The Multi-Hyphenate Holds Court
President of the Law Society of Singapore, senior litigator, author, lifelong learner and social media commentator Mr Adrian Tan (Law ’91) talks about the trend of more young legal professionals leaving the industry, his love for writing and how he stays curious.
WHO HE IS
Most Gen X and millennial Singaporeans know Mr Adrian Tan as the author of zany bestsellers The Teenage Textbook and The Teenage Workbook, which were published in 1988 and 1989 respectively. At work, the senior litigator and TSMP Law Corporation partner specialises in intellectual property, confidential data misuse and class actions. He is also the newly-minted President of the Law Society of Singapore.
He graduated from NUS Faculty of Law in 1991. More than three decades later, Mr Adrian Tan still keeps in touch with his cohort in a buzzing WhatsApp chat group. Says the partner at corporate boutique firm TSMP Law Corporation, “We know each of our quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses. We celebrate one another’s successes, and we console one another in times of grief.” Mr Tan’s best memories of life at NUS include being part of the Mooting and Debating Club, representing the University in international debates; and acting as the leader of a pickpocketing gang in his final-year class musical. Calling himself a proud graduate of the NUS Law faculty, he adds that this close rapport “shows you the strength of the NUS law community”.
Since then, Mr Tan has risen to the top of his field. At TSMP, the 56-year-old is the Head of Intellectual Property and Technology, specialising in areas such as confidential data misuse and contractual interpretation. And in what he considers a career highlight, Mr Tan was elected President of the Law Society of Singapore in January 2022. “The Law Society is the ‘trade union’ of lawyers,” explains Mr Tan, who was also the society’s Vice President from 2017 to 2020. “It takes care of their interests, regulates their conduct and speaks up for them in the face of the public…. We are here to ensure that the environment continues to help lawyers operate at their best.”
He adds that, contrary to what others think, lawyers are actually “shy creatures” who do not share more about the good work that they do, including pro bono volunteering. “As President, my role is to ensure … they are recognised for the good work they do for Singapore. I see myself as an advocate for the advocates.” But he is also aware that he has to unite the profession — because while they can be shy, lawyers are also independent, sceptical thinkers. He says, “They develop an instinct to smell out any nonsense. That is why I need to be open, simple and direct.”
If we want Singapore to grow and prosper, we need more Singapore lawyers. Without them, there would be no one to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
When young [legal] eagles leave the nest
That directness has already caught the attention of those in the profession. In a highly-publicised speech at the Legal Year 2022 opening ceremony, Mr Tan highlighted one troubling statistic: last year, a record 538 lawyers in Singapore left the profession. Most of them had practised for fewer than five years, he noted, even as a record low number of new lawyers were called to the bar in 2021. To tackle this challenge, law firms first have to acknowledge that the young lawyer of today is a different breed, with many attractive alternative career options. “The Singapore legal industry is a victim of its own success,” he shares. “Singapore lawyers are highly sought after, recognised for their training, intelligence and diligence. So financial institutions, government, tech start-ups and family offices are keen to hire them.”
Mr Tan, who is married without children, acknowledges that COVID-19 has created another problem. With more lawyers working from home, the younger ones are deprived of the chance to learn by observing their seniors in person at the workplace. He too has had to find new ways of taking his TSMP team through cases, with them working remotely from home now. He believes the local legal sector must offer more flexible career paths for the new generation. If not, the brain drain will result in fewer lawyers representing the Singapore public in court, organising family estates, helping couples through a divorce or assisting firms in business transactions. It will also mean fewer lawyers volunteering at community legal clinics or doing pro bono work.
Mr Tan, who was inspired to study the law after reading about the upright lawyer Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird
, adds, “It’s not in the national interest for us to have a shortage of legal practitioners. If we want Singapore to grow and prosper, we need more Singapore lawyers. Without them, there would be no one to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
About the Law Society of Singapore
Established in 1967, the Law Society of Singapore represents and assists any Singapore lawyer with a practising certificate who automatically becomes a society member. It also upholds the standards of conduct of the legal profession here.
Enriched by Experience
Perhaps the young lawyers can take a page from Mr Tan’s book. His secret to staving off career burnout might lie in how he continues to keep both his interest in the law and in other fields alive. At first, he himself had thought his legal career would be short. “I was apprehensive about the demands of legal work. I wasn’t sure I was cut out for it. I thought I would get bored of it,” says Mr Tan, whose mother had hoped he would become a doctor, a profession he says he had “neither the intellect nor aptitude” for.
After being called to the bar, Mr Tan joined Drew & Napier in 1991. He moved to Stamford Law (Morgan Lewis Stamford today) in 2013 and to TSMP in 2018. With each move, he has found reasons to stay curious about the industry. At TSMP, for instance, he has learnt about client care and thought leadership. “Each firm had its own focus and its own lessons for me. Every day, something happens that makes me go, ‘Wow, that’s interesting’,” he reveals. “So, decades later, I am still not bored. That’s why I am sticking around.” He even made a slight detour, completing a second degree in Computer Science and Psychology at the Open University in the early 2000s. In between his stints at the abovementioned law firms, he joined the client side for a few years as a general counsel at two technology firms, including tech solutions company CrimsonLogic.
Regular Singaporeans will of course best remember Mr Tan for his writing. In his freshman year at NUS, he wrote his first novel, the coming-of-age The Teenage Textbook
, and its sequel, The Teenage Workbook.
The books did so well their royalties helped put him through university and pupillage; he also supported himself by penning articles for women’s magazines. He created The Pupil
, a Mediacorp Channel 5 TV series about the legal profession that first aired in 2010. More recently, Mr Tan has taken his views to social media. On LinkedIn, over 14,000 followers enjoy his posts on topics from why he wants more heartland students at elite schools to how Singapore’s hawker culture should be preserved.
His advice to young lawyers who want to leave the industry? “I’d encourage them to make it a ‘round trip’. Have a look at the world outside, learn as much as you can and bring that knowledge back to help improve us.” And for those still on the fence, who are thinking of taking up law at NUS, he likes how lecturers at the University are well-connected to the legal profession while the undergrads have good internship opportunities. “That sort of industry focus will help young people familiarise themselves with the life ahead…. As long as NUS continues to select the best and brightest, we will be in good stead.” But ultimately, Mr Tan says, “Study anything that you are interested in. Don’t do it because you think it will help your career.”