At the 2023 NUS Law Career Fair, events and choices abound in this impeccably organised, multi-week, event. But is it enough to help students as they approach the next phase of their lives?
There was a certain point where Eliora Joseph, chair of the Law Club Internal Affairs Directorate, realised that she would not be able to enjoy her long-awaited holiday in Vietnam.
Instead of enjoying Vietnam’s cool December weather, she returned to her hotel room early and booted up her laptop.
A potential tripwire had cropped up in the process of planning the upcoming NUS Law Career Fair, for the various law firms participating in the fair were primed to snatch up the most valuable rest estate the moment the booking portal opened.
It was, in the words of a firm representative, “like buying concert tickets”. Eliora was unsure of just how responsive the portal was going to be with the sudden surge of internet traffic. She had resolved to be available on hand to deal with any potential territorial disputes with the firms.
Meanwhile, back in Singapore, vice-chairman Darius Lee was scrounging for free time from his internship work. He was rushing to prepare the Law Careers Fair booklet, to be given to all those attending the fair. This booklet had been slickly designed over a period of months, and each was to be printed in full colour. But time was running short, as the printing companies required a significant lead time to churn out that many high-quality copies. In the meantime, Darius was busy re-formatting the posters to fit the dimensions of the book, and coordinating with the firms to ensure that none had been left out of the book.
In the end, both of these obstacles were largely overcome without a hitch. But they showed the efforts of the many students that ensured the biggest annual career event in NUS Law - and the largest since the pandemic at that - would go off without a hitch.
The NUS Law Career Fair is not really just a fair—it is a festival spanning weeks.. These included various Seminar Talks conducted by various well-established firms in Singapore, and a “Fireside Chat”, a sharing session conducted by recently graduated students.
These events culminated in the Firm Exhibitions, a boisterous, two-day affair, where hundreds of firms of all shapes and sizes--small, medium, boutique, Big Four, international and the Government, set up booths across the campus. With any festival, of course, there were to be certain pre-requisites: food, gifts, bonding, and most importantly—a crowd.
And what a crowd it was. All in all, over 1,500 students attended the various events held.
I was no exception, of course. I had signed up for two of the seminar talks myself, even before I volunteered to cover the event for Justified. As a Year 2 student, the question of where I was going to work at, and what that place was going to be like, weighed on me heavily. I hoped that by attending these events, I would get a better idea on what I could do in the future.
The first talk, hosted by Drew & Napier, was entitled “What The Firm Is Looking for When Selecting Practice Trainees/Potential Hires”.
It was a Friday morning but the auditorium was three-quarters full. The panel, chaired by Mr Adam Maniam, director of Disputes Resolution at Drew & Napier, expounded on the various ways that one could stand out while on internship. For their part, the audience, which consisted mostly of year 1s and 2s, hung on to every word as the panel discussed the different ways one could make a good internship application.
At the end of the seminar, Mr Maniam closed the panel with a rather insightful exhortation for aspiring lawyers to give themselves the time to “get good” at what they did, by persevering in the legal industry.
All in all, the seminar was highly engaging, and full of practical tips for any aspiring intern.
Next, I attended the Seminar Talk hosted by Allen & Gledhill, entitled “The Right Fit, The Right Firm. What Is Right for You? Transitioning From Law School to A Law Firm”.
This too, was very well-attended. The panel was hosted by Mr Ramsesh Selvaraj, who is co-deputy head for the firm’s International Arbitration Practice. They talked about what working at Allen & Gledhill would be like, as well as the internship and/or training contract experience there.
The Fireside Chat
The next event that I attended was the Fireside Chat. This consisted of a panel of recently graduated students who had returned to share about their working experiences and insights. A few of the names immediately stood out to me, such as Kay Han and Jia Wei of je.helpimlawst fame. (Full disclosure: I would not have survived law school without their notes)
As perhaps might be expected, they both appeared to be having similarly illustrious starts to their careers, as a law clerk in Latham & Watkins, and a Justices Law Clerk, respectively.
But there too, were many other interesting stories from the rest of the panel. There was Benjamin Wong, a Sheridan Fellow at NUS (and who I should probably address as Mr Benjamin Wong, in case he teaches me someday). There was Nithya Devi, who specialises in family law, and shared with us her passion for human rights issues. There was Peter Huang, an LLM student from China, now specialising in maritime law. And there was Ho Ting En, who I probably related most to—she introduced herself by saying “I’m pretty normal.”
“We were really looking to have a diverse group of panelists,” Vice-Chairman Darius shared with me later, “I think everyone has different aspirations, so it was really important for us to look for people with different backgrounds, in different firm types and practice areas.”
And this was indeed reflected in the different stories shared by the panelists, such as Sheiffa Safi, who reflected on her experience working under Mr Davinder Singh. Meanwhile, Nithya talked about her much more unconventional path, with her love for human rights taking her to an internship in the United States.
The Firm Exhibitions
If there were a student in the Bukit Timah Campus who was unaware of the existence of the Firm Exhibitions, the first sign that something was unusual would come when they arrived at the car park. Lines of vans and cars surrounded the campus buildings as firm representatives rushed to unload materials for their booths.
Entering the campus building, they might notice something different in the atmosphere—a palpable feeling of excitement, as students sought to learn more about what awaited them after graduation.
On both exhibition days, students would pour in the moment the doors opened. Gifts and souvenirs from the firms were snapped up quickly, and there were so many of them that one would quickly run out of hands to hold them in.
These gifts were often useful (and occasionally delicious) too, consisting of things like portable chargers, power adapters, umbrellas, pens, notebooks, cookies, popcorn, cold brew coffee among many others. No wonder then, that tote bags (which were given by some firms) became a hot commodity, running out long before the end of the day.
Long lines also formed at most booths, as students converged around firm representatives, trying to find an opening to introduce themselves. And as I found out the hard way, one had to be strategic in how one approached a firm representative:
I had been waiting to engage with a firm representative at an international firm booth, as the student before me enquired about the practicability of doing a multi-national training contract after graduation (clearly someone knew more about what they were doing than me). After she concluded her conversation with that student, the firm representative turned to me.
“Hi!” she beamed.
“Hi, nice to meet you!,” said another student as he strategically stepped in between us, before delving into a long question on internships.
I decided to try my luck at another booth.
The Firm Exhibitions are largely a social affair, not just between firm representatives and students, but also between students, who thronged the fair in groups; and as it turned out, between the firm representatives themselves too.
“Many of them shared with me how happy they were that they could get to see their old classmates and friends at the fair again,” Darius shared after the event.
Similarly, most of the firm representatives seemed quite pleased at the turnout.
“For us, this exhibition is about introducing our brand to the students and growing our name,” a firm representative told me, and beaming, he added, “It’s been a resounding success!”
On the other side of campus:
Despite the massive turnout at all the career fair events, not every student was enthused about going. A number of students I talked to sounded reluctant, or outright said that they were not interested in attending.
“The returns would be marginal—everything boils down to grades at the end of the day anyway,” a Year 2 student who declined to be identified told me.
And this was somewhat of a recurring trend amongst some students throughout all the events. After the Fireside Chat, when I asked one of the attendees what he thought about it, he expressed that it was probably easy for the panelists “to look back on their law school journey with rose-tinted glasses”, and he could not really relate to them.
He expressed his wish that the panelists would have talked more about their struggles in law school, and their practical advice for dealing with that, “especially since there was a good proportion of students that don’t do that well.”
I put these concerns across to a number of firm representatives that I talked to, and most were empathetic.
“Well I think that it's precisely if one’s grades aren’t that good, that you should attend the fair,” said one.
Another representative, from a Big Four firm, told me somewhat sheepishly that he “barely scraped a 2:1”, and that he secured his training contract through gaining exposure from internships.
Mr Marcus Ng, an associate at Selvam LLC, also had a similar thought, “I think the point of the career fair is an opportunity to be taken, and one shouldn’t get the thought that because ‘my grades aren’t so good’ that you wouldn’t be considered.”
Cyril Teo, a Year 2 undergraduate, shared with me that although he would attend the exhibition, it was mostly because everyone else was going too.
“I think its would be hard, to find my dream firm at the fair,” he said, “because to be honest most firm representatives will keep to the ‘party line’ or ‘firm line’ as such, so you can only get an idea of whether you would enjoy working there if you are properly immersed in it.”
“Yes, of course firm representatives would toe the ‘party line’,” another said, “but you can still get a sense of what the firm is like by talking to people, and some are more willing to share than others.”
“Your grades can't be bad," A Singapore Judicial Service spokesperson told me. "But the most important thing is character. It’s not just enough to not be a bad person (to progress in the Judiciary service)Ultimately, the question is, ‘Are you kind?’”
Will I be happy?
Underlying the festive atmosphere of the Law Careers Fair however, I felt that there was a sense of anxiety by many students--an anxiety of what the future holds. It could be seen from the repeated questions of internships and training contracts that students keep asking each other, queries of firm culture and working experiences.
As university students, the next step in our life journey is typically to start a career and enter the working world. But it is a step fraught with uncertainty, and I suppose, we try to make up for it by finding out as much about it as possible.
Fortunately, (or perhaps unfortunately), this does not seem to be a question that we, as students, have to answer right now. When I asked the panelists, at the Fireside Chat, what they were working for in their jobs, they seemed a little bit surprised at the question.
Despite what some might stereotype about lawyers being uptight and stuffy, I was surprised by the depth of diversity of lawyers at the Careers Fair. I found that most were more than willing to share their experiences with us.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in the Careers Fair when I interviewed a Year 1 student at the Exhibition.
“I think I have found my dream firm,” she relayed excitedly. “I had a really good talk with them, and they were talking about how much they value work life balance, and family time, which is something that is important for me.”
“I think I will want to work there in the future."