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Harpreet Singh sets up new law firm with counsel
TWO lawyers are attempting to inject tech start-up culture into the traditional legal sector.
Former managing partner of Cavenagh Law and global partner of Clifford Chance, Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal, and counsel Jordan Tan, formerly also from Cavenagh Law and Clifford Chance, have launched their disputes practice Audent Chambers LLC and plan to attract young lawyers by introducing a work-anywhere, no-fixed-hours, no-dress-code, unlimited-leave work culture.
The co-managing partners have a bold vision for the firm - literally. "Audentia" in Latin means fearlessness. In an interview with The Business Times, they said their vision for the firm is to be one that takes on highly complex commercial matters as well as pro bono cases which raise important questions of law and public interest from their perspective.
The vision builds on some of the work that the duo has done together. For instance, last year, both acted as co-lead counsel in the constitutional challenge against section 377A of the Penal Code. In 2018, they also succeeded in a case where a three-judge High Court hearing permitted a gay father to adopt his own son born through surrogacy.
Audent Chambers will be established as an advocates-only set-up. This means it will not take on clients directly but will work with solicitor firms. It will focus on the work of representing clients in the open court as well as before arbitration tribunals.
This also means that the firm will take charge of strategy, submissions to court and oral arguments in court, thus allowing it to focus on the kind of work that it is interested to do. It is a unique model for law firms here, as most play both the solicitor and advocate's role.
(There are barrister set-ups in Singapore, but even if they may be grouped together as a practice, each individual's practice still tends to be independently incorporated and run.)
Mr Singh and Mr Tan believe that the different work culture will promote a better work-life balance - the one thing that many young lawyers do not have and that causes burnout over time, leading many to leave practice mid-career. This has already resulted in a dwindling middle tier of practising lawyers. Figures from the Law Society of Singapore show a significant dip in the number of lawyers with five to 15 years of experience.
Are they afraid of skivers abusing the system? Not really, Mr Singh said. He expects the firm to attract driven individuals who do not need to be overly monitored in terms of what they do with their time. In fact, he expects that he may even have to force them to take time off work.
"What we seek to do here is bold and audacious not just in terms of set-up but also the type of work we want to do, the people we want to attract and the kind of change in the law that we would like to see over the long term. One of the yardsticks for me to judge how successful this venture is going to be over the long term is the extent to which we live up to our name."
The pair hopes to groom a young generation of lawyers who are passionate about advocacy by giving them opportunities to co-argue cases alongside senior lawyers. This is not common in other practices. Mr Tan said young lawyers can sometimes be treated just as "warm bodies" thrown into a big case without proper definition of their role, or can sometimes be tasked to do solicitors' work when they want to be a disputes lawyer.
"If they don't get that chance, they can get burnt out because they just feel like they're waiting in the wings forever," he said.
In contrast, when young lawyers are given the chance to shine and prove themselves, they surprise many times with how effective they are in court, Mr Singh added.
"And the more experience you give them in terms of advocacy at a younger stage of their career, the more effective they get with time . . . What I see happening with this practice and the model we have is anyone who joins us will have a voice at the table in every proceeding we go for."
Mr Singh, who has been senior counsel for more than a decade, was also the founding partner of Cavenagh Law which entered into a formal law alliance with Clifford Chance in 2012.
Mr Tan has joined the new firm sprinting. Both lawyers already have three Court of Appeal hearings in a commercial matter lined up in January and a criminal appeal in February. They have also been approached to act as counsel in an international commercial court case in February. Mr Singh also has a major High Court litigation against another senior counsel, while Mr Tan is acting as lead counsel in three High Court litigation matters.
Mr Tan said that well-meaning friends have sometimes discouraged him from taking on cases where public institutions or the Attorney-General's Chambers are opposing parties, but he believes both sides have the important job of assisting the court to reach a just decision.
"To that end, I hope to observe the cab-rank rule which English barristers observe, namely to accept any case which comes to them which they are competent to take on without concern about who the litigant is."
Asked what kind of cases they would support in their pro bono work, Mr Tan replied that it will be where they can lend a voice to people who lack one, and instances where they can bring the rigour of complex commercial cases to non-commercial cases. These include greater engagement with the public on LGBT issues, questions of criminal law, and public law constitutional issues.
But the pair give assurance that it is not about to turn into a non-profit organisation. "Our mainstay has been and continues to be complex commercial litigation and international arbitration. However, both of us continue to be passionate about pro bono work," Mr Tan said.