Is Arbitration changing the game of dispute resolution? In this interview, Syazana Yahya, a newly promoted partner at Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, shared with us the unique features of arbitration and her views on the pro bono work and the future legal landscape.
Syazana is a commercial and criminal disputes lawyer with experience in shipping and oil & gas international arbitration matters. She is also an impressive litigator who pursued victories for her clients in complex and/or high profile cases in the Singapore courts.
In addition to her commercial practice, Syazana is a strong advocate of pro bono work and she regularly takes on cases with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.
Could you share with our readers what inspired you to be a lawyer?
To be honest, I initially never considered lawyering as a career option even though I entered law school. I choose to do Law because I did well for my ‘A’ levels and I thought a law degree would give rise to opportunities in different fields.
I only seriously considered building up my interest to practice as a lawyer some years ago when I started my work. I realised that advocacy is quite fun and I am not too bad at it. That spurred me to pursue law as a career.
Many of my peers are like me, where we joined law school without the serious intentions of wanting to be a lawyer. However, I do feel that the interest for law can be developed and fine tuned over time as we study and practice law, and you grow your ambition to be established in this industry.
Having practice arbitration, what are some aspects of arbitration that you enjoy?
Arbitration is fundamentally different from litigation, in the sense that arbitration is premised on party autonomy. As a result, parties are free to choose and decide where and how they want to have their proceedings conducted and heard.
For example, we were recently involved in a “documents-only” arbitration, which is quite unheard of in civil litigation. The arbitrator was given the option to decide the dispute based on the documents submitted and without a hearing. We were able to get a successful award from that proceeding. The clients were satisfied because they were able to get a favourable award in a timely and cost-efficient manner.
There is also bilingual and trilingual arbitration, which is particularly useful for disputes arising out of Southeast Asian projects. That level of flexibility that comes with the party autonomy keeps arbitration dynamic and interesting.
Do you believe arbitration can be significant across multiple areas of law, why or why not?
I believe that there is potential for arbitration to expand into other areas of law. Currently, it is very centred on commercial disputes. In other jurisdictions, they have arbitration for family cases. Although this has not taken off in Singapore yet, I think that it is possible to explore having arbitration as an option for other types of disputes.
The elements of party autonomy and confidentiality in arbitration are particularly suited for family law matters, where the proceedings can be tailored to suit the family-centric needs and avoid having the family drama played out in open court.
Between your civil-commercial practice and criminal practice, do you have a preference, and is one more complex than the other?
I do not have a preference as these two areas engage different skills. For commercial litigation and arbitration, the challenge is to get into the technical facts and think of creative ways of advancing our arguments. Whereas criminal law tests me in terms of trial advocacy, on how you elicit the facts from the witnesses at the trial.
The two areas are challenging in different ways, and neither one is more complex than the other. I would think that the skill sets honed in the two areas complement each other and enhance my competency as a lawyer.
In addition to arbitration, you do pick up pro bono work. What do you feel is the most challenging aspect about doing pro bono work?
I personally feel that time management is essential. There are competing considerations between the needs of the firm; the needs of the paying clients; and the needs of your pro bono work, and we have to be realistic when we want to take on pro bono work.
Your paying clients have certain expectations and demands of you and that cannot be compromised simply because you pick up pro bono work. At the same time, if you decide to pick up pro bono work, you have the responsibility to handle the cases well.
I take on about 2 to 3 pro bono cases at each given time, in addition to my original workload. When I take on pro bono work, I treat them like a paying client, so I do not want to take on more than I can manage and compromise on my work quality.
In your opinion, what kind of mindset should lawyers aspiring to pro bono work have?
There are many answers to this, but personally, the most important thing is to have a growth mindset. When you take on these cases, it is an opportunity for you to learn and at the same time, to utilise the experiences that you have gained from private practice and give back.
Furthermore, I think it is important to recognise the responsibility you have to the pro bono cases. It is a promise that you are making to the client when you decide to take on their file.
In your opinion, what are some notable legal issues or areas in the near future ?
Given the weaker economic climate and conditions, we would likely see an increase in the number of corporate rescue actions coming to courts. More companies would be looking towards debt restructuring schemes to help manage their creditors, so this will be a growing area of law.
There are also recent changes to the insolvency regime to make it more debtor-friendly, so this is another interesting area of law that we should pay attention to.
Lastly, what do you think are the three things that have led to your success to make partner?
First, having the support from God and my family. Without their support, I would not be able to be where I am today.
Second, having the right attitude. I think sheer perseverance and grit support me to this day. The learning curve at the start of my career was very steep and, quite frankly, there were many moments that I wanted to quit. Somehow, I convinced myself, time and again, to persevere and I stayed on.
There will be a lot of downs in the first few years of your career. What is important is to take those lessons as learning opportunities for your professional growth, whether or not you want to take this all the way and build up your own practice.
Third, finding the right mentor for yourself. I managed to find a great place to work. Eugene has been a very good mentor who has supported me since day one and given me countless opportunities to grow and advance my career and reputation in this industry.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.