Philip Jeyaretnam is widely regarded as one of the country’s top lawyers, but being welcomed into the establishment was not an easy task, especially during the early days of his career.
Even with excellent academic credentials — a first-class Honours degree in Law from Cambridge University — he found it a tough time securing a job on his return from England to Singapore, as many of the major law firms slammed their doors in his face.
The reason? He is the son of J B Jeyaretnam, the opposition politician famed for his battles against the ruling PAP.
“Senior partners in big law firms tend to be conservative,” says Jeyaretnam, now 52. “They were afraid that if they hired me, it would affect their business because of who my father was.”
The young law grad finally landed his first job with Robert W H Wang & Woo, where he worked for a few years before joining HelenYeo & Partners. In 2002, the latter merged with Singapore’s oldest law firm, Rodyk & Davidson, of which Jeyaretnam was named managing partner in 2011. He would go on to steer the firm’s successful combination with the world’s largest law firm, Dentons, in 2016, forming a global legal powerhouse now known as Dentons Rodyk. Post combination, Jeyaretnam holds the positions of Singapore chief executive officer and global vice-chair.
Recognition for his legal acumen on an individual level also poured in. In 2003, at just 38, he was appointed senior counsel, making him one of the youngest to receive the title. He was named Managing Partner of the Year at the Asian Legal Business Southeast Asia Awards in May; and just in November was named Commercial Litigator of the Year at The Asian Lawyer Emerging Markets Awards for his handling of recent high-profile cases, including representing The Wall Street Journal on issues arising from its coverage in Southeast Asia, such as the 1MDB affair.
“Growing up, I was inspired by both my parents who were lawyers,” says Jeyaretnam. While his mother, British-born Margaret Walker, specialised in real estate and conveyancing matters — Rodyk & Davidson was coincidentally the first firm she worked at when she came to Singapore — his father J B was a criminal defense lawyer. “I found my father’s court work exciting: The probing, the cut and thrust, the interplay between two opponents. It appealed to my competitive streak,” he says of watching his father in action as a child.
This love for battle in court has stayed with Jeyaretnam even to this day. “My best days are spent right in the thrust of battle in court. I find it exciting, the adrenaline is up. When you’re arguing the case of your client in court, you’re like a fencer or boxer, you feel alive, you’re in the flow of the moment. You have to think quickly, such as pouncing on an unexpected opportunity from an unguarded answer from the witness. You’ll find that a majority of lawyers are attracted to this part of the job. It’s the epitome of the profession, as seen in film or TV. We get to uncover things, to get to the truth. There’s a lot of tension and drama in the process.”
Another aspect that Jeyaretnam finds exciting about practicing law is the clients he gets to work with. One who particularly resonated with him is celebrated architect Moshe Safdie, who designed several iconic buildings in Singapore, including Marina Bay Sands. “As a lawyer, you get to know your client and his business, and understand what makes them tick. Working with Safdie gave me an insight into his creative process. It was a great learning experience and an honour and pleasure to represent him.”
Safdie is likewise full of praise for Jeyaretnam’s work. “We have the greatest confidence in Philip Jeyaretnam. He led us through a year-long highly complex matter,” he says.
Apart from victories in court and in arbitration matters, Jeyaretnam has overseen repeated successes in growing the firm he’s led. Within five years of the merger between HelenYeo & Partners and Rodyk & Davidson, Jeyaretnam grew the firm from 140 to 200 lawyers. The combination of Rodyk & Davidson with Dentons in April 2016 helped the latter become the world’s largest law firm, in terms of lawyers, with more than 7,000 lawyers serving clients globally.
The merger was in line with the industry’s trend for consolidation, says Jeyaretnam. “The challenge is that it’s difficult for mid-size firms to do well. The larger firms have scale for better efficiencies while the smaller firms are more nimble and can charge less. The second challenge is that law is now more international because we have more cross-border trade and investment. With the combination with Dentons, we can take on more cross-border matters. For example, now we can help clients do acquisitions in Australia.”
As someone firmly at the pinnacle of Singapore’s legal profession, what philosophy does he credit for helping him succeed? “Success depends a great deal on skills and knowledge,” Jeyaretnam replies. “You need constant improvement and efforts to deepen your knowledge. I always tell young lawyers: Don’t focus on your bonus or salary; focus on improving as a lawyer, on opportunities to get better. After a while, everything will follow and you’ll see the financial rewards.”
Despite his busy schedule — he still runs a full practice alongside his CEO duties — he also sits on the board of a number of high-profile institutions. Among his appointments include the presidency of The Law Society of Singapore from January 2004 to December 2007 and chairmanship of Maxwell Chambers, the world’s first integrated dispute resolution venue, where he is currently serving a second term (and our photo shoot takes place). He is also on the Public Service Commission, the constitutional body that oversees the civil service in Singapore; and the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, which advises the president under the equality provisions of the Constitution.
Commentators have painted his appointment to the non-partisan Public Service Commission as a confirmation of Jeyaretnam’s evolution from an outsider, who found it difficult to even a land job, to being part of the establishment. But does he see himself that way?
“I see myself as being part of the establishment in the broad sense. I think the establishment needs to be as open and inclusive as possible and be open to different views and opinions politically,” says Jeyaretnam. “I’m interested in politics but I’m not a political partisan. I have good friends and good conversations with people from throughout the political spectrum from members in the opposition to ministers. I believe that for Singapore to be successful, it’s important that there is a broad range of people who understand and agree about Singapore’s vital interests, while allowing for strong differences of opinions.”
Apart from his success as a lawyer, Jeyaretnam is also well-known as one of Singapore’s leading novelists, with published works such as Raffles Place Ragtime and Abraham’s Promise. His book, First Loves, a collection of short stories published in 1987, even sold over 100,000 copies in Singapore, an extraordinary feat considering most bestselling Singaporean books only sell around 1,000 copies. “I like writing because I enjoy constructing something, seeing something new come out. I enjoy wordplay, crafting a sentence is fun. For me, the enjoyment is having a skill and doing it better. You’re not competing against anyone. It’s like playing tennis, you don’t have to be a world beater to enjoy practising your skill.”
How is being a lawyer similar to being a writer? “Both lawyers and writers are involved in uncovering stories to find the truth, it’s about finding what’s really going on.”
He, however, doesn’t have much time to devote to writing these days, penning at most two short stories a year, which he contributes to anthologies that he’s asked to write for. Since 2007, he also gives back to the arts community by chairing the steering committee for the Singapore Writer’s Festival and he is currently chairman of pre-tertiary arts school, School Of The Arts (Sota), where he has helped start a creative writing programme.
Running Singapore’s largest law firm and sitting on various high-profile boards, Jeyaretnam has a schedule that would make one feel tired just looking at it. So how does he cope with being so busy? “There’s an aphorism: ‘If you want to get something done, you give it to a busy person’,” Jeyaretnam says. “Busy people know how to get things done quickly. I believe in efficient scheduling — I schedule things and stick to it. I’m also fully focused on things. Like I’ll schedule three hours to talk to different partners and they’ll get my undivided attention. You have to stick with the schedule, whether you like it or not, and don’t drift around.”
The exception he makes to this laser focus he has on tasks is when it comes to creative matters. “For creativity, you need time and space. You cannot be creative on demand. You may need to set aside a day and walk around and think. It’s not about just being in front of a piece of paper and coming up with an idea. You may need to go and think a bit, and sleep and wake up with the idea. When you want to get things done, you need to be relentless with execution — do what you need to do when you’re scheduled to do it — but with creativity, you need to let your mind drift.”
With a focused mind that’s also blessed with creativity, his mental acumen has helped Jeyaratnam reach the entry to the pinnacle of his career. He says he is looking forward to the rest of his 50s, which is when most lawyers hit the peak of their prowess. One thing’s for sure — watch out for this legal eagle as he prepares to soar to greater heights.