Kevin Wong, capital markets lawyer

Kevin practised law for 27 years at Linklaters in their offices in London, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore and was a partner in their capital markets practice for 17 years. He retired from the firm this year. He was the first Linklaters partner based in the PRC and was managing partner of their Singapore office for over a decade. He studied law at Magdalen College, Oxford University and has a BA in Economics from Yale University.

Kevin has a collection of die-cast model cars from the 1960’s and 70’s which he has successfully hidden from his family (until now…)

This letter is written to himself as he begins his training as an articled clerk in London in 1990.

Dear Kevin,

Don’t practise law. Seriously.

I know you’re going to ignore this advice, but don’t throw this letter away just yet. Give me a few minutes to explain. Don’t practise law for the reasons in your head right now. There are other, better reasons, although I know they seem to be less important to you at this point in your life. You think now that the practice of corporate law for a big international firm will be the best way to earn a good living with as little risk as possible, that it’s the safe choice and the option that family and friends will approve of. These are all terrible reasons.

There are probably easier ways to make money. There’s nothing safe about climbing the corporate law firm ladder; there will be long, hard hours with no certainty of promotion and no assurances about partnership. Partnership is not a reward for good service. Just putting your head down and working really hard will not be enough. You’ve just turned down that banking job and that interview with the management consultancy. If all you want is to make money as quickly as possible and you are prepared to take on the risks, crawl back to them now. Practising law will be almost as much of a gamble, but certainly a gamble over a much longer duration. And please, don’t do anything for the approval of family, friends or anyone else except yourself. Life is going to be hard enough as it is without worrying what other people think.

Some of the friends and colleagues you have now will decide to take different paths; they aren’t quitting because they can’t “cut it”. They are going their own way because they have this feeling, this sense deep in their gut, that they should pursue other careers. That isn’t failure. Each will come to define success in a different way than you recognise now.

So, you’re going to go ahead with this career anyway. Fine. It’s rewarding, financially and otherwise. Focus on the otherwise. Enjoy working with the highly intelligent, resourceful and committed people who will be your clients and your colleagues. Thrill in the pursuit of the deal; enjoy the satisfaction of signing and closing the next deal, and the next and the next. Revel in the single-mindedness of the chase and celebrate the battles won representing your clients to the best of your abilities.

Also, if this is going to be the path you take, these are some things you should probably bear in mind:

1. Your identity is your own.

I’m not being philosophical here. You will develop a working identity, a personal set of professional codes and working practices, which will come to define who you are as a lawyer. That’s really important. It won’t come from introspection; you will need to build it by a process of testing and experimenting in real situations. It will become what you rely on when things descend into Hell and you have to make a judgment call about what to do or say.

That identity will also creep into your own sense of self. That’s unavoidable, but don’t let your working identity take control of your life. Don’t be fooled into thinking the corporate lawyer is who you also are when you’re outside of work. People will think that you’re an ass, and rightly so.

While we are on the subject, as a practical matter, don’t let your working identity become solely dependent on your corporate identity either. You are more than an associate or a partner of “X” firm or “Y” firm. You will get to the stage when you need to be more than that. It’s more than just what looks good on your CV. Develop your own skills, your own client network and your own body of knowledge. A day may come when you don’t have the name of the firm on your business card (hopefully when you decide the time has come, not them).

The people who manage you may or may not have your best interests at heart. That’s okay. That’s their job, don’t take it personally – it is just business. To reinforce this point: watch Godfather I and II again and again (but skip Godfather III when it comes out this year, believe me). Your task is to build your own working identity and to make sure it matches, at least roughly, who you are as a person. If it doesn’t, something is wrong. Test and experiment, again and again, until you get it right.

2. Find mentors, but recognise who they are.

It’s going to be important to find mentors and role models. Nothing in your education so far and nothing you have seen on TV or in movies has prepared you for the rough and tumble of what lies ahead. Look to the people who have succeeded in their roles and figure out what it is that made them successful. Don’t be cynical about it.

But be careful about what you choose to make your own. You don’t have to take their examples wholesale – your mentors will have their own problems. You don’t also have to adopt their attitudes towards alcohol, members of the opposite sex, their politics or their dress sense (don’t buy those Wall Street-style braces for your suits; you will regret the look for decades). Take what you find useful, discard the rest. They really won’t mind. You will be better for it.

Welcome the opportunity to mentor others when the time comes. They will not be a burden. Quite the opposite, actually – they will cast light on who you are and help you define yourself as well. You will find this aspect of your career much more rewarding than you think now.

3. Look around. Often.

I don’t mean that you should be shopping around for a new job all the time, but every few years, take stock of how your career is going. Look around you. Insist on direct and honest feedback at work on a regular basis. Don’t be afraid of 360-degree feedback when it is introduced – embrace it. Bear in mind that sometimes the feedback will be self-serving and not as honest as it should be. At other times, it will seem unfair or over-critical. Don’t just listen to what your bosses or colleagues are saying out loud – think about what they are not saying as well. Take it all on board.

Look around at how the world is changing, not just in your own industry. You will soon have a phone in your pocket. It will eventually have a camera; believe it or not, you will actually find this useful. In a few years, your phone will have several orders of magnitude of computing power over that home computer you just sank your first paycheck into. The Internet is going to change everything. I mean everything. Soon the word “disruption” will have nothing to do with rail services on the Bakerloo line. At some point, you will see artificial intelligence start to change all the professions, including the practice of law. Pundits will predict “the end of lawyers”; don’t worry, that’s probably just wishful thinking.

You’re probably losing interest in all this now and worried about getting to work in time. Last words then: Don’t forget to eat properly, exercise, get enough sleep and get out once in a while. Go to that art exhibition, see friends and family, and do all the things you know you want to do. Don’t spend Sunday nights ironing your shirts and watching TV. Go on that holiday – work will be there when you get back. You will never really understand the phrase “work-life balance” when it is introduced, except that you will need to determine what it means to you personally. Your loved ones will be really important to your life – don’t take them for granted. For long stretches of your professional career, you will neglect them. With any luck, they will forgive you.

Yours sincerely,

Your future self

Vani Sathisan, public international law, international criminal law and human rights lawyer

Meaghan See, in-house counsel