Moving from Second to First Chair: How to Fail at it by Chooi Jing Yen*
Statistics indicate that the number of law firms in Singapore are steadily increasing. More law firms means more small to medium-sized firms, as senior partners leave large firms to set up their own boutique practices. This in turn means more opportunities for young lawyers to be closer to the action, and eventually, be part of the action.
The statutory requirement to assume partnership in a law firm is employment in a Singapore law practice for not less than three continuous years, or three years out of a continuous period of five years. Anecdotally, the number of young partners seems to be on the rise. Some even strike out on their own shortly after the three-year mark. How different is it actually, between being the person who does the work, and being the person who has to go out and look for work? As a fellow young lawyer (and therefore not an experienced old hand at this game), I am pleased to share some ways to fail in the first chair. After all, you may very soon be finding yourself there.
1. Sweat the Small Stuff
This comes first, because there is so much to be said about it. We all get the same number of hours in a day. If you are spending it dwelling on small details, it means you are not using your time to (1) chase leads; (2) take on more cases; or (3) strategize and position your ongoing cases. There is good reason for division of labour in a law firm. After a certain amount of supervision, you will eventually need to be able to trust your juniors to do better work than you. Their submissions for that interlocutory application may not be exactly how you would have written it, but is the central thrust of it on point? If so, that should be sufficient to set the stage for you to address any other shortfalls (if at all) in oral arguments.
Delegation is key. There are some things your juniors cannot do for you. So leave them to do what they can. It is difficult to let go because you were, not very long ago, doing those same tasks. But in the first chair you now have other tasks too. Potential clients want to hear your opinion on their problems. Existing clients want to hear your advice on strategy and whether the case is going as planned. Your juniors need your direction on what to do next. Any time you are spending doing a task that someone else could be doing for you is time spent not attending to what onlyyou can deal with.
Missing the forest for the trees can also lose you hearings. When you were in the second chair, it was your job to know exactly where all the references were, and to make sure that all necessary bundles and documents were in order before any hearing. Unless you are senior counsel with photographic or eidetic memory, the mental toll of having to deal with these details may lead you to forget the big picture. Cases are often won or lost on one big point. Focus on that, and trust your second chair to come through with everything else.
The skillsets required to be a winning lead counsel are quite different from those that make a capable assisting counsel. As lead counsel you will need to watch for visual cues from the coram, remain alert to what your opponent is doing and prepare your responses on the fly. As assisting counsel you were watching things happen. As lead counsel, you make things happen.
2. Fail to Manage Your Subordinates
Law firms are terrible places to work. Time is a precious commodity. There are deadlines from the courts, demands from clients and internal deadlines to meet depending on how many levels of clearance a particular piece of work needs to go through within the firm. Every firm places a price tag on time. Senior lawyers cost more and are worth more. This means that for costs-savings purposes as well as the reasons mentioned in the preceding section, younger lawyers are given the more time-intensive tasks and therefore end up spending more time at work.
As a senior young lawyer, you are in a unique position to manage this. It was not so long ago that you were drafting pleadings, submissions and research notes. You know well how much time and effort needs, reasonably, to go into a particular piece of work. You can help out your juniors by (1) indicating to them at the outset how much time a task is expected to take; (2) checking in on them periodically to ensure they are on the right track; and (3) helping them to manage their time by setting clear horizons so that they know when you want to review what.
As we grow older we may start to forget the difficulties we once faced when we first started out. There is no need to further the legal profession’s ignominious honour of having a poor work-life balance. Work-life balance does not always have to mean fixed working hours and fully restful weekends. It can also mean clear expectations such that it is possible to plan pockets of downtime, even during the working week. A change in culture can start from this generation. Good people management means a healthier work environment and therefore better quality work.
3. Fail to Maintain Relationships With Your Peers
Your peers pulled through law school with you and commiserated with you during those tough early years of practice. Bonds forged in fire are not easily broken. Your peers are a potential source of new work and potentially people you may one day be calling “Your Honour”.
Also, it is nice to have friends.
4. Be Nasty to Opposing Counsel
In the heat of a contentious matter it is easy to forget that you are advocating your client’s position, not your own. The same for your opponent (or rather, your learned friend). Submissions can be forcefully made, but personal attacks are never necessary. If you really have to disagree vehemently, remember to preface your argument with the excellent British phrase “with respect” or “with the greatest respect” (where you are feeling particularly tetchy). Used in written form, no one will be able to tell if you are being sarcastic.
Never, ever, misrepresent your learned friend’s position or arguments. To fall into the classic strawman is not only poor form, it also signals to the Court immediately that your own arguments are just not good enough. It is better to win because you have the better argument, not because the Court had to choose between two poor arguments.
Always be gracious in defeat. Your opposing counsel today may be on the same side as you tomorrow. Or, as above, he or she may be on the Bench. Above all, you do want to contribute to a pleasant working environment for all involved, right?
5. Worry about Going to Networking Events
Not everyone is cut out for this. For some of us, going out and meeting new people is just not a natural thing to do. Does this mean that you are going to be at a disadvantage in growing your practice?
Going to networking events is not the only way to grow your network. You can start with your existing relationships. The foundation of the lawyer-client relationship is trust. Clients do not shop for lawyers on Google the same way they do their online shopping (or at least, they should not). Never underestimate the power of word of mouth. A referral from a fellow lawyer or existing client is far likelier to stick than a cold call. Your online presence should be a means for your potential prospects to confirm their trust in your abilities, and for you to remain visible to your existing network. You can do this, for example, by sharing periodic updates about significant developments in your practice area. Far more effective and efficient, in my respectful opinion, than spending two hours every couple of weeks at a networking event where everyone is trying to humbly promote themselves.
Legal practice can be fun and invigorating. The new generation of young lawyers is best placed to embrace the technological revolution and shape the direction of workplace culture in the light of the dawn of the work-from-home era. Embrace it.
*“Moving from Second to First Chair: How to Fail at it” was the feature article for The Young Lawyer column in the January 2021 edition of the Law Gazette.