In Conversation with Lawyers from Allen & Overy’s Society of East Asian Lawyers (SEAL)
Godwin Tan, Kiuree Kim and Justin Tan speak about their experience working at a Magic Circle firm as international students who pursued careers in the UK. The three are committee members of A&O SEAL, a group that aims to build a community for staff with East Asian / Southeast Asian heritage or an interest in East Asia.
Associate, International Arbitration
Associate, Corporate M&A
Trainee Solicitor, International Arbitration
On their Experience Working at Allen & Overy (A&O):
Why did you decide to start your legal careers in the UK as opposed to your home countries?
Justin – I first came to the UK for university. After a few years, I thought it made sense to start my career here, primarily to experience the breadth and quality of legal work that London has to offer. It is difficult to find a similar quality of legal deals and cases anywhere else in the world. I was also keen to broaden my horizons by working overseas and experiencing a different style of working culture after having been in Singapore all my life.
Godwin – I made my decision for similar reasons. As Justin said, there are many sound reasons to start your legal career in London, especially at a global elite firm. The training contract (TC) is also a good way to experience different departments and teams before specialising in an area.
What attracted you to A&O?
Godwin – I wanted to join a leading firm with a strong global reputation and an emphasis on quality training and innovation. A&O fitted the bill. It was also important to me that I liked working with the people I met at the firm. Ultimately, you could join the best firm in the world but if there is no one willing to mentor you and sponsor your career, it would be difficult to progress significantly. Before accepting the TC offer, I discussed my options with senior members of the firm. A partner convinced me to join A&O; he was keen to teach me the ropes and made me feel like I would be a valued member of the team. The associate I worked with during my vacation scheme also wrote me a card in Singlish, and we had many candid conversations about his career at the firm and elsewhere. All of these factors contributed to my decision to join the firm.
Justin – I did a vacation scheme at A&O, and I found the firm to be forward-looking, inclusive and supportive. The range and quality of work is excellent, and there is an emphasis on delivering good training (which is not the case in all law firms).
Godwin sharing his A&O experiences with university students at a recent SEAL networking event.
What is the working environment at A&O like, e.g. working hours, office culture, etc?
Kiuree – I find that A&O has a very high-achieving and collaborative environment. I really respect the people that I work with, and that makes the job rewarding despite the intensity of the work. In terms of hours, I’ve found that they have increased after I qualified as an associate because I take on more responsibility and have a more leading role in transactions. But the increased responsibility is balanced by more stimulating work, client contact, and also increased flexibility and control over my workload.
Justin – So far, so good! You can expect some late nights when a case or deal is ramping up, but, on the whole, I think the hours have been manageable. People are generally supportive of my commitments outside work – I generally flag to my team when I have plans in advance and it’s rare for me to have to cancel.
How has COVID-19 affected your working environment at A&O?
Kiuree – I started my training contract at A&O before COVID so I had the chance to work in the office five days a week, and it was a very different experience to work remotely for the remaining portion of my TC. Finding the right team fit is important in your choice of qualification, so I did find that it was more difficult to build those connections and build a social relationship, not just a working relationship, with people. However, the new flexibility that has come from the situation has been incredibly beneficial and it has definitely improved the working environment.
Justin – Most firms are pivoting towards a hybrid approach, whereby lawyers spend some days working from home and some days in the office. The current policy at A&O is to spend a minimum of three days in the office every week. As a junior lawyer, starting out was more difficult as I had to figure out a lot of things on my own in the midst of lockdown. Now that offices have reopened, I’m happy to spend a lot more time in the office and reaching out to people, to counteract the social inertia from months of working from home!
Godwin – Indeed, it is fortunate that many law firms have sufficiently advanced infrastructure and technology in place to enable widespread remote working. The pandemic has shown us that we can and should encourage flexible and remote working arrangements, even at the junior end.
Attendees digging into delicious food at the recent SEAL Lunar New Year Lunch 2022, following the lifting of some COVID restrictions.
How tech-forward do you think law firms will be post-pandemic?
Kiuree – The past few years have highlighted the importance of being tech-savvy in order to make remote and hybrid working possible without hampering efficiency. A&O has always been focused on legal technology and they will continue to push forward in this area, as will other firms.
Justin – Law firms like A&O are definitely embracing the use of technology to mitigate the difficulties caused by COVID. I have personally seen and used an increasing amount of LegalTech, like DocuSign, Legatics, RelativityOne, and StructureFlow. Some of these tools can really save hours or even days of administrative work, which is a lifesaver. Clients are also increasingly receptive to the use of LegalTech because it reduces costs and increases efficiency.
In your opinion, what makes a good vacation scheme student / trainee?
Kiuree – People don’t expect vacation scheme students or trainees to have any technical or legal knowledge, as you will naturally pick that up during the course of your career. It is far more important to come in open-minded and eager to learn, and with a good attitude where you treat everybody with respect (whether it’s a partner, trainee, or PA). As a trainee, a piece of advice that served me well was to think of the associates and partners as “clients” as much as the actual client – it is your job to make things easier not just for the company, but for your internal team.
Godwin – I agree. I think that knowledge and expertise can be picked up along the way and on the job, so the first thing I look out for in a vacation scheme student or a trainee is a positive attitude.
How much does academic excellence translate to being good in practice?
Justin – I wouldn’t say it’s an exact match. I know plenty of people who performed excellently in their studies but haven’t done as well as a lawyer, or vice versa. It is always helpful to know the law well, but being a good lawyer requires you to also apply your legal knowledge in a very commercial and practical way, to solve real-world legal problems.
Godwin – It also depends on the practice area. Academic excellence (in the study of law) will matter more, and have more relevance, in certain practice areas.
[To Godwin] Why did you decide to pursue further studies at Cambridge? Do you think that getting a Master’s has substantively differentiated you as a lawyer?
Godwin – I enjoyed reading law at UCL and was encouraged by my lecturers and tutors to pursue a Master’s degree at Cambridge. They saw some potential in my essays and could tell that I would enjoy the cut and thrust of sharp legal discourse at Cambridge. As an undergraduate student, I was also already interested in international arbitration and issues in private and public international law, which made Cambridge an obvious choice.
The Master’s degree has helped my career as an arbitration lawyer. Perhaps this is because I studied subjects that I knew were going to be relevant to my practice, such as international investment law, international commercial litigation and international financial law. Over the course of the past few years, I have tapped on what I learnt in every one of the subjects I took during the Master’s programme.
That being said, I don’t think a Master’s degree is necessary to be a ‘good’ disputes lawyer. I have outstanding colleagues who come from non-law disciplines. You can always learn new areas or topics of law during legal practice and, oftentimes, clients are looking for practical solutions rather than a thorough understanding of the relevant academic debate. As a rule of thumb, students should only opt to further their studies if they have a strong interest in academic law.
[To Kiuree] Why did you decide to practise law instead of economics? What was the transition like?
Kiuree – The vast majority of my peers from my Economics degree went on to work in finance, consulting and accounting. I also considered going into one of these fields but after attending a range of graduate events, I realised that I was more drawn to the linguistic nature of law (rather than the numerical nature of economics) and I appreciated that being a lawyer was a qualified profession.
The transition was very easy as the Graduate Diploma in Law is a well-trodden path (although noting that it is being phased out), and I have never found that my non-law degree has hindered me in any way. Going back to the question on the link between academic excellence and work excellence, in my personal experience, there is little correlation between academic background and being good in practice.
On Diversity and Inclusion at A&O:
[To Godwin] What was your inspiration and motivation to co-found the Society of East Asian Lawyers (SEAL)?
Godwin – It all started with food! It was my first time working in the UK during the Lunar New Year festivities, and I wanted to hold a proper Lunar New Year celebration, i.e. complete with delicious food and auspicious decorations. At the time, I also noticed that the East Asian and South East Asian communities had grown significantly in the London office, so it felt opportune to have a society like SEAL, which brings together those who have East Asian heritage or who are interested in East Asian culture. I was inspired by the firm’s U.S. Asian Affinity Network and the London Black Lawyers Affinity Group (BLAG), and was well supported by those groups in the early stages of SEAL.
The inaugural SEAL Lunar New Year Lunch event in 2020.
[To Godwin] What challenges did you face when setting up SEAL?
Godwin – It wasn’t difficult to set up SEAL. The firm has had a long history of supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives, and the wider Race and Ethnicity Committee was delighted to support the formation of our society. My supervisor at the time, a Senior Associate in the arbitration team and a committee member of BLAG, helped to present my sponsorship proposal to the Committee, and we received approval within a couple of weeks. I guess you could say that we collaborated to ‘SEAL’ the deal.
The real challenge is running and growing SEAL, alongside a busy portfolio of cases. This is why I am grateful to the contributions of all the other members (partners, associates and trainees) of the SEAL Committee.
The SEAL Committee at a recent committee dinner.
What kind of support does SEAL provide, e.g. career growth opportunities, upskilling opportunities, etc?
Kiuree – SEAL has been an invaluable resource to connect me to people across the firm who come from similar backgrounds. It’s important to build a community at work and have relationships with people whom you may not directly work with. If you are the only person of colour in your team and don’t have peers or role models with whom you can relate to, being part of the SEAL community can help bridge that gap. It’s also a social space without the pressure to perform, which is an invaluable respite from the intensity of work.
Justin – SEAL was very helpful for me as a new lawyer finding my feet in the legal industry. It provided a sense of community within the firm, and also served as a platform for us to ask questions about common issues that we were all facing (e.g. trying to fly back home amid COVID restrictions). As a more junior lawyer, there are also invaluable opportunities for me to speak to and seek advice from the more senior lawyers I meet at SEAL events.
Justin and Kiuree giving a welcome speech during the recent SEAL Lunar New Lunch 2022.
Over the past few years, do you feel that there has been any improvement in terms of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession?
Godwin – The legal industry in London cares a lot more about racial and ethnic diversity right now than it did, say, ten years ago. As a community, I think we have benefited from recent social movements and the long-standing diversity initiatives across the pond, including the relatively recent Stop Anti-Asian Hate campaigns. People within the firm are willing to have open conversations about these issues, and there are many allies keen to support the cause. While there is still some way to go, we are beginning to see significant improvements in terms of the diverse make-up of our trainees and junior lawyers.
Kiuree – The firm is certainly very focused on promoting diversity in a number of different areas and is supportive of initiatives like SEAL. As Godwin says, there is still a lot of work to be done, but I think the change will become more pronounced as the younger generation moves up the ranks and continues to keep this discussion front and centre.
What are your future plans for SEAL?
Godwin – I hope we will continue to grow as a society and have a genuine impact on the experiences and careers of our members. Unlike the many initiatives that have fizzled out during the pandemic, SEAL has gone from strength to strength. We started with four members and currently have over 90 members. We also have a full calendar of social and professional events for our members now. It is important to keep up this momentum in order to remain an integral part of the East Asian and South East Asian experience at A&O.
Applying to Magic Circle firms/A&O is a daunting process for students, let alone those not from the UK. Do you have any advice for international law students applying to such firms, and how we may leverage our position as international students in our applications?
Godwin – Seek tailored advice from seniors or peers who have been through the process and obtained offers. Share your application responses with people you trust in order to get constructive feedback. Invest the time to really understand the firm that you are applying to by reaching out to trainees or associates on LinkedIn and having, say, a short call with them to gain first-hand insight into the firm. Have an effective elevator pitch that properly highlights your distinct traits and what you can bring to the table. Recognise that your background and experiences in your home countries are strengths rather than weaknesses. Tune in to Allen & Overy Launch: The Careers Podcast for more tips on acing applications and interviews.
Justin – Don’t be afraid to emphasise the qualities and traits that make you different from the average applicant. Law firms like A&O are keen to hire a diverse range of people, and standing out from the crowd can very much be a unique selling point! During my interview, I mentioned that I had served two years of military service in Singapore, and that became a good talking point.