Published on 03 Feb 2022

Ex-defence lawyer who aspires to be a business leader

Nanyang Professional MBA participant Ng Shi Yang always wanted to be the person making the decisions and creating the businesses, not the one writing the contracts. This led him to quit the legal sector and subsequently enrol in the PMBA programme

Lawyer Ng Shi Yang's career was ready to enter the fast lane when he was offered a partnership at a law firm, but the young legal eagle did the unthinkable and walked away from the prestigious offer.

Mr Ng, then 34 and a senior defence lawyer with the Law Society's Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), decided instead to take a left turn and try his hand in the business world.

Mr Ng, the father of two young girls, told The Sunday Times last week that he wanted to be the person making the decisions and creating the businesses, not the one writing the contracts. "It was a matter of personal aspiration."

That led him to quit the legal sector eight years after being called to the Bar and join FairPrice Group Supply Chain Business as a senior specialist in strategy and business management.

"I was fortunate to have several great mentors through my journeys in community work and national service in the navy," he said.

"Collectively, they made me realise the importance of core values and leadership in any worthy human endeavour. I wanted to experience deep and genuine growth in these areas, so I had to look towards the business sector for such growth opportunities."

While he was grateful for the opportunity the CLAS gave him to use his professional skills to help the underprivileged in society, Mr Ng felt the role would not allow him to grow as a leader.

Sea changes such as Mr Ng's are becoming more common in the profession - 538 lawyers quit legal practice last year, a five-year high. The previous four years saw between 380 and 430 lawyers leave.

Around 60 per cent of those who left last year were junior lawyers with fewer than five years of practice.

Industry veterans said young lawyers leaving the profession in droves is not a new trend in Singapore.

Long hours, burnout and lack of training and mentorship were some of the reasons given by those who quit.

Mr Cephas Tan, 28, who graduated from the Yale-NUS double degree programme in law and liberal arts in 2019, said he identified with some of the concerns and decided to work as in-house legal counsel instead of joining a law firm.

Mr Tan, legal counsel at crypto exchange, felt that a traditional law firm would not give him the "exposure to the intricacies of emerging technology" or the opportunity "to work with a global team to handle complex cutting edge matters".

Mr Ng said: "I certainly do not believe that junior lawyers are easily bruised or unable to handle stress.

"I know of senior lawyers who are excellent leaders and mentors who have groomed successful lineages of lawyers.

"But whether knowingly or not, and unless they deliberately choose otherwise, some law firms subscribe primarily to some form of the tournament theory in managing their lawyers."

He said that in some firms, young lawyers exist in conditions where they feel (or are) compelled to compete against one another for promotions and partnership.

"Tournaments bring out the best and worst in people at each level within the firm - how they work, how they treat each other. A tournament structure without dedicated efforts to smooth the edges tends to shape a certain workplace culture that is not suited for everyone."

Law firms that apply the tournament theory generally reward employees based on their relative performances to one another, which encourages competition among lawyers for rewards and ultimately equity partnerships. 

Mr Ng said he began his job search in 2019 and described the process as a "humbling experience".

"I secured several interviews, but I came to realise that none of the human resource directors I interviewed with were serious about making offers.

"They were merely curious as to why a seasoned lawyer would want to transit out of law entirely, and not even consider becoming in-house counsel for companies or the government, which is what most former practitioners do."


Mr Ng recognised that there was a market gap that he needed to bridge and enrolled in a Master of Business Administration programme at the Nanyang Business School the following year.

He also spent 10 months on the leadership programme at the Maritime Faculty of Goh Keng Swee Command and Staff College.

And all while still working a lawyer with the CLAS.

Offers starting coming in last year and he eventually accepted one from FairPrice Group.

"The job checked all my boxes - it was a business strategy role, the work had a strong social mission, and the senior leadership team was known for its emphasis on core values and leadership," said Mr Ng.

"In my new role, I work on strategy and business management for the FairPrice Group Supply Chain business unit. Part of my work involves driving transformation for our organisation and our partners with the use of data and analytics."

Correction note: Mr Ng Shi Yang was 34 and not 32 when he quit the legal sector. We are sorry for the error.

Source: The Straits Times