Law is a business.
This is one of the first things Joshua shares with me, just three minutes into our interview.
Two or three decades earlier, this matter-of-fact utterance would have raised eyebrows and blood pressures, and sent senior lawyers within earshot spewing diatribes in defence of the sanctity of the legal profession.
But to Joshua, this statement is no slight.
“Law is a business. Even if you’re running a professional services firm, as long as you are being paid to deliver a product or service, that’s a business.”
But as a lawyer, why does Joshua place such a premium on business savvy?
IN-HOUSE: A ‘CUSHIER’ LIFESTYLE?
Even before he went to law school, Joshua always knew that he wanted to be involved in business. Corporate and commercial law, then, seemed like a natural specialisation for him.
“I definitely had a passion for business and for creating value,” he shares. “And I saw [becoming a corporate lawyer] as a way of getting involved with a broad spectrum of different industries. At the same time, I would be able to develop important knowledge, skills and experience in certain very key aspects of business, like negotiation and structuring. That’s why I chose law over another professional degree like, say, accounting.”
But while he was an associate at TSMP Law Corporation, Joshua felt like he needed to get even more involved with the business world.
“Back at TSMP, I worked very closely with Stefanie Yuen Thio and learnt a great deal from her. Especially the important business and commercial value that a lawyer brings to the table. From the outset, both she and I knew that my priority was to run a business. But at that point, I had not fully understood the true nature of legal practice as a business, and instead saw moving to an in-house legal counsel role as the natural transition from law to the business world.”
While the story of law firm associates being lured over to the supposedly greener pastures of in-house is a tale as old as time, the twist in Joshua’s story is what makes it a novel one: after realising that life as an in-house legal counsel was not for him, he returned to private practice.
“I quickly realised that as in-house counsel, you’re limited in how much you can drive the business. You take on more of a supporting role and become what is often referred to as a ‘cost centre’ instead of a revenue generator. I realised I was most driven when I had more control over how much I worked and how I was remunerated.
“Even if an in-house role pays you really well, I believe it would be hard for some to be well-motivated when you’re not driving the business. Whereas in running a private practice, I take control over how I work. I get involved in many different industries, which naturally leads to building strong networks to create value both for myself and my network. That drives me, and that’s why I decided to go back and run a private practice.”
So is life as an in-house counsel really ‘cushier’, as everyone seems to think?
“You can say it’s ‘cushier’ in terms of hours. But for me, it wasn’t about the hours. I wanted to drive a business and take full control over my career. Now, I work way more hours, but it’s so much more satisfying.”
BEYOND LEGAL ADVICE, OFFER COMMERCIAL LEGAL ADVICE
But Joshua doesn’t deny that his in-house stint has taught him important lessons, lessons that have shaped the kind of corporate lawyer he is today.
One of his greatest takeaways has been the importance of understanding commercial and practical considerations such as stakeholder management, when dispensing legal advice.
As a lawyer in legal practice, stakeholder management was less often on the forefront of Joshua’s mind. But when he transitioned to working in-house, he found that it was now one of the biggest considerations in any legal advice he offered.
This is how he explains it:
“When you’re starting out in legal practice, you don’t see all the stakeholders involved in a client’s decision-making process. You would likely view your role as a lawyer to be confined to just advising your client on the law. But when you’re in-house, it becomes very apparent that an organisation has many stakeholders, both external and internal. This would often be unseen to an external legal adviser. It helped me realise the importance of partnering with your client, to properly understand their commercial and practical considerations. This includes understanding the stakeholders they have to manage. You have to put yourself in their shoes in order to give proper commercial legal advice.”
It’s something he has carried with him, back to the realm of private practice.
“As a law firm partner, you must keep in mind the stakeholders of your clients in order to give them advice that helps them to meet their commercial goals. Because the start-up founder, investor or business owner you’re advising also needs to think about their shareholders, their employees, or about how their company would be positioned from a PR standpoint. You have to think about all of these things when you’re giving them advice.”
“If you, as the lawyer with the experience in this field, don’t address these key considerations when you’re advising them, and subsequently it creates a problem – you can’t try and shrug it off as not being your role to address these just because they are not strictly ‘law-related’. That’s not the way legal practice should work.”
Which is why Joshua believes that corporate lawyers and law firms have to embrace a more business-minded approach to practice. Lawyers can’t just rest on their laurels and dispense theoretical legal advice; they should offer advice that is contextualised.
“When people go to lawyers, they’re usually not just looking for legal compliance sign-offs. They’re there to get commercially-sound legal advice. If you don’t have a foundational understanding of business, and a client comes to you for advice, you waste valuable time trying to wrap your head around their commercial concerns and may even miss the point and give advice that isn’t of real value. Our aim as corporate and commercial lawyers should always be to deliver that value to our clients.”
RELATIONSHIPS ARE IMPORTANT
When he’s not working, much of Joshua’s free time is spent not just with family and childhood friends, but also new friends he has made over the course of his career.
Joshua places great importance on establishing strong relationships with the people he works with. While talking about his downtime, Joshua spoke of grabbing regular drinks with “clients, friends, and clients who became friends”.
I also asked the savvy start-up lawyer for an important piece of advice he would give to aspiring start-up founders who might be reading this article. Joshua stressed the importance of building good relationships with fellow founders, especially those who are going through or have gone through similar journeys, with whom they can speak freely and openly about their challenges. And to eventually do the same for other newer founders.
“It’s just so much more effective to learn from other founders’ experiences on the legal challenges they have faced, rather than to simply hear from a lawyer on the different problems that could arise. You can most likely understand the risks that a lawyer tells you about in concept. But until you’ve heard a direct experience from someone you know, that experience will not really sit with you. When you hear it as someone else’s real-life experience, it becomes a lot more visceral. That’s why I strongly encourage and value the sharing of experiences between business owners.”
So Joshua stands by his assessment that law is a business. And as with any business, it’s all about the give and take. He doesn’t have the regular nine-to-five working hours of an in-house counsel; he works to his clients’ schedules, and his clients respect his hours in turn. He delivers contextualised advice to them on how to run their businesses, and they respect his rates because they understand that as a lawyer, he’s also running a business.
Because he’s one of them. As Joshua himself sums up:
“At the end of the day, as businesses, we’re all there to help each other create value. And hopefully, make some great relationships along the way!”
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.