Today we introduce a new type of content: short interviews. These interviews will be published as part of a series on the third Tuesday of the month, every month. Each series centers around writers who have had their legal journeys shaped by some common experience. Our first series of writers shared a common sense of daring: each took a gigantic leap of faith by founding their own firms.
This week, we talk to Siraj, who graduated from the National University of Singapore in 1997. He now leads Premier Law’s litigation and dispute resolution department, having co-founded the firm in late 2007.
Letters of the Law (LOTL): Tell us a bit about your journey after law school.
Siraj (S): I graduated in 1997 and joined Drew & Napier as a pupil. After getting called to the Bar in 1998, I started practice at Drew & Napier as part of Davinder Singh SC's team. I stayed for 5½ years before leaving in October 2002 to do corporate work in Indonesia with a firm that eventually become DLA Singapore. In July 2005, I joined Tan Kok Quan Partnership as a partner in its disputes department, before leaving in December 2007 to start Premier Law LLC with 2 other partners.
LOTL: At what point in your life did you first learn about the possibility of starting your own law firm? What called you to it?
S: I had always heard of people leaving larger practices to start up on their own. But, to be honest, I never had any intention of starting my own practice. It was my partner who persuaded me to give it a shot – he can be very persuasive! He had experience managing his own practice previously and was convinced that we could make a success of it. So it was not so much a calling, but more a challenge to see if we could do it.
Having decided to take the plunge, we felt it was important to differentiate ourselves from other practices. One way we sought to do this was in the type of work we did. We noticed that many law firms (especially the larger ones) tended to focus on acting for banks and financial institution. We decided to try and build a reputation for acting and advising those who had claims against these institutions.
The other way was in the quality of the service we provided. In short, we wanted to be a boutique firm that provided clients with levels of quality and service that they would expect to get from the large practices.
LOTL: What is the biggest difference between being in someone else’s law firm and being in your own law firm?
S: In a word, autonomy. You have control over your practice – how you want to run your practice, the type of work you want to do, the number of people you hire, how hard you want to work.
But that autonomy comes with its own set of responsibilities. You can no longer simply turn up at the office, do your work and head home. You now have to make sure there is sufficient work because your lawyers and staff are relying on you for their livelihood.
It is quite a sobering thought that certainly tempers any sense of bravado you may have had about venturing out on your own.
LOTL: Have you ever had a misjudgment turn into a success for your firm? What happened there?
S: At the start, we placed a lot of emphasis on grades and CVs when hiring lawyers. We soon found out that those are not necessarily accurate indications of quality. We have learnt from those experiences and have refined our selection process.
We now spend much more time meeting and trying to get a feel of the particular individual as a person. We also try and get as much information about the individual from people who know him/her. We find that ensuring a candidate has the right attitude and mindset is as important as his/her academic qualifications (perhaps more so).
LOTL: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
S: I have been privileged to work with some of the leading members of the Singapore Bar, and have learnt a great deal from them. But the one thing that has always stuck in my mind is a piece of advice I received from a very senior member of the Bar even before I started Law School.
In short, his advice was to "always stick to the straight and narrow and never take shortcuts". I have come to understand the wisdom of those words more and more over the years I have spent in practice.
LOTL: What are three things one should do before starting one’s own law firm?
S: (a) Have sufficient training and experience in managing clients and a practice; (b) have clear, core principles on which you want to build and run your practice; and (c) have at least 6 months' worth of billable work.
LOTL: How do you deal with moments of self-doubt or difficulty?
S: I have been very blessed to have a very supportive family and close friends to whom I can turn to for advice. But I generally tend to not dwell on these things, and to look forward with a positive attitude.
LOTL: What is one thing law school didn’t teach you, that you wish it did?
S: Legal research. This may have changed since my time, but the ability to properly and efficiently research a point is a skill that is sometimes greatly undervalued. It is probably the most important skill to learn before starting out in practice.
LOTL: Name one lawyer, past or present, whom you admire.
S: The late Lord Denning, MR. I had the privilege of meeting him as a young law student when he was close to 95 years old. Even then, his clarity of thought and clear love of the law was truly inspiring.