|Up Close - Seow Jia Xian|
Seow Jia Xian
Seow Jia Xian is an associate in Rodyk's Corporate Practice Group.
Life@Rodyk understands you were so passionate about entrepreneurship and the law that you deferred your graduation from law school for six months to pursue an exchange programme. Tell us a little bit about that year and what sparked your passion.
That year was definitely the most enjoyable and inspiring year in National University of Singapore (NUS) for me. The NUS Overseas College (NOC) programme is targeted at NUS students interested in learning what it means and takes to start your own business. Students in the programme study entrepreneurship in theory at one of several partner universities, and apply theory to practice by working full time in a start-up or start-up related entity.
I applied for the programme, intending just to study the flourishing biotechnology emerging-growth sector in the Pennsylvania region (one of the locations coined as the "Bio-valley" under the NOC program), having taken and enjoyed a Biotechnology Law class in school. When I got there, however, I was absolutely blown away by how much more I saw and experienced through the classes and at work!
All NOC students assigned to the Bio-valley had to take classes in entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania. Mostly, we spent time on case studies and analysing in detail, Socratic-style, strategies and decisions made by high tech start-ups, such as Google, Yahoo!, HP, and Dell, in their early stages. The most memorable class for me was one in which we had to think of an original high-technology idea that we could formulate a full business plan for, develop it over the semester and, at the end of the semester, present it to a panel of technology experts, venture capitalists, corporate executives and attorneys for adjudication. Having to develop the marketing, sales and distribution, product development, timeline and financial plans for my team's product, an in-vitro cancer diagnostic device, was an entirely novel and intimidating, but incredibly exhilarating experience for me.
My full-time job involved working in a non-profit incubator centre which provides office and lab space, and management, product development and financial support to biomedical and biotech start-ups in the Philadelphia area. My work involved much valuable personal interaction with the entrepreneurs themselves and other stakeholders such as the investors, strategic partners (such as hospitals and research institutes) and the relevant US governmental departments (most notably the Food and Drug Administration). It was absolutely thrilling working in such an environment, surrounded by scientists working hard at bringing their revolutionary technologies from the lab to the marketplace - real life business case studies unfolding right before my eyes!
As a law student, I was fortunate enough to take classes at the picturesque Penn Law School as part of the NOC program. This is where I gleaned the most inspiration, in particular from a course module called "Legal Aspects of Entrepreneurship". I was greatly inspired by the convenor of the course, a top US corporate practitioner and an influential authority in emerging growth company practice. This class helped put my entire year studying entrepreneurship into perspective—the perspective of someone with a legal, as opposed to a business or engineering background. Every week, we explored a different area of US law which regulates the operation of the start-up, including corporate formation, tax and trusts, IP, real estate, employment, distribution and franchising. What made it interesting was the practical element worked into the course by the convenor who invited specialist practitioners to join us in discussion. For example, venture capitalists and angel investors were invited and they brought their template investment agreements to share key provisions with us based on their actual experiences with entrepreneurs.
How I acquired an interest in entrepreneurship and the law, however, must be attributed to the course convenor himself, Stephen M. Goodman. His passion for assisting entrepreneurs was highly infectious. He was unfailingly enthusiastic in emphasising the personal touch involved in emerging growth practice—the lawyer often plays not just a consultative role, but acts as a confidante to the entrepreneur through the growing pains of the new company. He also becomes intimately familiar with the nature, intricacies as well as quirks of the business (and the entrepreneur), and in essence, vicariously lives out the roller-coaster life of a start-up without undertaking the risk himself!
Truly, while I may have deferred my graduation for six months, the diversity of experiences, friendships made and the invaluable insights gained in advising entrepreneurs (not to mention all the travelling and snowboarding I also did during that year), made it a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
We hear that you are a passionate violinist as well. How do you manage to combine your many passions with your work as a corporate lawyer now?
Music is indeed very dear to me, and had I not gone to law school, I would most likely have been a musician instead (or at least tried to be one). Thankfully, the culture here at Rodyk has been extremely conducive in allowing me to pursue my other interests. There is no policy (unsaid or otherwise) to stay back in the office beyond what is necessary - if you have finished your work for the day, you are free to leave at close of business without anyone raising an eyebrow. On top of this, I am very grateful to have the privilege of reporting to and working alongside an extremely understanding team supportive of my musical activities. In particular, my supervising partner, Gerald Singham, has consistently involved me in files which he knows to be of particular interest to me, especially advising entrepreneurs and artistic groups/performers.
It is because of all this that I have managed to continue attending rehearsals and performing regularly, as I have been doing since childhood. However, I do make it a point not to commit myself to too many activities when it is a busy period for the team. This is perhaps the key—setting priorities according to the flexibilities that are afforded (by the firm, the team and the nature of your work) and reassessing your situation on a regular basis to see if certain adjustments can or should be made given the time constraints of the season that you are in.
Being newly called to the Bar, what is the one piece of advice you would give to those about to embark on their legal careers that you wish someone had given you at that time?
I would say, be open to exploring different practice areas. Actual practice is so different from school, that subjects which you had found interesting while at school may not necessarily be your cup of tea in working life, and vice versa. In my case, I had initially thought that I would not enjoy litigation. However, because of the rotation policy of the pupillage programme in Rodyk, I had the opportunity to spend about two months in the litigation department, during which many of my fears and doubts were dispelled. In fact, I had so much fun, that at the end of pupillage I had a hard time deciding whether to start out in litigation or go straight into corporate practice!