Ex-City lawyer now practising in Singapore and also running a bar
James Willmott trained at A&O, including a seat in Bratislava, and qualified into their corporate department in 2004. Having enjoyed the experience of working abroad so much, he applied for and was sent on a secondment at only one year qualified. He moved to A&O’s Singapore office in 2005 and switched to the Jones Day office there this year. Oh, and he has also bought a bar, which he runs in his spare time. We talked to him about living and working in South-East Asia.
mtl: Hi James, tell us about your legal background
James: I trained at A&O and qualified into the corporate department there, doing a split of private equity, public takeover, IPO and M&A work. It was hard work as the economy was picking up and there was lots going on at the time, but I really enjoyed it. I had a lot of responsibility and was exposed to good quality work.
I did a seat in Bratislava as a trainee, which was awesome because everyone there did a bit of everything and ran their own deals, even as a trainee. It was the best thing I could have done as it meant that I found the transition from being a trainee to being an associate straight forward rather than daunting. The only issue to deal with at A&O in London was coping with the long hours.
mtl: So what took you to Singapore?
James: I enjoyed working overseas in Bratislava so much that I wanted to go on secondment again. I had previously travelled around SE Asia and really liked it. I wanted to go to either Hong Kong or Singapore and a place in Singapore came up. I was lucky to be sent as I was only a year qualified at the time.
Singapore is a regional hub and we tend to work all over this part of the world, including Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, India and China. The A&O team here is pretty small and I was able to work on my own deals, which is what I wanted. The deal size over here is not as large as in London and there wasn’t any public work for me to do. However I was quite happy with doing private work as I enjoyed it.
Law, King's College London
LPC, Nottingham Trent
Assistant, corporate department, A&O, London
Assistant, corporate department, A&O, Singapore
Bought the Hideout bar with two friends
Assistant, Jones Day, Singapore
I have found that there is more responsibility over here and that you frequently run your own deals, have a lot of client contact, lots of meetings and some foreign travel. I think it is fair to say that although I came as a one year qualified lawyer, I was given the work that a three year qualified associate would be doing in London. It’s pretty hard work, though the hours are generally not as bad as London. As with all corporate roles, there are times when I am extremely busy – but also times when I am really quiet.
I moved to Jones Day this year to broaden the spectrum of my practice as US firms are less pigeon-holed about departments than English firms. I wanted to work for a large US international firm to see what it was like. I really enjoy it – it is the same amount of work as A&O but I like the broader scope of work available. For example I recently had some projects experience though theoretically I’m still a private equity lawyer. Jones Day is currently expanding in Singapore and has a very international office here. It is staffed by lawyers with diverse backgrounds, who have trained in the US, UK, Europe and Australia.
mtl: What are the main perks of living and working in Singapore?
James: Singapore has a reputation for having clean streets but that is not the only thing it offers! It is a truly multicultural society, with lots to do and great food. Although property prices have gone up a lot in the last few years, you would still live in a far nicer apartment than you could in London for the same money. Ex-pats mostly live in condos which come with a pool and gym. Commuting is easy. It’s a small place, so you are always close to where you need to go. Financially it is a very good move to come here. Living costs are not cheap but the lower tax makes a huge difference.
There is a great balance between Asia and the West here. You can make the choice whether to live as an ex-pat or integrate with the locals. I would say my friends are half and half. You can have a great career, a good lifestyle and make a lot of money, while also having many exotic travel options and new and different experiences available on your doorstep.
It is easy to cross into Malaysia as this only takes about 30 minutes by car or it’s a short flight to Kuala Lumpur. You can go and play golf there, or drive to the coast. There is so much to do in Singapore itself including touch rugby, dragon boating and wake-boarding. You never find yourself with nothing to do at the weekend. You can certainly live like a king here too. Champagne brunches on Sundays are the norm and if you like shopping then there are plenty of high-end shops to keep you quiet.
mtl: Any downsides?
James: Beer is expensive – up to £5 a pint in some places, which is outrageous! It is obviously incredibly hot and there are no seasons, which I miss. It is usually too hot to go for a walk and there are not many big open spaces to wander around in anyway. We don’t really have “the arts” here, so if you like the theatre then you would get a shock. On the work-front, when I arrived I was the most junior person in the office and there was no trainee, so I had to do some dross at the same time as running my own structured transactions. Anyone who moves to Asia should be aware that working in a small office will mean having to do a bit of everything, both above and below your qualification level.
mtl: Tell us about your bar?
James: When I first moved here I had a “local” called the Hideout that I went to about once a week. I became friends with the manager there. At the end of 2005, the bar’s owners moved abroad and decided to close it down if they couldn’t sell it. I am very much into music and this bar was at the cutting edge of music in Singapore. The music scene here lags behind the UK, US and Europe and this was one of the few places where you could find alternative DJs and bands playing.
I didn’t want to see the bar close down, so I bought it with the manager and another friend and we did it up. Apart from my financial involvement, I book acts, source local art to display in it, and get involved in the marketing. It is challenging because we face stiff competition from an area of Singapore that has recently been redeveloped. I completely underestimated how much work was involved in running a business and it is hard to do it on top of law, as a legal career is obviously very tiring.
Sometimes the last thing I feel like at the end of a day is dealing with a bar issue. However, having a bar is good because it is suddenly legitimate to sit around and drink beer a lot, especially during meetings! It has also been a very good way to meet people here. I wouldn’t have done it in London as the financial outlay would have been prohibitive, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity of running my own business.
mtl: What is the job market in Singapore like and do you have any tips for people considering the move?
James: I would describe the market as extremely vibrant. There are lots of jobs available, particularly if you do corporate, banking or capital markets work (rather than litigation or something more specialised). A good recruitment agency to contact would be ATR Associates, which is run by a Brit who knows everyone here. Salaries are lower than in London, even at the US firms, but after income tax you’ll be on substantially more than you’d be on in London.
Don’t be scared of moving abroad as it is surprisingly easy to settle in. You’ll soon get used to the long-haul flights home and will realise that you are not really that far away. You don’t need any languages to work here as pretty much all business is done in English, though obviously local knowledge helps. The pace of life is slightly slower than Hong Kong and in my opinion there is a slightly better quality of life here. From a career perspective, I also think that Singapore rivals if not betters Hong Kong. There is more diversity in the work as we deal with such a broad area in the region, whereas working in Hong Kong increasingly just seems to involve Hong Kong and Chinese transactions…
mtl: Thank you for your time James.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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