#10QuestionswithMaxwell Interview Series: Adrian Tan, The Law Society of Singapore
The first 2022 issue of #10QuestionsWithMaxwell interview series features Adrian Tan, the President of The Law Society of Singapore, and Partner at TSMP Law Corporation. He is also a member of the board of Maxwell Chambers.
Adrian is a sought-after senior litigator specialising in court disputes, his cases span the areas of intellectual property, confidential data misuse, shareholder oppression, contractual interpretation and class actions, among others.
In this interview, he shared about his recent appointment as the President of The Law Society of Singapore, what ignited his passion for law, a highlight in his legal career thus far, and more.
Read his full interview below:
Q: What ignited your passion for law?
A: As a teenager, I watched “To Kill A Mockingbird”, a movie adaptation of the novel by Harper Lee. It starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer defending an innocent man. Although Finch lost, he did his best to stand up to injustice and prejudice. I wanted to be like him (except for the losing part).
In our hearts, I think all lawyers have that image of ourselves. Each time we stand up for a client, we are standing up for our justice system, and telling our client’s story, so that the court can make a fair decision.
Q: Who is (or was) the biggest inspiration in your career?
A: The best part of being a lawyer is this: every day, we meet people who teach us valuable lessons. I learn things from my opponents, judges, clients and my colleagues. Every day, someone comes along to inspire me.
I believe the same goes for every legal practitioner. We are in a profession where we encounter the best and worst of human nature. We develop a sense of right and wrong, truth and gibberish. So, when we meet a genuine person, motivated by ideals, we can tell. And yes, it’s energising to meet such people.
Q: Share with us a highlight or significant achievement in your legal career.
A: It was during an important trial when I was a young lawyer, very low on the food chain. The senior lawyers had to make closing submissions the next day, right after they finished cross-examination. I worked through the night to write the closing submissions. As each part was completed, it was printed and rushed to the courtroom by our court clerk, where it would be read out to the judge. At the end of the day, one of the senior lawyers poked his head in my room, called out my name, and gave me a thumbs up. Then he left for the night, and we never spoke of it again.
That moment gave me energy for the rest of my career. And I try to give back, by doing the same for others. Always do your best to give someone the thumbs up. It takes little effort, but it spreads positivity and support, and it can keep the other person going for the rest of the night.
Q: What is one thing that you have always wanted to do but have not had a chance to accomplish it yet?
A: I am an avid chess player. I would like to beat a grandmaster one day. I have managed a draw with one, and I am always keen to bore people by talking about it. If you have a few hours, I can explain the entire game to you.
I like chess because it is the opposite of legal practice. There is no luck involved. Everything is confined into 64 squares. You know who is on your side, and who is not.
In law, luck often plays a part. Cases can expand far beyond what you expect. It’s not always black and white. And sometimes both sides win, and sometimes both sides lose.
Q: You recently began your tenure as the President of The Law Society of Singapore. When you began your career decades ago, did you ever imagine that you would be in your current position?
A: When I started working, all I wanted to do was win cases, buy a home, and write some novels. I had no idea what the Law Society was, let alone want to lead it.
But the Law Society exists to enable lawyers to do the work they need to do. Once I realized that, I understood that we all have a duty to volunteer and help the profession, in one way or another. The only person who understands a lawyer is another lawyer. So, if we don’t protect our industry, no one else will.
My aim is to educate the public on the important role that lawyers play. I am keen to spread awareness of the role of lawyers, and the many types of services they render. I intend to make the Law Society a legal influencer. We will use social media to promote the volunteer work that lawyers do, and the people that they help.
Q: You recently made headlines by highlighting HDB’s discrimination against cats (though the LinkedIn Post was posted a few months back). Bringing back to the ADR space, what is one issue you would want to see change?
A: We need to make a concerted effort to teach the public what lawyers do. The public thinks that they know what we do, because they have been fed a diet of Hollywood movies and paperback legal thrillers. All that fiction creates a false image of legal professionals. Lawyers must speak up, to explain their work, how the legal system works, and how the law provides the foundation for all social activity. We should promote legal literacy. We can start by sharing on social media, and in schools.
I think the public has a strong interest in the law and in lawyers. What I want to do is to show the public the reality of the Singapore lawyer, the hard work and sacrifice that is involved in this job.
Q: Legal technology has been forthcoming, especially in the recent two years due to the pandemic. With legal tech tools becoming commonplace in proceedings, in your view, what lies ahead for the legal profession and our legal system?
A: In the past, people used to think of only one template for a law firm: it had the reception area, the meeting rooms, the library, and the factory where lawyers toiled. Large law firms had fancier versions of this template, but it was basically the same idea.
The pandemic gave us more templates. Big Law will continue to look like the Big Law we see in Hollywood movies and TV shows: city offices with blue-ribbon lawyers serving blue-chip clients on mega deals involving tech giants and governments. But there will also be hybrid firms, who forgo all that real estate, so that they can offer affordable legal service to individuals and small businesses. These hybrid firms will have a blend of physical and virtual offices, to keep operations lean. Through reducing overheads, and passing on cost savings to the client, they are improving access to justice.
Lawyers too, will have a wider range of practices to choose from. There will not be a one-size-fits-all career path. Some may opt to be partners, while others may choose to work on a project basis. The industry will change, to accommodate the new priorities of young lawyers.
Q: As a busy person holding multiple hats, how do you find time for your personal commitments or to indulge in personal pleasures?
A: Although I have different roles and responsibilities, I have one mission. I want to improve our legal system. It’s the pride of the nation, and it is widely admired by my counterparts in other jurisdictions. All Singapore lawyers have a part to play in maintaining and enhancing the system, so that it serves the community by providing access to justice.
Q: If you weren’t in your current profession, what profession would you be in?
A: In university, I wrote novels and I represented NUS in international debates. I enjoyed communicating and connecting with people. I didn’t know if law would allow me to do that. I had the wrong impression that I would be stuck in an office, reading a lot of files, every day, by myself.
So, I was certain that I would be a journalist or copywriter, and make my living through writing.
But I thought that I would at least complete my pupillage and be called to the Bar.
During pupillage, I realised that the modern lawyer does the same thing that a journalist does: we help people caught in circumstances to tell their stories. We speak for people who do not get to speak for themselves.
Q: Lastly, share with us some of your fondest memories of Maxwell Chambers.
A: My favourite moments in Maxwell Chambers involve eating. Every time I have a matter there, I end up dining at one of the lovely establishments in the building. And that makes me think that Maxwell Chambers is a microcosm of Singapore: we provide an ideal working environment, so that serious work can be carried out, but there are also opportunities to enjoy good food and company. Hard work, good food and friendship: it’s our city, in a nutshell.