JASON CHAN S.C.
On the evening of the 27th of August, we had the pleasure and honour of having Mr Jason Chan SC, as our first guest for Lawful Assembly. Lawful Assembly is a new initiative by MDC to replace the older format of kickstarter events for moots organised by the club. It is a series which is aimed at exploring the person behind some of the notable names in the legal industry. Since this first edition was organised in conjunction with the B.A. Mallal Moot, it was particularly apt that we had Mr Chan as our guest. During his time in law school, Mr Chan began his mooting career with this very same competition, the BA Mallal Moot! Mr Chan was also part of the NUS team that won the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition World Championship in 2001, from which he also emerged as the best oralist.
Today, Mr Chan is one of Allen & Gledhill’s finest litigators, and he co-heads the firm's white collar and investigations practice. Crucially however, aside from these prestigious titles and achievements, Mr Chan remains grounded, and is a people-centric person. In his school days, he was an avid computer gamer and a student who enjoyed his time spent with friends. Today, Mr Chan his roles at home as a husband, father and dog owner. We are grateful that he took the time to speak with us on a Friday evening.
Given that he is an NUS alumnus, the interview opened up with his time and experience in law school. We started by asking him why he chose to study law in NUS and whether it was an obvious choice.
“I don't really have any other marketable skills beyond hopefully being able to talk and argue, to that extent, yes it [law] was kind of obvious” he says with a wry smile, affirming that familial pressure was not the driving force of his choice, even as the son of well-renowned lawyer Mr Jeffrey Chan SC. He adds that having decided on law, NUS was also an obvious choice. “I wasn't keen on going overseas and unlike the choices that students have today, you only had one choice in those days.” Following that, Mr Chan briefly recounted his time prior to law school. “Just before would have been the army, a period of my life that’s a blur,” he laughed and so did we. “Before that I was an ACS boy for most of my school career, where I was lucky to make friends who were with me from primary through to law school.”
The conversation carried onto his stories of law school and Mr Chan started by saying that he was neither a model student, to our surprise, nor a troublemaker.
“In order to create problems, you’d have to find me,” he chuckled. “I think they (the lecturers) would have found that more difficult.”
We discovered that a highlight of Mr Chan’s time in law school was mooting, so we then asked Mr Chan about his experiences there. He explained that his foray began with the B.A Mallal Moot - which he joined out of peer pressure!
“I think I joined the moot because all my friends were happily signing up for it and at the time, I thought it seemed like something which could be fun to do with a group of friends.”
He went on to recount his unforgettable experience where in the Final rounds of the Mallal moot, the presiding judge was the now Minister of Home Affairs and Minister of Law, K. Shanmugam.
“Till today I have not forgotten that he [Mr. Shanmugam] asked me a question which I simply could not answer. I had to pause, and I tried to answer the question but it was very clear to me that he knew that I hadn’t anticipated that question, and that my answer was not as on point as I would have liked it to be. And unsurprisingly, I did not succeed.”
When asked about what this experience taught him, he was frank: “Think, and answer the best that you can and when you do not know something, pretending that you do is a game you will certainly lose against the judge”.
Above and beyond, Mr Chan also learnt the importance of preparation. Specifically, he emphasised on the pitfalls of under-preparation and how it leads to a break in flow and verbal freeze-ups. Nevertheless, if anyone faces “stage fright” before a judge, Mr Chan advised that, the best way to contend with it is to take your time to consider what is really being asked.
After the Mallals, the option to join the international moots programme opened up during Mr Chan’s third year in law school. He recalls Professor Beckman suggesting that he should do the programme since he had already had the experience of participating in Mallals. Through this programme, Mr Chan gained a myriad of experiences which would culminate in the awards and competitions he would later go on to win. Indeed, one such competition was the prestigious Jessup Moot Court Competition, where he was a part of NUS’s team which famously won the championship in 2001 and he himself was crowned as the individual best oralist.
Mr Chan felt that moots played a useful role in forcing him to face issues that are present in his litigation work. “If we want to be nice, mooting teaches you. If we want to be honest, mooting forces you. You really have to learn how to answer questions, and present with a view that addresses how the judge or your opponent is listening to what you present.”
Mooting also revealed one of Mr Chan’s struggles - controlling the speed of his speech. Mr Chan candidly revealed that he was constantly scolded by Professor Beckman for speaking too fast. To resolve this, Professor Beckman even made him write the words ‘SLOW DOWN’ on the top of his script, in font size 36 or so. Mr Chan’s experience with Professor Beckman taught him the importance of having simple visual guides with him while he argues - something that he still uses today.
Beyond the moots themselves, Mr Chan is most fond of the small moments in the Moots themselves. He cherished not the challenges and rigour, but rather the dinners he shared with team members and the professors he travelled with, the walks from the hotel to the competition venue and even the different weather in Washington D.C for the Jessup Moot. “Those were the things that kind of tended to stick with me,” he admitted with a smile, and it was hard not to smile with him.
After graduating, Mr Chan started his career serving his scholarship bond in the Legal Service as a Justice’s Law Clerk. In the following years, he continued serving in various capacities as a Deputy Public Prosecutor and State Counsel in the Attorney-General’s Chambers and an Assistant Registrar in the Supreme Court of Singapore. He then spent 8 years in the Legal Service before leaving to join Allen & Gledhill in 2010.
When asked about a notable experience or case in his career, Mr Chan recalled the time where he sat as the second chair for two senior prosecutors in a murder trial. The pro bono defence counsel of the accused persons in the trial were two Senior Counsels who had very different styles. Watching the way they conducted cross examinations and executed their trial strategies left a really deep impression on him as a young member of the profession. He further shared how his experiences on the bench and in the prosecution have allowed him to gain some insight into the thought process and inner workings of these organisations.
These experiences had further solidified why Mr Chan chose to pursue court litigation in private practice in his career over other avenues of law. He found that court litigation presented a structure he was most familiar with, as well as an opportunity to “stand on his two feet to argue before a court”. It seemed to us that clearly, this was not a decision he regretted.
One of the things we were curious to hear from Mr Chan was how he managed the duality of court litigation as a lawyer; owing both a duty to the client and the paramount duty to the court. We asked how he dealt with this ethical dilemma.
“In practice, client pressure is a very real thing,” he admitted, “and you always have to be very mindful of your duties but never forget your responsibilities as an officer of the court.”
He continued to explain that ethical issues are bound to occur in the practice of law and emphasised that “you can’t breach your duties to solve them.” The prospect of such complex problems occurring in the practice seemed daunting to us and Mr Chan perceptively noticed our discomfort. He thus added, “Having honest conversations with your colleagues and supervisors is important, they are valuable resources to talk to about these issues especially as a new lawyer.” He closed the topic of ethics with some words of caution, “Do not assume that you know the correct answer on how to deal with it.”
To follow up, we asked if he had any specific skills or lessons every lawyer should know. Quick to answer Mr Chan stated, “Every lawyer must know, litigation or corporate, you’ve got to be able to keep secrets.” He stressed the importance of client confidentiality and the potential information we could be privy to. “It could be their darkest, most embarrassing secrets or a commercial business’ biggest weakness.” He warned, “If you can’t keep secrets nobody will be comfortable to talk to you and get your advice, it’s something that underpins our professional conduct and obligations of privilege,” coming full circle Mr Chan tied it back to the previous question. “Above all, you must be ethical.”
Moving on, we asked how he copes with work and its natural stresses to mental health. Mr Chan highlighted the need to find balance. He found it important to know when to blow off steam, as it is not sustainable to continually focus on work in a stressful profession such as law. The journey was a marathon not a sprint - a point that hit us law students close to home.
Even so, Mr Chan had to make sacrifices when it came to his career. But, these sacrifices were worth it for him, as he found that he “did not have to over-sacrifice time with his family”. However, he has sacrificed time to enjoy his hobbies, like his former hobby of gaming, for instance. He mentioned, rather bittersweetly, that he sold his Playstation and now prioritizes his technological equipment for work instead of games [for those wondering, he loved the Diablo series] But on a more serious tone, Mr Chan shared that an important question everyone must ask themselves is if they are prepared to sacrifice certain things to achieve their goals.
Aware that while law is not the only profession where sacrifices are demanded, Mr. Chan noted that given the combination of stress and risk that you face in this industry, time is what will be sacrificed. He wanted to remind students that if you sacrificed everything, and all that is left is work, it is crucial for one to take a step back and reconsider if this is okay for them. He pointed out that the thresholds of sacrifice vary from person to person and it is up to the individual to discern where that is.
When it comes to managing his time, he sticks to the idea that he will finish the work that needs to be done for the day. Mr Chan has learnt that “there will always be more work” and so, a cutoff is necessary. “Sometimes if things can be done tomorrow, it should be saved for tomorrow”, he notes. He looks at his tasks for the day and distinguishes from that list what must be done that day. Once the day’s work is completed he focuses on what keeps him going, by spending time with his family. Mr Chan recommends and advises others to find what keeps them going and do it to maintain a sustainable balance.
As the main interview came to a close we asked him how he sees himself. Mr Chan proudly identified himself, first and foremost, as a father, a husband and a son. Beyond that, he hoped his peers and those around him viewed him as a decent colleague and a good mentor.
What area of practice did you enjoy most? Your work in the judiciary or your work in litigation?
A: “The grass is always greener on the other side, while you're on one side, you'll think it was a lot better over there. Especially during the peak or stressful times.”
A new skill or hobby that you picked up during lockdown?
A: “Fixing cupboards, changing lights.”
Your preference: Mooting or cross-examination?
A: “Mooting. I like the interaction with the bench. It's an opportunity to address the court on what the court itself wants to know because when the court asks you a question, they are revealing to you what they think is important. It might be that they're revealing to you that they think that the point that you made is a stupid point, and they've tried to clarify it. But it's still important for you to know. So, to me, for that degree of interaction and dialogue, I'd pick mooting over cross-examination.”
And so, in the same vein, today, cross-examination or appellate work?
A: “I enjoy appellate work more. For the same reasons.”
Your most treasured law school memory?
A: “Eating ice cream and looking for random food with my moot team teammates in various countries.”
Could you describe a day in the life of Mr Jason Chan S.C. today?
A: “Wake up early, chase the kids to get ready to go to school, then chase them again. Send them to school, come back, start work, whether it's calls, hearings, discussions, or just work at the desk as it were. Try to have lunch. Now that it's the pandemic I can, if I don't have hearings or meetings, pick up the kids from school, bring them back, have lunch with them. Or if not, I can have lunch with my wife if I don't have other engagements. Work starts again in the afternoon: hearings, calls, zoom, working on the computer. Usually by the evening, I try to spend a bit of time with the kids before they sleep. After they go to sleep, I take the laptop, go to the kitchen, sit there with the dogs, and clear work until it's time for bed. That's a day in the life.”
In closing, Mr Chan leaves us with this piece of advice:
“Your inner motivation has to be personal to each of you. The danger sometimes, is that you look to your left and right, and you see somebody who, for whatever reason seems to be doing very well, or really enjoying something because he or she is perhaps doing things in a certain way. And I think the danger is in thinking, ‘well, that's what satisfaction means’ or ‘that's what success means’. And I think you'll realise that for every single person, what you derive satisfaction from, as a lawyer is likely to be different. For example, it could be the sort of work you do. It could be, and hopefully it is, helping people who actually need help. It could be the people that you work with, that you enjoy the environment, and the constant challenge. It could be any of those. But I think the best advice I can give is that you've got to be honest with yourself to find what it is for you. That means you find not just how you practice, but hopefully where you practice and who you work with, will be an important part of that equation as well.”