the reasons why they are coming to them for legal advice. These clients are also the ones who would more likely refer you on to their colleagues, resulting in repeat business.
Negotiations are also particularly relevant to M&A as we have to agree on commercial terms with our counterparts while ensuring compliance with applicable rules and statutory regulations. These terms must be negotiated and reflected in appropriate legal language. To do that effectively, academic competence is not enough. Interpersonal skills are also important for one to have a good sense of what his client wants, to read the situation and know when to persist or retract, in order to get to a position where both parties benefit.
Beyond that, I would also say that understanding the evolving economic climate and being commercially savvy is a key requirement. As lawyers, we should not restrict ourselves to reading legal textbooks and precedents, but also read news articles from say The Business Times, The Financial Times or The Economist to have a good sense of the goings-on around the world.
Doing so helps us understand the key issues our clients are concerned with in the economy, and look for innovative ways to help them address their concerns. I have developed this into a habit, and personally find the idea of reading while on holiday a very pleasurable experience.
Students can pick up this skill in school and on-the-job. Faculties are recalibrating their curriculum so that their undergraduates would be ready for the working world. When interning, it is always recommended to observe how seniors negotiate. Don’t be afraid to ask your seniors questions after the negotiation has ended as well, as you can learn the subtle cues that they picked up that led to the successful negotiation. If possible, you could even ask your mentor to practise with you.
There are also many books that teach negotiation skills. Even if one does not enjoy reading books, there are plenty of articles on how to be a more effective negotiator. Being able to get your point across clearly another crucial aspect of negotiation. One has to learn to express how others may gain, rather than seek to claim all the benefits for himself. When you see things from others perspective, you would be able to empathise, understand what the other person wants, and come up with a proposal that is beneficial for both parties.
Not always, but it is not helpful for one to keep to himself or herself too much. A lawyer who is very comfortable with engaging clients on a personal level is, in my experience, likely to be more successful than one who is shy and introverted. When clients feel they have a genuine connection with you, they are more likely to be forthcoming, and more likely to refer others to your practice. It is not enough to complete work given to you, one needs to be able to attract clients repeatedly and to successfully do that, you must be willing to step out of your comfort zone to engage with potential clients as well as your colleagues from other practice areas. This is something that has been ingrained in me since I started my practice at Allen & Gledhill.
Computing is an extremely useful skill to have and will help you stand out from other law graduates. Like many industries, the legal industry has experienced disruption. Work such as legal due diligence and simple drafting of documents are at risk of being overtaken by programmes. If I had a choice between hiring a legal associate who is able to code and write programmes that make our legal work frames easier against one that does not, the associate who knows how to code will have an edge if all other aspects of their skills are equal.
With the advancement of technology and the increasingly fast pace of business evolution comes a myriad of challenges. One of them is disruption to the industry. For example, Today, even non-legal firms have legal departments, resulting in the domain of law no longer being exclusive to lawyers.
The legal practise is also becoming increasingly commoditised. Legal documents, such as a joint venture agreement or an IPO document, are increasingly perceived to be something that anyone can produce. As such, clients feel that they do not require the input of lawyers as long as they have a template to work from, and are hence less willing to pay for legal services.
Being a lawyer is not easy, and many young lawyers end up dropping out of the profession for something less stressful. Some students believe that once they graduate and join an established law firm, they have made it in life. This is not so. When one begins his legal career, he or she will realise that the legal industry is a very unforgiving profession where one must work extremely hard. The challenge then is to build up young lawyers to be resilient and able to handle such stress, and of course to be there to guide them when they are facing difficulties. Sometimes, all it takes is an encouraging word to help someone recharge and view a tough situation in a new light.
A law undergraduate does not necessarily need to practise law, and can still be highly regarded in many non-legal disciplines such as banking, finance or economics. Even if they wanted to do something related to law but not directly related to the practice, they could still work as in-house counsels. The practice of law, as it is traditionally perceived, is not the only option for graduates.
The legal profession is constantly evolving, be it from a technological standpoint, or the types of transactions that clients look for. I previously mentioned that transactions involving multiple practice areas are becoming more commonplace. This is especially so because businesses today understand that departments are not siloed, and that every decision made will impact the company’s overall performance.
A good example of this is the growing interest in sustainability and the environment. Many investment decisions today are made based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) matrices, and as lawyers we need to understand this in order to provide legal counsel that aligns with our client’s stance on these matters.
Being a lawyer is hard work. As a professional service provider, you have to be at the behest of your client. For example, if one remains uncompromising on his schedule by insisting on not working on the weekends, his client will look for another lawyer who is willing to do so. There is no means of avoidance; even on holiday, you can still be reached over the phone. This means that there are times where you will have to work late to meet tight deadlines, or shift your schedule to cater to the needs of your clients.
One therefore has to be adaptable, and willing to be flexible with their schedule. I am also very blessed to have an understanding family, who know that there will be situations where I will be unavailable, and periods of times where I will be extremely busy.
Definitely not! Given my prior internships with A&G, I already knew what the culture would be like, and what was expected of me. While the levels of responsibility given to an intern, a trainee, an associate, and a Partner are different, the expectation and standards you are held to are always the same. This is actually something that I found extremely reassuring because it helps to ease the transition between each level you progress on to.
Having an internship is very useful. It helps you to decide if the job is something you want to do for life. Additionally, one should intern at different firms. As a recruiter, it is likely that I would recruit an intern whom I have worked with before, but has also worked in other firms. This way I know that when they come back, it is because they really enjoyed their time interning with us, and have chosen us because of our culture, our standards, and our values.
Additionally, you have to be a multi-dimensional person by having areas of knowledge beyond the legal practice, with good interpersonal skills. You must also be prepared to cede control and be flexible with your schedule. This is true not only for lawyers, but for anyone going out into the working world. There will be times where you will need to go above and beyond for your company, and your clients. One thing I subscribe to is that being good in an interview is what gets you the job, but having a good work ethic is what progresses you in your profession.
At the end of the day, I think it is important for you to be at peace with the decisions you make in your career. Nobody wants to regret having traded the possibility of having a family for career success. To many, if they had a chance to restart their career, they would have sacrificed some time at work to spend with their families. Everyone has to find their own happiness, whether that means spending more time with their family, their hobby or travelling. Finding out what motivates you helps you to decide how much time you are willing to allocate to work.
Firstly, with the benefit of hindsight, good health. The young may find themselves strong and healthy, and may think that they are invincible. This however, may not necessarily be true in their later years. If you do not take care of your health right now, you may find yourself regretting it when you are older. In a way, the pandemic has woken me up to exercising more and having better sleep. A stronger emphasis on keeping healthy is always a good thing.
Secondly, if you are religious, having a meaningful spiritual relationship with God is important. For me, it helps to guide my inner compass, and gives me strength when I have to make tough decisions.
Finally, I believe that it is important to maintain a good relationship with your family and your loved ones. I always try to remember that my career is a means of supporting my family, and while it is important to provide them with a comfortable life, it is not so important that I end up losing my relationships with them in the process.