Philip Jeyaretnam SC is a leading commercial litigator and international arbitration counsel at Dentons Rodyk. Appointed senior counsel in 2003, he was one of the youngest lawyers ever to receive this distinction. Regularly instructed by blue-chip clients as well as international and foreign firms, Philip has excelled in high-value, high-profile, high public interest and complex matters, and secured important decisions breaking new legal ground.
What inspired you to pursue a legal career?
Both my parents were lawyers. My mother was a real estate lawyer, my father was a criminal defence lawyer, and from a young age I found the energy and tension of the courtroom compelling and addictive. I had a strong interest in literature and history, and I found advocacy rests on similar skills – how to uncover the hidden incriminating stories of the other side, while presenting one’s client’s story in the best possible light.
How has the market changed since you first started practising?
The market has become exponentially more international, with greater cross-border trade and investment, and Singapore’s rapid growth as a centre for dispute resolution. This has made legal practice much more exciting and diverse. Apart from grappling with different laws, one has to get to grips with cultural differences. One can’t apply a monocultural lens when business ventures extend across several countries. New technologies have changed practice too. Some changes are good – such as making research simpler and faster – but others increase the burden, particularly the jump in volume, speed and frequency of communications. As an advocate, in the end it is you facing the court or tribunal, and you have to find a way to master the material, to cram everything into your analogue brain.
What do you enjoy most about your role as global vice chair and ASEAN CEO of the firm?
These roles involve something very different from my advocacy. We are building a very different law firm, one that we believe meets clients’ needs. It’s about having deep local capabilities across the globe, so that where a client is dragged into multiple fora we can help clients with a coordinated strategy and integrated representation across countries. As ASEAN CEO, I have been working on bringing into Dentons the most talented lawyers from across the region. This appeals to a different side of me – a business and leadership-oriented side.
How does Dentons Rodyk & Davidson distinguish itself from the competition?
One of the ways Dentons Rodyk distinguishes itself is in our ability to coordinate cross-border M&A and cross-border disputes. We have in-depth strength and talent in multiple jurisdictions, so that we can bring to bear the right team to solve the difficulties a client is facing.
What challenges will litigation specialists have to face in the next few years?
There are great opportunities for litigation specialists, because there will always be disputes among business people, and the size and number of disputes is growing. The challenge is being able to deliver litigation expertise cost-effectively, and this is where having the scale to adopt and customise new technologies in document management, discovery tools and research is very important. But we must never forget that every client looks to one lawyer ultimately not just to be in their corner but to be the one that comes out fighting for them.
What has been your most memorable case to date?
I took a matter to trial last year for the Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Foundation, successfully defending a complex claim brought by the State of Papua New Guinea. The matter is on appeal, but what makes a case memorable is often the clients and witnesses one works with. In this case, they were both idealistic and robust, including a former prime minister, the former CEO of one of the world’s biggest resource companies, one of Australia’s premier academics, and a very distinguished former merchant banker. It involved getting to the real story of events decades ago, and responding to determined and ingenious advocacy on the part of our opponents.
What impact do you think the increasing prominence of international commercial courts will have on arbitration practice?
International commercial courts offer international businesses another option, one that includes commercially savvy and immensely knowledgeable judges as well as appeal rights lacking in international arbitration. They are likely to take some market share from arbitration.
What advice would you give to someone starting out as a litigator?
Litigators have to put clients first, above one’s own ego. Yet litigators themselves have to be robust, strong and competitive personalities. That combination of strength and humility doesn’t always come naturally, and must be developed as the advocate grows in experience. Resilience is everything. When something goes wrong, don’t feel sorry for yourself; instead focus on ways to redeem the case or, if it is too late for that, to become a better advocate for the next client.
Philip Jeyaretnam, senior counsel, is global vice chair and ASEAN CEO of Dentons Rodyk. He is a commercial litigator and international arbitration counsel. He was appointed Senior Counsel in 2003 at the early age of 38, one of the youngest lawyers ever to receive this distinction.
Philip's active international arbitration practice as counsel spans investments and projects across Asia, and he has represented clients in arbitration proceedings in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, London, Zurich and Brunei. He is particularly experienced in disputes involving difficult technical issues and complex financial structuring. Philip has also had numerous appointments as arbitrator, particularly under SIAC and ICC Rules.
Philip is regularly instructed by blue-chip clients, international and foreign firms and has excelled in high value, high-profile, high public interest and complex matters, and secured important decisions breaking new legal ground.
Philip is cited as an expert in international arbitration, construction law and commercial litigation in all major legal publications. In the recent editions of Chambers Global, Chambers Asia Pacific and The Legal 500 Asia-Pacific, Philip is recognised as a “star” and “master tactician”, and “a pre-eminent dispute practitioner, equally well versed in litigation and arbitration matters and assists clients with multi-jurisdictional mandates across the region".
Philip was president of the Law Society of Singapore from January 2004 to December 2007, and was the founding chairman of the Society of Construction Law, Singapore. He is currently chairman of Maxwell Chambers, the world's first integrated dispute resolution venue.
Philip graduated from Cambridge University with double first-class honours, and held a visiting Fulbright fellowship at Harvard Law School.