Christopher is the Managing Director of CHP Law. As a corporate and tax lawyer, he focuses primarily on deal structuring, fund raising, and mergers and acquisitions. In doing so, he is an exponent of advice that reflects practical commerciality and tax sensitivity.
He speaks to us about some of the values and behaviours he believes that young lawyers should aim to possess to best remain relevant and to succeed in the legal industry. In addition, he shares with us his experience of setting up his own firm, which he believes mirrors his alternative approach to practice, and why it is so different compared to the other law firms in Singapore.
What inspired you to decide to set up CHP Law?
Many people out there have this impression that law is complicated and challenging to understand. I set up CHP Law to show that this does not have to be the case. I want to promote a brand of practice that aims to simplify the applicability of law. I believe that in helping people understand the law in a simple manner, they can then make better and more informed decisions.
What does CHP Law believe in?
As a firm, we celebrate diversity in background, personalities and approaches. This diversity is an asset both externally (to our clients) and internally (within the firm). Personally, I really enjoy this diversity and the different views and perspectives it brings. My colleagues are able to provide a different view from what they have gathered from their first degrees or first careers – which interestingly, are not related to law (for example, Finance, Engineering or Medical).
How do you balance being a managing director and a lawyer for CHP Law?
Fortunately for me, I have been blessed with a motivated team that shares the firm’s vision, so it has made my work a lot easier. I am also very thankful for the help my team has provided me on the cases I come upon. The relationship we have has made the “balancing act” a lot easier, so that I can focus on managing the firm and exploring new opportunities while being able to continue to assist my clients effectively.
I think that a team that works well is greater than the sum of what each individual can do.
Are there any skills you find that are transferable?
One of the most important skills that any lawyer should have is the ability to cope with high-pressure situations. I used to tell my mother that I function best under stress and she used to joke that I ONLY function when placed under stress.
I think what is important is developing an awareness of when one feels stress and finding ways to “reset”. One of my personal experiences is that I used to worry whenever I attend a meeting, and I would always check the time to see if I would be late. I would start checking from the minute I started my journey, and this would not stop until I arrived. Somehow, I felt that by checking on the time, I would be able to ensure that I would not be late. The downside to this was that I would get increasingly anxious, and as a result, arrive at my meeting (at the anticipated time) in somewhat of a fluster. I realised that I was not helping anything, as time will not pass any slower even if I kept staring at my phone. To overcome this, I began to read non-work related news updates and listen to music as a form of relaxation – this allowed me to get to my meeting (at the same time) in a much calmer state of mind.
Are there any blind spots that you feel your background in law causes?
I think that lawyers like to think that they know the law very well and that we start to expect our clients to take our word as final. However, in the course of practice, I have learnt that the better lawyers are the ones who talk less and listen more – a lesson that applies to many things in life as well.
What inspired you to study and practice law?
During the army, I was assigned to the SAF counselling centre, and when I was working there, I met people from all walks of life. I really enjoyed being able to talk to different people, lending them a listening ear and working out with them a solution that meets their requirements – similar to what I am doing now as a lawyer.
When I shared my thoughts and goals with my father, who is also a lawyer, he told me about this job that allowed me to do all that, and since he knew of my love for numbers, he told me about being a lawyer. He gave me good advice, never forced me to do anything, but just shared his views and thoughts and afterwards left me to process and analyse them accordingly. I thought about it, he made sense, I went for it, and the rest, as you know it, is history. Of course, in another life I could be a professional poker player or a gamer, but it is what it is.
What continues to drive you as a lawyer now?
In the course of practice, I have come across different styles of practice, and one of my greatest hopes is to be able to influence a small number of lawyers to be able to practice in a way that is synonymous with the firm – to offer practical advice grounded in commercial reality.
However, I never try to force them into taking up my style, as each lawyer has their own unique characteristics and working style, and I never want to change that. I am only looking to share with and impart to them my thought processes, and maybe improve some of their behaviours at work. Essentially, my aim is to coach, not dictate.
Through the years of my career, I have seen many different ways of how legal advice is given From being quite “hands off” where lawyers simply follow the clients’ instructions in a robotic fashion to advice that is geared towards generating more fees instead of fully taking into account the client’s circumstances. My greatest motivation as a lawyer is to be able to tell my clients that I genuinely want to help my clients solve their problems – professionally with their business or even with the issues that crop up in their personal lives.
What challenges do you normally face as a lawyer?
I will talk about challenges I face both externally and internally.
Externally, as a lawyer, what I want from my client is the truth. One of the challenges I face is a reluctance on the part of our clients to provide us with the “whole story” of what happened. This is understandable because it is human nature to fear judgement and that fear often results in them giving half-truths, omitting the less favourable parts, which is not helpful for me. One of the understated roles of a lawyer is to encourage the clients to be open and transparent about their circumstances so we can properly “diagnose”, propose a “treatment plan” and execute the “treatment’ accordingly.
Internally within the firm, the challenge I face is to break down the hierarchical aspect of legal practice, and instead have the team focused on execution and output. Lawyers can be prideful creatures, but within a firm, I believe we have to set our pride aside and work together as a team.
What is the most impactful case you’ve taken?
Interestingly, one of the most impactful cases I’ve taken was a case that was not related to my day-to-day practice as a corporate and tax lawyer. I remember I was referred this case by a friend to help a widow, who was unable to get her “share” of her late husband’s house for several years. Long story short, due to the method of ownership (joint-tenancy between her husband and his brother), the house was transferred to her husband’s siblings instead of her, and they were unwilling to give it to her.
After sharing with her the information, the first question she asked was how much does she have to pay me, to which I replied that since I could not help her get back the money from the flat, I will not charge her a single cent and I even refunded her the deposit.
However, it was her second question that affected me more – she asked me if she approached another lawyer, will she get a different answer. I told her that it was not a matter of the skill of the lawyer, but it was a fact that the law is set, and there is no one person that can change it. What worried me more was that if she went ahead and consulted another lawyer, they might “take advantage” of her situation by giving her false hope.
The lady, despite her old age, was still working and only receives about $1,500 a month, without any other support. She was barely making ends meet by paying for her rental flat and other necessities like transport and food. I advised her to save up, and focus on her wellbeing instead of spending unnecessary money on another lawyer who will get back the same results. I also told her that if she were to approach another lawyer, she should call me and I will accompany her to the meeting free of charge.
While I could see that she was sad and dejected (and understandably so), she appreciated the fact that I could help her out on a goodwill basis. At the very least, she had the certainty to move on from her husband’s flat and have some closure in that respect, and that really had a big impact on me.
What is most rewarding to you about the practice of law?
For myself, it is to see my colleagues who I have been working with grow and develop their skills as a lawyer in both the legal and practice sense. I take immense pride when I see them grow and develop (becoming more independent – handling their own cases and taking care of their clients’ issues on their own) and seeing them achieve success through their own hard work and determination.
What are some tenets which you run your firm by?
Treating everyone equally and with respect is one of the fundamental values I really believe in, whether it is to my clients or to my colleagues. I firmly believe that anyone involved in the firm, be it a lawyer, or secretary, or the cleaner to help make our office look presentable, all have a role to play. No one should ever look down on someone else and treat them badly.
Kindness is another core value too. You can be stern and firm, but it must always be tempered with kindness and respect.
What are some personal values which guide your practice of the law?
Personally, I believe in “saying what you mean”, and “doing what you say”. This lends itself to credibility and trust, which is valuable currency on which lawyers trade on.
If you had the ability to change one aspect or one law, what would it be?
My answer is a little sensitive, but I would like to focus on Singapore’s laws. For myself, I would like to change the law in relation to the death penalty. There is a viewpoint that there are certain crimes that are beyond redemption – like murder, or drug trafficking as its consequences are severe. I understand and acknowledge that these are serious crimes. However, I feel that the judgement of someone’s life (and whether to end it), which is irreversible, cannot be decided by another person. It is not anyone’s job or mandate to end someone’s life. I personally feel that the death sentence should be abolished in Singapore regardless of the crime. Adding onto that, it is very rare but there are occasions that the wrong conclusion was made, and when that person’s life was taken out of a mistake, there is nothing that can be done to reverse time and undo the mistake.
For reference, the Innocence Project is an organization that is focused on wrongful convictions – there are case studies of people who have spent decades in jail, only to be exonerated due to new evidence. If the death penalty was imposed, there is no turning back. There is little use in posthumously restoring that person’s innocence – it does not bring him back to life. In that regard, I think this is the one thing I would hope to see change in Singapore.
How has the practice of law changed since when you first started practising?
The advancement of technology is astounding, and I believe that has influenced our way of conducting business and practice. Moving forward, I also believe that there will be a greater integration of technology with legal processes.
Notwithstanding so, the legal practice continues to retain some of its traditions. Whenever I meet clients, and while exchanging name cards, I will always tell them that there is one detail present on my name card that is not on theirs – a fax number. Fax is still something that we use, and is still common in our system, whereas most of the younger generation now have not used or even seen a fax machine before.
How do you see the future of law changing?
I think if we go back 30 years into the past, and said that we can send a message overseas and get back a reply instantaneously, or that we can send an image but have it disappear in 24 hours, no one will believe it. Yet we have it so integrated into our daily lives now that it is the norm. Technology is something where if you do not adapt and change, you will find yourself moving backwards. In that regard, the automating of systems and leveraging on technology yet still respecting the traditions of the legal industry is important. The legal landscape may not be at the forefront of change compared to other sectors like financial services, however, we cannot resist change and must be open to it by rewiring ourselves to accept it.
Embracing technology will also allow us to create flexible working arrangements, which is not limited to geographical borders anymore. This is not very evident in Singapore yet but we can clearly see that already happening in larger countries like Australia or the USA, where there can be lawyers from many different cities working together like they are physically together.
How are you preparing your firm for these changes?
I think what I mentioned earlier is a small snapshot of what is done, we leverage on new technology that is not present in other firms. Many other law firms use practice management software that has been around for many years. When CHP Law first started out, we too, wondered if we should continue using that software. However, I suggested my team to look for any other technology out there that we have not come across and will allow us to do more. The openness of my team allowed us to venture out and source for newer technology (i.e. Tessaract.io). Of course, there are moments of ups and downs, but I like to think of that as the firm being adventurous and trying new things that have the potential to be better. I earlier also mentioned about flexible working arrangements, which is more relevant through this Covid-19 situation.
What would be your advice for young lawyers just starting out?
Oftentimes the concept of work-life balance is inevitably brought up – many lawyers have come up to me and asked me for my definition of work-life balance. I feel that this is a generational thing. For example, in the previous generations, when a senior lawyer tells you to “jump”, the response would be “how high?”. Now, if you ask the younger lawyers to “jump”, they will respond with “why?”. The legal profession is a demanding profession and without the right motivation, it is easy to question the long hours, and to give up. My advice would be to not think of your job as work but to think of it as an investment in yourself. The time you invest in every new matter and in every new transaction bears fruit in the form of experience and knowledge, which at the end of the day, is yours and only yours alone to keep, to deploy and to wield for the benefit of your clients.
Something that is very important to me is also the concept of paying it forward. I believe that when you are a young lawyer, there will be people who invest time, energy, and emotion in your career. When they see you succeed, they feel a sense of accomplishment and joy. What I want to tell young lawyers, is to not take all this for granted – it is not expected of anyone to do it for you, and in the future, when you are able to do the same for a younger lawyer, you should do what was provided for you and more to create a helpful environment and to build on that positivity. What matters, in the end, is that kindness begets kindness, and in the legal industry that can come off as unkind, we can all provide a little kindness from within.