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 SC is a leading commercial litigator and international arbitration counsel at Dentons Rodyk. In 2003 Philip was appointed senior counsel – at 38, one of the youngest lawyers to receive this distinction. He is a highly regarded construction disputes specialist in South East Asia, commanding a large direct client practice and being regularly instructed by international, foreign and Singapore law firms to advocate major disputes as lead counsel.
Describe your career to date.
I’ve always been focused on advocacy and its particular arts. How to persuade a tribunal, how to elicit favourable evidence from a witness, how to stand one’s ground in defence of a client. When I started in practice, I quickly had the opportunity to appear before a variety of judges – I had a trial before a district judge in the first month after my call, and appeared in the Court of Appeal within two years. Those were the days when senior partners didn’t really like going to Court and would send juniors down instead. So I learned quickly. One often learns the most when the situation is most challenging, which is one reason I have often relished acting for clients who really need help in a crisis – as in the public inquiry work I have done, such as the Nicoll Highway collapse inquiry and the SingHealth data breach inquiry. As Singapore has grown as an arbitration seat over the past two decades, my arbitration practice has grown too. Changes in the legal landscape always bring opportunity – the opportunity to master a new field, or to reach out to a different group of clients.
What qualities make for a successful arbitrator?
A good arbitrator has to combine patience with firmness. A good arbitrator keeps the arbitration moving and brings it to an expeditious conclusion, while making both parties feel that they have been heard and given a full chance to present their case. Some arbitrators are too accommodating, and the arbitration takes forever, while others jump in too quickly, without giving advocates enough room to develop their cases. Good arbitrators find the middle way.
How important is it for a lawyer to have a good grasp of engineering when working on construction cases involving related issues?
For myself, I have found that it is vitally important to understand the technical engineering issues that are often involved in construction disputes. For this reason, it is important that the engineering expert be engaged early, and that the lawyer then work with that expert to grasp the underlying engineering principles. Lawyers need to be humble so that they can learn, yet ultimately having learned as much as they can, approach the cross-examination with assumed confidence. Over the years, I have done numerous matters which have turned on cross-examination of the engineering experts, and one cannot allow oneself to be daunted. I recall cross-examining the leading expert on concrete in relation to a collapsed silo, and having read the expert’s leading text on the subject, being able to make significant and effective inroads favourable to my client.
You have represented clients in many jurisdictions. How do you respond to and handle cultural differences in the context of international dispute resolution cases?
Cultural differences are important in a number of ways. First of all, companies work differently in different cultures. It’s important to understand how a Japanese, Korean, French or American company works, whether one is representing them or against them. This is particularly so when it comes to what was authorised, or how claims were processed. Secondly, witnesses of different cultures behave differently, and one has to be attuned to this, both as counsel trying to probe weaknesses and as arbitrator trying to be even-handed and fair. Some cultures foster apology where others promote brazening it out. An astute arbitrator must be able to see through brashness, and sometimes not read too much into apologetic language.
What impact, if any, has the development of third-party litigation funding had on construction cases?
Third-party litigation funding has had some impact in the construction field, but I expect to see a greater impact as it becomes more accepted. In Singapore, it is presently limited to international arbitration. Third-party funding is certainly a benefit to litigants who lack financial resources, as it allows meritorious claims to be pursued that might otherwise simply be dropped.
As the global vice chair and ASEAN chief executive officer at Dentons, what are your main priorities for the firm’s development over the next five years?
We combined with Dentons in 2016, and the past three years have seen Dentons Rodyk take a leading role in Dentons’ growth, as we have combined with major firms in Malaysia and Indonesia. Dentons truly is a new kind of global firm, all about connecting talent from anywhere in the world to opportunities across the globe. We will continue to build our presence in South East Asia and help Singaporean businesses as they expand abroad.
You have enjoyed a very distinguished career so far. What would you like to achieve that you have not yet accomplished?
Every year is a new adventure, and every new matter is something I devote myself to. Practising law is not an academic exercise, but instead is about helping specific clients achieve their objectives – in my case, to win. I just want to keep on getting good new briefs, and doing my very best to win them!
What is the best piece of career advice you have ever received?
The best advice I have ever received is the importance of learning from experience, reflecting hard on what works and what doesn’t, and continuously striving to improve.
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.