Lee Jia Fang, project finance lawyer

Jia Fang graduated from King’s College London in 2012 and is currently a Project Finance lawyer at Linklaters LLP, a Magic Circle firm in London. She completed summer vacation schemes with Linklaters LLP and Clifford Chance LLP in London in 2011, and subsequently completed a 2-year training contract with Linklaters LLP in London and Singapore. She will be moving to the firm’s Project Finance team in Hong Kong in December this year. 

Cara from the Letters of the Law team sat down with Jia Fang for a chat on what it’s like working overseas after graduating from law school. Read on for her motivations behind the decision to stay abroad, her experiences living overseas, and the one thing she would teleport from Singapore to London if she could.

LOTL: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you make the decision to study overseas?

Jia Fang: Growing up, I was surrounded by practising lawyers who inspired me to study law. My mother was a lawyer, and unlike many lawyers today, she and her friends stayed in practice into their forties and fifties. I’ve always wanted to experience life overseas, and law was also a transferable subject which gave me the best opportunity to do so. I was originally keen on campus universities in the UK, but my mother encouraged me to study law in London for more exposure to a major financial centre, so I accepted the offer from King’s College London.

LOTL: What challenges did you face when studying overseas?

Jia Fang: Law school can be gruelling, and even more so when you are away from your support network of family and friends back home. Your parents, teachers, siblings or friends may have traditionally been the ones guiding you along particular paths, but all of a sudden, you have the freedom to be on your own.

As law school is a very different experience for everyone, it’s important to know what you want as the end goal and stay focused on pursuing it, even if it might be different from what your friends want – whether they’re in Singapore, Australia, or the UK. It can be a lonely journey, but it will be worthwhile in the end.

What I wanted was to work in a major international commercial law firm, and attending law school in London gave me proximity to major commercial law firms and exposure to life in a major business and financial centre. That enabled me to make informed decisions about where I wanted to work and the kind of work I wanted to do.

LOTL: How did you choose what kind of work you wanted to do?

Jia Fang: When children talk about becoming a lawyer when they grow up, typically, they want to become a litigator. My mother was a conveyancing lawyer and hearing her talk about her job taught me to consider a law career from many different angles. For example, she used to say that conveyancing was the only area of law in which everyone was happy and no one was fighting – the seller was excited to realise their investment, and the buyer was excited to buy a property and move in. I’d say that’s a little optimistic, but it helped me think about what a law career really entails day-to-day beyond the prestige of the job title. I decided very early on that dispute resolution wasn’t for me because it’s too tiring to argue for a living. My teachers used to give me odd looks for being the only child to specify that I wanted to become a corporate lawyer.

I’ve always been curious about how the world works. I loved documentaries like “Megastructures” about how huge assets like ships and skyscrapers are built, or how particular industries operate. So, when I was looking into different law firms and their areas of practice, Project Finance jumped out at me as a great potential fit for my interests. Project Finance is the financing of large-scale infrastructure and industrial projects and public services. It typically involves a wide range of legal documents including construction contracts, financing documents, commercial supply and offtake contracts, property leases and licensing or concession arrangements with local governments – it shapes our world and lends a unique insight into different areas of our lives.

LOTL: Have you ever questioned your choice of career path or choice of staying overseas?

Jia Fang: I did – many times. I was drawn to Project Finance because I liked the idea of working on tangible assets whose impacts can be felt and understood by the man on the street, but our actual work on the investment, financing or construction side can involve working with a lot of highly technical information, financials and obscure concepts. Sometimes, it just goes over your head and you don’t really know what’s going on. And we work in small teams which can result in brutal working hours that last for months at a time. Last year, I had one of these experiences where I was working nearly 300 hours a month for over 3 months and just felt so tired. I went home for a wedding and ended up working every single day. I only saw my dad twice, even though we lived in the same house. I thought, what am I doing here? What I’m learning isn’t really what I’m interested in. I didn’t know where this was going to lead, or what my exit options were.

I did think about changing jobs, but when I spoke to my partners about my desire to tender, they listened to the issues that I had with my job and tried their best to help me. They encouraged me to learn to slow down, and spoke to me about the work that we as a team were doing, reminding me of the bigger picture. We also had our global project finance retreat in Lisbon earlier this year in June, and it was fascinating to hear about what we’ve been doing globally.

It’s important to speak to someone when you’re having a hard time. You are never alone. Even if you’re looking around the department and thinking – oh, there’s no way that person has ever thought of quitting – everyone has. It can get tough, but if you’re in a department where everyone else is interested in the work as well, they will be able to point out the brighter things in life and remind you of why you chose this job.

I also call my family or friends back home sometimes, when I’m really unhappy at work. My best friend in Singapore has been supporting me since I came over for university. She reminded me once that I never complain about the work – only about the people. If that is true, then considering how badly I wanted this job and how hard I’ve worked to get to where I am now, I’m not just going to let a couple of people who are being difficult drive me away from it. That’s why it’s important to choose something you are personally interested in. There will definitely be times which are trying and you don’t see how what you’ve been asked to do fit into the big picture. What you’re interested in may be something that the partner is doing, or something that the clients handle. It won’t be something you’ll be doing for a good couple of years. So you really have to keep your eyes on the prize and find a way to learn from what you are doing.

LOTL: Tell us more about the work culture in London.

Jia Fang: If you work in a City law firm, there’s usually a good amount of breathing space. The training culture is strong, as lawyers at all levels of seniority are used to newbies cycling through the seats. Senior lawyers tend to have the understanding and patience to give new lawyers the time and space that they need to learn.

Given the size and pace of project finance deals, I’m not usually on more than two live deals at the same time. This gives me the time to think through and digest what I am reviewing and drafting. I have more time to ask my partners questions or explore my drafting with them, which I might not have had the chance to do in a much faster-paced environment.

LOTL: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in London? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?

Jia Fang: Singaporeans are taught to be respectful to elders and seniors and I had to drop this really fast in London. My mother’s secretary has been addressing her as “Ms. Tan” for the past thirty plus years. That’s something quite foreign to the Londoners. As a vac schemer (student intern) or an Open Day attendee, all the partners and even clients are referred to by their first names and never called a Mr. or Ms.

Being too confident is perceived negatively in Asia, whereas here, you have to back yourself. The British are known to be ridiculously polite, but they treat you as an equal regardless of your seniority. If you are too respectful, they might take it the wrong way and think that you are too submissive, or that you lack confidence – something they dislike particularly in the legal environment. They expect you to square up. When speaking up in a meeting, you should not be afraid to address clients and partners directly and you must not sound apologetic for voicing your opinions. It was difficult for me to adapt as a vac schemer and a trainee, but now, as an associate giving work to trainees and vac schemers, I can understand it from the Brits’ perspective – being too deferential makes you seem unsure of your own ability and I don’t know I can trust you with my work. But from what I have seen, many of the younger Singaporeans law students and trainees have already adjusted to this and it’s a positive change.

LOTL: What advice would you give to Singaporean law students who are deciding whether to work overseas?

Jia Fang:  A huge factor in my decision-making process was the exposure to large deals. But now, the size of Asian deals is getting bigger as well, especially with new initiatives like the Belt and Road initiative. Beyond exposure to deals, working overseas gives you access to many new opportunities such as client and international secondments to other offices, opening your horizons. If you want to be committed to law practice in the long-term, it’s great to experience different departments in the UK’s rotational training contract system before making your choice, rather than applying to one department immediately after graduation without necessarily knowing what that area of practice entails.

LOTL: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you first started out?

Jia Fang: When I first started out, it was not as common to start your first job overseas and we did not have as much access to Singaporeans already working overseas. I felt like I had to seize every opportunity, and tried to amass experience and move on to working on more complex documents as quickly as possible, which led to burnout. But I was reminded by my friends and family that I chose to work in London to learn, and I can’t learn when I’m anxious all the time. I need to be in the right state of mind to enjoy the experience too. So I’ve learned to pace myself, turn down work and take breaks. I often take short weekend trips to continental Europe, which is one of my favourite things about my life in London.

I would also tell my law student/trainee self to think more about what I enjoy doing. That’s the most important thing when you are choosing which area of law to go into. Many students tell me that they like certain practice areas because it will bring the most money, or that it sounds good. But it’s always easier to do better at the things you have genuine interest in. That should be your motivation. There’s always scope to pursue other objectives within the area of law that you are interested in – whether that is working overseas, working for an NGO, or working in a high-paying job.

LOTL: What do you miss the most about Singapore? If you could bring one thing (which you can’t right now) from Singapore to London, what would it be?

Jia Fang: I really miss having things to do after 10pm that don’t involve drinking. I’d love to have a good Bak Chor Mee stall in London. Or a door in my closet which leads to Singapore, like in Narnia! The weird thing is that when I’m in London, I’ll miss Singaporean food like Bak Chor Mee or Laksa – but when I go home, I’ll lose my appetite because I’m no longer used to the heat and humidity. But I’m always happy just to be in the vicinity of good Singaporean food.

LOTL: What’s the most recent email in your inbox about?

Jia Fang: An order confirmation for my boxing gloves! (I go to a fitness class – it’s a good way to vent all the pent-up stress!)

Letters of the Law would like to thank the United Kingdom Singapore Law Students’ Society for making this interview possible.

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