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Asia Career Conversations: Interview with Godwin Tan

Conducted by: Joshua Sung


Edited by: Coleman Kam, Kelly Wong, Phoebe Ho


The Asia Career Conversations series gathers leading industry professionals hailing from all across Asia to bring insight into various career prospects and their thoughts on current developments in the world today.


Biography


Godwin is a Trainee Solicitor at Allen & Overy (A&O), London. He is currently on an International Arbitration secondment in Paris. He holds a Bachelor of Laws (First Class Honours) from University College London, where he was elected as President of the UCL Law Society, and a Master of Law (First Class in All Subjects) from the University of Cambridge, where he was admitted as a Foundation Scholar at Queens’ College. Before his legal career, he was a Military Policeman in Singapore and received the Full-Time National Serviceman of the Year Award.


With two other trainees, Godwin co-founded the Society of East Asian Lawyers (SEAL) at A&O. As the first of its kind among leading London law firms, SEAL’s mission is to build a community in A&O for staff with East Asian heritage or connections to network and celebrate their culture.



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the firms and universities with which he is affiliated. This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.


On Life Experiences


1. Hi Godwin, wonderful to have you here! Though you work as a commercial lawyer today, you have served two years in the army as a Military Policeman – how has this experience shaped you and are there any takeaways you would like to share?


Thanks for having me, Joshua! It’s been said that the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk. I think that nicely encapsulates my experience in the army. Military service can be chaotic and taxing, particularly in the early stages. However, in hindsight, I benefitted from the experience. I got to meet people from all walks of life. We were put in the same physically strenuous circumstances and worked together to overcome those situations. We had to learn to adapt quickly, maintain composure, and diffuse tension in stressful situations.


At the risk of touting clichés, the experience has had an indelible mark on my style of leadership and work ethic. I place a premium on efficiency and am generally solution-oriented. I also have a rather ‘hardened’ perspective on trying circumstances in the workplace: having survived sweltering days in a forest without much respite, I found spending late nights drafting submissions in an air-conditioned office, often with a cup of tea, much more bearable.


My advice to those who are currently in military service:

  1. Try your best to adapt to your new setting as quickly as possible. Most people do not take to military regimentation like a duck to water; it requires significant effort.

  2. Choose to be kind and respectful. It’s a highly stressful environment, so whenever you feel able to, proactively care for your colleagues.

  3. Seek opportunities. There are plenty of things to do in those two years—you could, for instance, brainstorm ideas to improve your military base, participate in essay competitions, or learn a new language during the weekends.


2. As a graduate from UCL and Cambridge, how did you find the education at these institutions – both in terms of academics and extracurriculars?


I studied undergraduate law at UCL and postgraduate law at Cambridge, so the comparison is not exact. Generally, I found the quality of the lectures and tutorials to be similar. The classes in both universities are rigorous and intellectually satisfying. The professors and a good number of students at both universities clearly relish the cut and thrust of legal debate. Expectations are high, and, on most days, one could sense a palpable passion for the law.


As you know, the law societies at both universities are very active (of course, much like LSE’s Asia Careers Society) and are certainly some of the best in the country. They have for years provided a wide range of extracurriculars, including mooting competitions, negotiations competitions and publication opportunities.



3. You have delivered several lectures at universities across the UK. How’s it like now being in the seat of a ‘lecturer’ – any thoughts on becoming an academic in the future?


There is significant overlap between academics and practitioners in arbitration circles. People generally recognise the value of practical experience in informing academic discourse (for instance, in informing perspectives on how the law should develop). It is therefore common for practitioners to be writing journal articles, speaking at arbitration conferences, and delivering lectures and seminars. Of course, full-time academics continue to play an important role, not least because they tend to have more freedom to express pointed views (whilst, for practical reasons, the practitioner is advised to be less critical).


I’m open to the idea of being more involved in academia in the future. I used to tutor back in Singapore and have always found teaching enjoyable. In the UK universities I’ve visited, students tend to be very appreciative. Conversing with them has helped me clarify my own understanding and thoughts on certain aspects of the law. For now, I’m enjoying full-time legal practice, with the occasional academic venture.



On Careers


4. How were your experiences interning at law firms in the UK and Asia and why did you ultimately choose to work in the UK?


Vacation schemes in UK law firms are very different from internships in Singapore law firms. In the UK, vacation schemes are part-work, part-social. There tends to be a number of networking events and opportunities to socialise with colleagues in order to learn about the firm’s culture. There are limited ad hoc assignments on the side.


On the other hand, when I interned in Singapore, I was working throughout the internship. I helped to prepare bundles for hearings and did the first drafts of a few legal memorandums for various associates. If possible, it’d be good to experience both types of internships as you will pick up different skills from each of them.


I chose to train in the London office of A&O because its training programme is well reputed, and I wanted to be exposed to the top deals and disputes. During my training contract, I’ve had the opportunity to work on many high-profile cases, which often implicate multiple jurisdictions.



5. What do you think differentiates UK law firms from US law firms, and what are some benefits of training at a UK law firm?


That’s a common question, but I should first say that I think the ‘US’ and ‘UK’ labels for law firms are increasingly obsolete. The top law firms all seek recognition as elite ‘global’ law firms, and between these firms there are probably more similarities than differences. As a result, competition between firms has been intensifying across many major jurisdictions, regardless of the location of their headquarters and even as we see early signs of ‘slowbalisation’.


From the perspective of a trainee (which is perhaps more relevant for your readers), I’d briefly touch on three reasons why one might choose to train in a top UK firm instead of the London office of a top US firm. Of course, it really depends on the specific law firms you’re comparing—there’s no hard and fast rule.


  1. The firms tend to differ in their breadth of practices. Usually, the London offices of US firms have a handful of outstanding departments, notably in finance. On the other hand, the top UK law firms have a wider range of highly ranked departments, involving a spectrum of transactional, advisory and contentious work. I wanted to maximise my time in a market leading department and felt that at a top UK law firm, there would be a higher chance of rotating into seats that are all market leading and, therefore, getting involved in stellar work throughout my training contract.

  2. There is usually disparity in terms of administrative resources. It is worth noting that a good fraction of the job at the junior end can be labour-intensive and repetitive. The large UK law firms tend to have reliable teams of paralegals and document production personnel to assist their trainees with such tasks. With their reliable assistance, I was able to turn my mind to tasks that are more bespoke and complicated.

  3. There is clear disparity in terms of trainee intake size. The top UK law firms take many more trainees than the London offices of the US firms. This plays a part in shaping the trainee experience. For instance, given that A&O takes around 80 trainees each year, we’ve been able to hold trainee-only summer and Christmas parties. There is also often a mix of junior and senior trainees in every department, so trainee-to-trainee support is within close proximity.


6. What initially attracted you to A&O, and since working there what has made you stay?


I did several vacation schemes and internships before joining A&O and thoroughly enjoyed all of them. This meant that the final decision to join A&O wasn’t an easy one. I was, of course, attracted to A&O’s reputation as a leading Magic Circle firm as well as its emphasis on innovation, but the other firms also had attractive offerings.


Before making my decision, I called the partners I met at the various firms. The partner at A&O convinced me to join the firm; he felt I was a great fit for the team and sounded keen to teach me the ropes. After joining the firm, I’ve got to know it much better and still enjoy working here. I’ve had encouraging supervisors and have been given opportunities beyond what I expected, so there’s much to be grateful for.

7. A&O has a strong emphasis on tech. Have you had a chance to use any products or tech solutions in your work?


As you know, legal tech has been developing quickly. Many processes that are repetitive and easily replicated have been streamlined and automated, such that lawyers can now spend more of their time on the complicated aspects that require original thought or manual input. I’ve used, among other things, transaction management platforms (such as Legatics) and legal drafting and contract automation software (such as LexisDraft, Contract Express and Avokka). I’ve also used eDiscovery platforms and attended virtual hearings run by tech specialists. Other trainees have been seconded to Fuse and the tech start-ups in Fuse.


8. You completed seats in Banking, International Arbitration and International Capital Markets, and are currently doing an Arbitration secondment in Paris – could you briefly bring us through what being a trainee in your first three seats was like?


Banking: I sat in Project Finance, Energy and Infrastructure, where I reviewed a large number of project and finance documents. One day I would be analysing amended provisions in a loan agreement to see if they are practical and legal, and whether they are in line with market practice. Another day I would be amending concession agreements to ensure that the parties comply with data protection regulations. I like that I was working on tangible infrastructures that have obvious social utility, such as schools, tunnels and police stations.


International Arbitration: My second seat was in International Arbitration in London. It was a seat filled with legal research. I also co-drafted various legal memorandums for clients as well as submissions for ongoing investor-state cases. I was heavily involved in co-authoring arbitration articles, and started delivering lectures and seminars on arbitration in the various law schools. I like that it was law-heavy (both English law and public international law), and that there was ample time to critically think about legal issues.


International Capital Markets: I primarily worked for corporate trustees and agents. Besides amending general trust deeds and agency agreements, I did a fair bit of work on collateralised debt obligations. The good thing about capital markets is that it engages a variety of industries. I would be working on a deed for a car manufacturer in the morning, and then an amendment letter for a bank in the afternoon. Transactions moved quickly, often closing within weeks.


9. As a co-founder of the Society of East Asian Lawyers (SEAL), what inspired you to form this society and did the firm support you in this initiative?


It started with food! It was my first time working in the UK during the Lunar New Year festivities, and I wanted to host a Lunar New Year celebration in the London office, complete with an abundance of food and auspicious decorations. In addition, I noticed that the East Asian and South East Asian communities have grown a fair bit in the London office in the past five years, so I felt it was time to create a network that would host this celebration and share our culture with others in the firm. In particular, my co-founders and I wanted to bring together those who have East Asian heritage or who are interested in East Asian culture, and drew inspiration from the firm’s Black Lawyers Affinity Group and U.S. Asian Affinity Network.



The firm’s Race and Ethnicity Committee was very supportive of SEAL and sponsored our first Lunar New Year celebration. My supervisor at the time helped to present our sponsorship proposal to the Committee. I guess you could say that we worked together to ‘SEAL’ the deal.


SEAL has since grown beyond a single-event, trainees-only network. We now have a steering committee of partners, associates and trainees and recently held an internal panel, where partners of East Asian heritage in our London and New York offices shared their experiences at A&O and provided career advice to the attendees.


On the whole, the legal industry in London cares a lot more about racial and ethnic diversity right now than it did, say, 10 years ago. There are, of course, sceptics who feel that change is happening too slowly, but I’m confident that A&O won’t be the only major law firm with a dedicated East Asian society in London for long.


On Current Affairs


10. Is the popularity of London as an arbitration forum (going to be) affected by Brexit?


I doubt it. It’s true that there are many popular arbitration hubs besides London, most notably, New York, Paris, Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong. However, I don’t think there has been (or will be) a significant decline in London-seated arbitration as a result of Brexit. There are many reasons for this but, broadly speaking, it is because the benefits of a London-seated arbitration do not depend on the UK’s membership in the EU. For instance, the English Arbitration Act 1996 continues to provide a robust procedural framework for London-seated arbitration. Also, arbitral awards can still be enforced on the basis of instruments such as the New York Convention, which at the moment has 166 contracting states.


11. Has the nature of work in law firms and the work environment changed due to COVID-19?


My work environment has certainly changed. I’ve been primarily working from home since March and that’ll be the case until at least the end of the year. I think it’s fortunate that we, as a firm, have sufficiently advanced infrastructure and technology in place to enable widespread remote working. In a way, the pandemic has shown us that we can (and should) encourage flexible and mobile working arrangements, even at the junior end. Personally, spending more time with my family (I went back to Singapore for a couple of months) has helped to shape my perspective on work-life balance. Moving forward, my guess is that working from home for at least certain days in the week will be the new norm.


I’ve also benefited from the fact that industry events and activities are now mostly (if not entirely) virtual. I’ve been invited to speak at conferences in other cities that, in a pre-remote working world, would have been challenging for me to attend. I’ve also attended a few virtual hearings, which tend to involve less printing and travelling than physical hearings and are therefore better for the environment. More recently, I’ve also worked on Covid-19-related pro bono initiatives, which seek to address the impact of the pandemic on access to justice.


On the other hand, although remote working has its benefits, there’s a genuine loss in spontaneous interactions between colleagues in the firm. That is, of course, true of all companies during the pandemic. Conversations, via video-conferencing, feel more deliberate, with fixed time slots and agendas. I’ve been consciously combatting this by arranging spontaneous calls with my peers and teammates to mirror the office environment.


I think it’s particularly important to speak to the newcomers who have not yet set foot in the firm since the start of their training contract. It’s crucial that they, too, feel like they are part of a community and not thrown into the deep end.

Another downside is that there are relatively limited opportunities to network with potential clients and colleagues from other firms. Before the pandemic, I would meet people from other companies at industry events and workshops. You can’t reach out in the same way when there are, say, a hundred people in the same video conference. These days, the focus has shifted to using networking platforms like LinkedIn. It’s a different ball game.


12. How has the pandemic affected the different industries and how have law firms adapted to the pandemic?


This crisis is different from the 2008 financial crisis. The banking sector was hit particularly hard in that crisis. The current recession is primarily due to the global pandemic and the accompanying government measures (such as lockdowns and restrictions), which have particularly affected the aviation and hospitality industries. That being said, the profitability and valuation of many banks have also been affected by the low interest rates and volatility in global capital markets.


Of course, law firms, being intertwined with clients from different sectors, are not exempt from the effects of the pandemic. Learning from previous experience, most of the leading law firms have been exercising financial prudence even before the pandemic and, therefore, have been able to rely on their cash reserves as a short-term cushion. When the lockdowns started, many law firms began to take greater measures, such as freezing lateral hires, delaying distributions, and keeping a close eye on incoming matters and billables.


Assuming that the pandemic persists in the next few months, firms that have a wide breadth of departments will likely focus their resources on counter-cyclical departments and related matters. For instance, I’ve seen an uptick in enforcement and insolvency-related work and expect to see more contentious work. As you can imagine, there’s quite a bit of crystal gazing at the moment, but hopefully once reliable vaccines have been widely distributed, we will be able to bounce back from this recession in good time.


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