What have been some of the big trends you have witnessed in the litigation space – either in your jurisdiction or regionally – in the past year?
In the past year we saw a sharp increase in high-value disputes work with numerous industries under stress. In particular, there has been a significant increase in cross-border, joint venture disputes coming out of developing countries in the region. This led to more litigation in the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) as well as the Singapore High Court. In addition, there has been an increase in insolvency-related litigation especially as the Singapore Courts have positioned themselves as a forum for insolvent corporate restructurings.
This increase in work has of course been in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in many disputes being heard virtually. As a result, the past year has seen technology embraced and deployed to great effect both in the presentation of clients’ cases in Court, and in enabling collab-oration between lawyers, experts, and clients who may not all be in the same place.
How have your relationships with your clients evolved over the last few months? What are you doing differently as a result of the pandemic, and do you expect this to continue in the near future?
The pandemic has obviously created a lot of uncertainty, so clients have been reaching out much more and with somewhat unique problems. I have spent a great deal more time with clients brain-storming solutions and plotting a course through disputes which is both legally sound and practical in the present climate.
What would you say are the most important attributes of successful litigators today? How much of this is trained/developed by the firms these litigators are with?
Integrity has to be top of the list as Judges are quick to discern which counsel they can trust. Secondly, one has to have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the law and life. Legal knowledge is vital but it must be married with a deep understanding of people, commerce, and cultures. Thirdly, one needs a good work ethic and a healthy appetite for a challenge. One should prepare thoroughly, speak clearly, listen carefully, and be tenacious. Much of this can be developed by firms which are interested in growing litigators as opposed to associates. I would much rather be accompanied in court by aspiring litigators than colleagues who do not picture themselves making the argument one day.
What is your advice for aspiring young litigators looking to enter the profession today?
Commit yourself to the process of becoming a great litigator. Let that be one of the most important things in your life so that you approach it with commitment and passion. Leave space for other things in your life of course but make this one of your top three priorities. Few people become great litigators accidentally.
Can you tell us about some of your notable work in the past year?
I have been acting as lead counsel for Hin Leong Trading’s judicial managers in the largest reported fraud trading case in Singapore, seeking recovery of over US$3.5 billion from the directors of the company. The dispute includes claims of fabrication of gains, forgery of documents and manipulation of accounts to conceal massive losses sustained by the company over many years. This marks the collapse of one of the world’s largest oil and commodities trading companies.
I am also representing Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former Prime Minster of Georgia, and his family in a claim against a professional trustee for breach of trust leading to losses in an investment portfolio worth over US$1 billion.
I also acted for the Plaintiff in an action in the High Court and in the Court of Appeal concerning investments in oil concessions in Papua New Guinea. The claims and counterclaims total almost US$700 million and involve complex cross-border issues with concurrent proceedings in Singapore and the United States.
How did COVID-19 impact your litigation practice? How did you look to overcome the changes?
When the Singapore government announced “circuit breaker measures” in April 2020, which saw enhanced social distancing and isolation measures for a month, the Singapore Courts promptly adjusted to have the majority of hearings held virtually. This ensured that the Singapore Courts continued to hear and decide cases. The administration of judice continued and tech-savvy counsel were able to quickly shift into another gear and continue fighting their clients’ cases, albeit in a slightly different environment. After the “circuit breaker” period was over, the Courts continued to use a mix of socially distanced in-person hearings and fully virtual hearings. This has been incredibly effective in ensuring that cases continue to be heard and that justice is not delayed.
As someone who likes technology, it did not take much to switch gears and adjust to virtual hearings. I very quickly found myself cross-examining witnesses via Zoom and addressing the Court of Appeal from the comfort of my own home. The bigger challenge was ensuring that work was not done by me or my team in an individualistic and isolated manner. Ensuring a high level of collab-oration between all members of the litigation team, even though we could not all be in the office together, was critical to ensuring that the quality of our work for clients was maintained.
How would you describe your courtroom strategy?
My strategy is to do everything possible to get at the truth; to dig it out if it is hidden and to expose it. Some litigators fear this because the truth does not always favour your client. But if one has interrogated one’s case thoroughly there shouldn’t be any surprises. And the most forceful case is always the one which a Judge can see is built on candour and honesty.
Clients today have higher requirements when it comes to the services they receive from their lawyers.
Clients are demanding but that is understandable especially when they have a dispute. Their case is often the crisis of their lives and they will put aside all other things so that they can focus on solving the problem. Clients want lawyers who approach their case with the same type of focus and zeal. I try to do that but without losing my objectivity.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
My mother always told me to just do my best one day at a time. It has worked for me so far.