Cephas vividly remembers a time when he acted on behalf of a wealthy businessman. His business partner had backed out of the deal at the last minute. Upset, the businessman had engaged Cephas to help him recover his monetary losses from the other party.
However, after taking the case, Cephas got the feeling that it wasn’t really about the money at all. “I got the feeling that what he wanted was not the money, but for the other person to say sorry. If the counterparty simply apologised, he would have been quite happy to walk away.”
Although Cephas is a lawyer focusing on corporate disputes, he finds that the problems he deals with in his line of work are often not just legal, but interpersonal in nature.
The ‘feeling’ Cephas mentioned is no other than emotional intelligence, a quality he deems imperative for a lawyer. “The approach I take for each case differs depending on what my client needs.” Seeing the importance of taking time to understand each and every client to provide them with tailored solutions, he advises: “You need to understand and predict the reactions to your actions. Never underestimate human nature, as emotions such as anger and spite can result in people making decisions which may not appear to be in their self-interest.”
When asked to describe himself in a short phrase, it is therefore no surprise that Cephas does not hesitate to call himself a problem solver.
At first glance, this term may seem at odds with the typical image of an aggressive litigator that most likely sprang to mind.
“The stereotypical image of a litigator is one of a bulldog, one who takes no prisoners, and one who tries to make things as difficult as possible for the opposing legal counsel,” he says. “You may have embarrassed the other side and opposing counsel, but this often leads to the other side digging their heels in and hardening their stance. The dispute then becomes much more acrimonious and harder to resolve.”
“There is a time and place for such aggression, but that should not be the default mode of approaching things. The aim of being an advocate is not just to win, but to ensure that your client gets the justice he or she deserves.”
To illustrate this, Cephas remembers advising a client who had lost some money investing in some property projects in Brazil via a Singapore financial institution. “He wanted to make a complaint to the Monetary Authority of Singapore for what he viewed as improper financial practices. When I was reviewing the case, I was unsure if a complaint could be properly sustained as the institution appeared to have covered their bases well. However, through interacting with the opposing side, I felt that if a complaint was made, the financial institution would have no choice but to defend themselves against the regulators. That would have made any settlement difficult, if not impossible, as it would have seemed like an admission of guilt on their part.” he said.
“Thankfully, parties were able to arrive at a compromise and my client received substantial compensation for his losses”.
While acknowledging the merits of adopting a conventional litigator’s approach to cases sometimes, it is clear to Cephas that solutions arising from the legal framework may not always be the best solution there is. Hence, what truly sets Cephas apart is his aptitude in interacting with and uncovering what his client truly wants, and what the best way to help that client is.
“You need to know the law well. That is a given. But the best lawyers are the ones who understand the human element to it.” Indeed, as Cephas effectively manages each unique client who comes his way, he is undoubtedly a true problem-solver.
Appreciating both Theoretical and Practical Law
Although Cephas proposes solutions that may not sometimes be legal in nature, there is no doubt that he enjoys the intellectual rigor that comes with working in the arena of law.
An avid reader of books, Cephas references Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by author Yuval Noah Harari. “One of the most powerful forces in our human society”, he shares, “is the willingness to subscribe to what a company is, and what a company needs.”
As Cephas excitedly shares this intriguing view with us, it is clear that he deeply enjoys the intellectual challenges that come with working in the legal industry: “A company is a legal fiction, but is a necessary fiction for commerce to happen. It is through this fiction that we come up with rules for companies when they transact, profit, borrow, liquidate and so on. The rules that we come up with to accommodate this fiction are sometimes very complicated.”
On the other hand, Cephas’ perception of the law has evolved since his law school days. “I would be lying if I said I knew what legal practice was when I first started.” From a very black-and-white view of the law, it has evolved over the years to one with more grey areas.
“What you may deem to be in your best interest may not necessarily be the case”, he cautions.
Now, Cephas’ experience has taught him other equally important considerations that go beyond legal aspects of right and wrong. “There is always an element of cost. On a greater level, how much are you going to devote your time to do this? Is it worth it to go through the whole legal process? Or shall we just let this go and continue the business?” These insights undoubtedly stem from his many clients and years of being in practice, prompting a more pragmatic and multifaceted view of the law.
Taking the Plunge
Before making partner at Aquinas Law Alliance, Cephas first started at TSMP Law Corporation, followed by Blackoak LLC. Although his past experiences allowed him to gain much exposure, Cephas yearned for something more.
“I wanted to see if I could do this myself. I wanted to build a business and establish relationships with clients myself.” Recognising that the best way forward in the name of professional development was being part of that decision-making process, Cephas took the plunge and became partners with his close friends, Joshua Tan, and more recently Sean Lee at Aquinas Law Alliance. This was exactly what Cephas wanted – something he could take ownership of.
A father of a 9-month old newborn, Cephas appreciates that his position as partner offers him a greater degree of control over his working hours. With the support of his wife, he is therefore able to manage his work-life balance better.
A piece of advice he has for any professional deliberating over prospective choices: “Always bet on yourself. If you don’t, no one else is going to.”
To Young Cephas
Going back to where it all started, I ask Cephas if he would go to law school all over again. Cephas agreed instantly, even offering a piece of advice for his younger self.
Cephas emphasizes the importance of being curious to keep up with the ever changing world.
“Only by forcing yourself to learn about societal changes are you able to advise your clients on things like non-fungible tokens (NFTs), artificial intelligence, decentralised finance (deFi), special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), and so on. The world is changing, and you have to adapt or be left behind”.
In short, being curious about current affairs and trends shapes a lawyer who is up-to-date, and consequently better poised to assist clients.
To Cephas, being a good lawyer requires more than an understanding of the law. You need to understand people, you need to understand society, and you need to keep an open mind — to keep learning, and to seize every opportunity that comes your 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.