Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Future is not Future-Proof

During lunch on Thursday, I had a chat with one of my LLM classmates. She asked me what I was doing in Santa Clara when I didn't have (i) a scholarship and (ii) sponsorship for my degree.

In my head there was only one answer. "My future."

That would have been the simple and misleading answer - it would have raised assumptions that I was here to improve my career prospects, and I'm not -solely- here to advance my career.

I told her as much of the story as I felt I needed to. I told her about my wife coming here for 5 years. I told her that leaving her for 5 years was unthinkable. I told her that it was a small sacrifice to leave my job and come here to improve myself. I told her about how I was here on savings and family money, and how I needed to ration my money. I told her about how guilty I felt about taking family money, and how important it was for me to do well in school. I told her all this and I realise now that this was still misleading.

I can't tell her the full story, because I'm not sure I know the full story - and it's my story to boot.

My wife is here for 5 years. That's the only constant I have for the next 5 years. If I am truly as future oriented as Mr Wang makes Ennegram 5 types out to be, I should not, rationally, have made this trip. Yet, here I am. I don't know what is going to happen after my LLM ends.

Yet, it is the future-orientation that drove me to this decision - when loved ones are apart, they grow apart. It is natural. They lack shared experiences. I cannot imagine being apart from my wife for 5 years. She will be a different woman when she returns. I will be a different man.

My wife had a wonderful opportunity to do what she wanted in Berkeley. She would have been foolish to turn it down, and I know that if she turned it down it would have affected our relationship - I know she wouldn't blame me, but I would blame myself for causing her to miss this chance. It was for her future that I am here. It was for our future that I am here. But what about my future? What am I to do here?

I often overstate my case when I say I sacrificed a promising career in law to be with my wife. The truth is probably that I sacrificed a career in law to be with my wife - the way I see it, there is nothing promising left about legal practice in Singapore. The market has played itself out. Sure, there will be adjustments over the long term, but these adjustments, logically, affect those without the wealth and power to protect themselves, i.e, young lawyers like myself.

In short, I've seen my future in Singapore legal practice, and I do not like it.

I have, in effect, only one choice left - wipe the slate clean, and see what other possibilities I can develop. That decision was what lead me here. I did not like my future, and I've done what I can to change it. In many ways, I'm -still- doing what I can to change it.

I now count pennies to make sure that my money lasts - I am afraid that spending on luxuries now will mean not having money for rent and food later. I wake up early mornings and commute from Berkeley to Santa Clara - 98 miles there and back daily. I read my cases. I study, and return home to cook, clean and sleep. I'd like to tell myself I'm studying hard, and my classmates are impressed with my dilligence, but I always feel like I should be doing more. I know I goof off to blog, comment, and play computer games.

I don't know what will happen to me in a year's time. That's the scariest thing that I've ever done. In a year's time, if I don't get a job, it will mean choosing between leaving my wife and taking more family money to continue studies. Either way, I will have lost on my own terms.

Perhaps that is what drives me now - not knowing what the future will bring. This drive, this bundle of love/guilt/hope, this feeling and knowing in your heart that tomorrow will bring something better, this small prayer that I'm not just in self-denial, that's what drives me.

My future.


The Legal Janitor said...


I think it is far more noble to pursue something difficult and unknown than to stick with the beaten path.

Even more so when your choice is made with love in mind. I agree that you made the right choice in going to SC with your wife.

I also agree with your prognosis of the legal industry in Singapore. I might not have worked in any firms back home, but I know plenty of acquaintances who do.

The vast majority of them cannot see beyond the desire to be wealthy and powerful, and for that wealth and power to be an end in itself.

Those who have higher aspirations, or wish for something more, do not intend to make the law a long-term career option.

I argue that social mobility in Singapore is becoming more and more difficult to achieve, given the many societal and institutional barriers in place. It would be easier for one to 'make it' from the outside than from within.

Thus I believe that you have started on a path that is more likely to give you opportunity and hope.

I hope you do well. =)

Anonymous said...

good luck! maybe you can get a job as a paralegal in a law firm after your studies while you study for the Calif bar.

Anthony said...


I don't know whether it is love, clinginess or fear that drove me to my decision to be with my wife. The first is noble, the last two may not be.

The -real- problem with the legal profession, as I see it in Singapore, is that there is a tiny market for noble causes. Few will pay you even a subsistence wage to do that which is right - at least where law is concerned.

The sad thing about many young singapore law practioners is their drive to make partner. My question to them is - okay, once you make partner, then what? The only time you'll make serious money AS a partner is when all the well-known senior partners die off or retire. This money you make will be far less than the money these senior partners made - the lack of interest of Singapore as a market for legal services and the increasing stagnation of Singapore's economy will eliminate any perceived earnings they will have.

I agree with the point on social mobility with nothing to add.

The thing that scares me, Shianux, is that I also recognise that things aren't going to be easy here either. I know that there's discrimination on hiring LLM students as opposed to JD students. Hence, my studying like a madman, and doing 7 million things. I need to make it absolutely clear to employers that if you -don't- take me, it will be SOLELY because of the discrimination and nothing else.

Mr Wang Says So said...


I agree that the horizon is mostly doom and gloom for Singapore lawyers working in Singapore law firms.

But there are alternatives!

The presence of foreign law firms in Singapore has been growing and increasingly they are more receptive to hiring Singaporean lawyers.

Also, there is always the inhouse option.

Mr Wang works inhouse for an investment bank, gets investment banking type of bonuses (superior to law firm bonuses, I assure you), and still enjoys family-friendly working hours!

Finally, although Singapore is a small legal market, there are Singapore-based options where you expand your legal horizons beyond Singapore. For example, Mr Wang's role is regional in nature and he watches over Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

Asia is growing ... Singapore itself stagnates but if you make your way into a regional (Asian) role, your skills and knowledge are highly marketable.

Finally, in the bigger scheme of things, there are 3 viable ways to think about jobs:

(1) A job should pay the bills and be meaningful and interesting to you; OR

(2) A job should pay the bills so that you don't worry about money when you pursue meaningful and interesting things outside your working hours; OR

(3) A job should pay the bills and be meaningful and interesting to you; AND give you room to pursue OTHER mneaningful and interesting things outside working hours.

Anthony said...

Mr Wang,

I've worked an inhouse position in a small telco. The inhouse position is something that is highly dependent on the company itself - some are really good (mostly banking jobs) but some are really crummy. It's very much an issue of luck.

And no, foreign law firms generally don't hire unless you've been educated overseas and have some "brand name" on your resume - neither of which I have. It may be different when I return but for now things are very much doom and gloom for me.

Lastly, I rank my jobs very much in the way you've set out. Law is more a profession for me tha a way of live - given a choice, I'd much rather be designing fantasy worlds for computer games.

Given that it's not at option at the moment, I do the best I can.

Ivan Chew said...

Anthony, I was going to drop you a private message but since I can't find your email, here goes:

I only know you via the blog. From what I read, whatever the reason you chose to be where you are right now, you qualify to have "manberries of steel", if not titanium (i.e. your previous post). At least in my book.

But I would think having steel cajones is not as important as having a strong heart.

Scottish writer W.H. Murray (The Scottish Himalayan Expedition) wrote: "That moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too."

I only know what Murray wrote. What do I know? You, IMHO, are living it. : )

Anthony said...


Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I get the distinct feeling people are more confident of my own motivations than I am of my own.

I'm honestly not sure what to think of my motivation to leave Singapore. I'm not sure if it's strength or weakness, courage or cowardice. And because I don't know, I don't know if my future will break me.

Mr Wang Says So said...

No, no, Anthony - things are changing;

foreign law firms in Singapore ARE becoming more receptive to Singaporean-qualified lawyers (and with hindsight, I think it was a matter of time - after all the formal alliances, joint ventures etc, they feel familiar enough with Sing lawyers).

I just had Allen & Overy (ie the real Allen & Overy, not their Singapore JV partner) indicating interest in me (I won't be exploring this - do not wish to return to practice);

there have also been cases of Linklaters poaching young lawyers from their Singapore partner A&G, etc etc.

But you do have to have a nice resume.

Slinky said...

Anthony, this post really struck a chord. I know exactly how you feel. The guilt about ahving to ask for money from your parents, check. Striking out in the unknown, check. The only difference is that you are going for love, and for yourself. The scariest thing is that I'm going for myself. As for the rest, I don't know...

Anthony said...

Mr Wang,

Really? I spoke to a few law career guidance types just before I left for the State - they told me that the demand for S'pore lawyers by offshore firms is still lukewarm at best.

I think the difference may be our PQE - I think you're a few years ahead? If that's the case then maybe it could explain the differences in our experiences.

My take is that to get to your level of PQE is going to be increasingly difficult while still maintaining any sort of QC on the work you get.


It's not easier with the decision you have to make. It's even tougher, and takes more courage. Sometimes you can't take too long to make that decision or you will ultimately wuss out and take the more cowardly choice - whichever that may be.

KnightofPentacles said...

I do not know anything of the state (and future) of the legal profession in Singapore.

However I used to watch quite a bit of movies. (And you know what critics say about life reflecting art..)

And now I can totally empathise with the disaster/war scenes where upon facing certain disaster, the protaganist chooses to undertake calculated action (no matter how seemingly futile), instead of just huddling in a corner whimpering and awaiting the certain end.

Like you said so yourself, Anthony. Sometimes you get to slay the dragon, sometimes the dragon gets a tasty snack. But it sure beats hiding in a cave and hoping the dragon will pass you by while you painfully starve to death..

Anthony said...


Thanks man. From you I take that as a compliment of the highest order. I hope things are well in Australia for you.

Cowboy Caleb said...

What a horrible decision to have to make and abide by. Dude, you are a better man then I.

Hail Anthony!

Anthony said...

Cowboy Caleb,

I don't have to make that decision yet. I pray I don't have to.

Mythical said...

I feel for you. At the same time, I am content with my subsistence wage. I used to have dreams of having enough to be comfortable - and then I found that I was comfortable. Oh well. You can always join my rebel alliance. *grin*

Anthony said...

Darth Sidhe,

I think you know me well enough to know that it's not an issue with wages - subsistence or not.

And yes, I know the standing offer to join the rebel alliance - I know myself a little too well to think I'll do well there. A bit of that 14 year old geeky hothead still survives.

Silent Strider said...

bro, There is nothing certain except taxes, death and uncertainty.

Cheer up.

mis_nomer said...

Wonderful post.

annie said...

all the best to you! join aphio berkeley chapter! good place for bonding!

Chuang Shyue Chou said...

So, when are you coming back? I met up with Brian just this Friday night.

Anthony said...