Zen Chang, in-house counsel

Zen graduated with a Master of International Law (Distinction) from the University of Sydney in 2018, a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of International Relations from the Australian National University in 2016. He has published in American and Australian law journals in the field of new disruptive technologies in law. Zen is a self-professed coffee junkie and regularly hunts for new and unique cafes on the weekends. He is currently a global treasury and investment banking legal counsel in a local bank.

This Letter is addressed to his 12-year-old self, after getting 192 points for PSLE.

Dear Zen,

It’s alright, it’s not the end of the road.

192 points do not mean anything. 192 points do not define which path you’ll take. 192 points do not define you as a person. Grades are just grades. You’re much more than the digits on a piece of paper.

Let me tell you a little secret Zen; fast forward 15 years, you’re a legal counsel advising on complex corporate issues in one of the world’s strongest banks. Believe it.

Who cares whether it’s Special, Express, or Normal stream, they’re just imaginary paths, not set in stone. You set your path. And yes, you’ll start as a Normal (Academic) student in Secondary school, endure gossip and subtle jabs at your lack of academic excellence from family friends; but at the end of the day, starting in Normal (Academic) is the greatest blessing. Looking back, it made you realize what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.

Remember how you wanted to pursue a career in law since Primary 4? I’m so glad you didn’t give up on that dream to serve the public interest even after getting 192 points. After all, law is to society as medicine is to the body.

Here are some tips an older Zen is going to share with you, to pre-empt you on this exciting journey ahead:

1. Determination

After a gruelling year in Secondary 1, you got into the Express stream in Secondary 2. While you think you’ve “made it,” the excitement was short-lived. Sad to say, you didn’t qualify to get into the Junior College of your choice after O Levels. At this point, you questioned if law was really the right path for you. The worst part was when the school’s career advisor told you to pick a less gruelling trajectory. I’m glad you didn’t listen to her by studying your hardest in IB and making it to law school! Haha! If only it were that easy! In fact, you were an Arts student in your 1st year of University; many would’ve probably given up on their legal ambition at this point, but I’m glad you stuck through. You did exceptionally well in your 2nd year of University for law school to welcome you with open arms, allowing you to pursue a concurrent double degree program. And you thought life was smooth sailing thereafter. Ha!

This was just the start. Your determination was pushed to its limits whilst in law school. There will be days (and nights) when you’re in the library with your 8th cup of coffee, frantically poring through the required readings, and questioning if you should’ve dropped law. In fact, you failed constitutional law and had to re-do the course as a summer elective! Don’t fret. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. You’re not well-versed in subjects like constitutional law, but you excelled in others. You even got into the dean’s list for international law subjects, and came 2nd in an Australia-wide legal writing competition! It’s better to focus on your strengths than to worry about your weaknesses.

2. Build new relationships, and maintain old ones

Build relationships with your University lecturers and professors. They have so much to offer more than just what’s written on the PowerPoint slide. You will meet many amazing people during your undergraduate and postgraduate education. A few professors will even rope you in to be involved in various research projects and working groups, one even involving the United Nations! Your professors are there to guide you and also to push you. One even pushed you into publishing your first research paper for an American peer-reviewed law journal! Your professors will offer you wise counsel, not just on the law, but also in life.

Throughout your University education, you would’ve done about 7 internships in various international and domestic law firms and corporations. These different experiences will connect you with varying industry professionals, from corporate lawyers to human rights lawyers, all sharing a common goal – to advance the public interest. Always be keen to learn and experience new things and opportunities, and be hungry for knowledge. Never stop learning.

Maintain connections with friends from your childhood. They’re your anchors. Remember the crazy bunch of friends you hung out with in primary school? Fast-forward 15 years, they’re still the same crazy bunch of friends you hang out with now. Though our circle has expanded with boyfriends, girlfriends, partners, wives, and husbands, always know that the group is there for you.

You’ll make many more amazing and crazy fun friends along the way, even into adulthood. Each has something to give, each has something to learn, and each has something to love.

3. Stay true to yourself

Be authentically you. Know your worth and value, and find your identity. Nothing is absolute, everything is on a spectrum, like the seven colours of the rainbow. Don’t force yourself to fit into one colour.

The pressures to ‘fit in’ will come. You might not notice it at first, but they’ll come in the toxic form of self-comparison; comparing results, comparing timelines, comparing who can maintain a social life while also maintaining good grades. Don’t. Everyone is on their own journey, which leads me to my 4th point.

4. Follow your own timeline

Life is not a race but a marathon. The constant pressure to be in this fixed timeline is inherent in all of us, no matter the age or experience. The pressure to complete post-secondary education by 18 years old, the pressure to finish university at 24-25 (for Singaporean men), the pressure to have a job (or a training contract for law graduates) lined-up straight after university, the pressure to get married and to move out of your parents’ house by 30, the pressure to have kids by 32, and the pressure to retire by 65. There is this pressure to follow a set timeline, or what millennials call #goals #adulting. Erase all that.

Life is like a box of chocolates, there are no rules about which piece to eat first.

Let me let you in on a little secret, you’ll get your first university degree at the age of 26, not 24. Who cares! You’re on your timeline here.

5. Never forget what the law is

The legal profession is a noble one. It serves the public interest. And yes, even representing corporations can be a form of public interest law because companies contribute so much to the well-being of society. The legal profession is not measured by how much you earn, but by how much you give back to society; how you’re able to help and develop a community. The law is also about encouraging each other in the legal profession. Your peers are not competition, they’re your mentors and mentees. Seek help and advice, but also give help and advice. It is this fundamental belief in service that made you want to pursue law in the first place, despite the 192 points. Don’t lose sight of this. Ever.

I am not sorry you got 192 points for PSLE; it is the best thing that has happened to you. Sit tight, and enjoy the ride here on out. Oh ya, don’t slouch, the neck and back aches are not worth it.

With love,

A future Zen :)

Lewis Tan, Justices’ Law Clerk

Dagny Broome, lawyer