Ng Jern-Fei KC’s Secret to Building a Successful Global Disputes Practice

On 2 March 2023, Ng Jern-Fei KC shared his tips and experience in the building of his successful global disputes practice. The session was organised by Lim Chee Wee Partnership and the Asian International Arbitration Centre.

This post distills the 5 lessons shared by Jern-Fei at this session.

#1: Be prepared to reinvent your practice

Jern-Fei shared that from his early years as a barrister, he did face difficult times. He was even close to quitting after not getting enough opportunities.

He decided to reinvent his practice. In those early years, there were not many English barristers coming to Singapore or Malaysia to market for work. Asian jurisdictions were not a natural hinterland for work for English Queen’s Counsel much less for junior barristers.

Nonetheless, as a junior barrister, he was prepared to modify his practice and reinvent how he could work. He met with law firms in Singapore and Malaysia, pitched to them, and found ways he could secure instructions even as a junior barrister. He could work hand-in-hand with the teams and even his charges on an hourly rate basis as a junior English barrister could be cost efficient.

Eventually, when the Asian market also evolved and there was an explosion of arbitration work, he had already built his practice here in Asia.

#2: Tips on a universal set of skills across jurisdictions

Jern-Fei shared two key universal sets of skills that he values across jurisdictions. This is where he spoke from both the perspective of counsel and having also sat as arbitrator in international commercial arbitrations.

First, the importance of brevity of expression.

There are written submissions that may be far too long and do not get straight to the point. The judge or arbitrator would only have a short attention span. The ability to be succinct is the hallmark of a good advocate.

He recalled the practice in the English Commercial Courts where there was a 25-page limit for written submissions. A useful yardstick to judge your written submissions for matters not involving a full-blown trial.

Even as an arbitrator, he favours having a page cap on the length of written submissions.  Forces the advocates to put their best point forward. Related to that, he has rarely ever seen a case that turns beyond a maximum of 3 critical points. Often, the case can turn on the 1 critical point. Find the critical points and succinctly address those points.

Second, say from the outset exactly what you want and why.

Using the analogy of the Waze app or Google Maps, you want to key in for the decision-maker the final destination. If the decision-maker does not know the final destination, he or she will not know where you, as the advocate, are taking them on the journey. He or she will not enjoy the journey.

You must have the final destination, the framework and be able to tell the Judge or arbitrator how long each turn or direction will take.

#3: Building a personal brand from an international perspective

Jern-Fei shared two tips for lawyers to better build a reputation and a brand from an international perspective.

First, attend international conferences. This enables you to meet kindred spirits. He recalled one Malaysian law conference that he had attended. He met another foreign lawyer and whose son was working in a foreign law firm. They were introduced to each other and since then, he has obtained instructions from that law firm over the years. All from just that chance encounter at one conference.

Second, social media such as LinkedIn. What has stuck in his mind was a foreign lawyer who is a commodities disputes lawyer. That lawyer posted up more personal posts and photos on the travels he made for foreign arbitrations and the junior team members who took on the advocacy roles at these foreign arbitrations.  It is about building a connection and those posts had stuck in Jern-Fei’s mind.

#4: How to manage time

An attendee asked Jern-Fei about how does he manage his time with his practice crossing so many jurisdictions.

His answer to this was prioritisation. The communication with the client and his team, and how to prioritise his involvement in each case. What aspects does Jern-Fei get involved in, and what is each role that each team member play.

For example, if the case was still at its foothills and in the beginning stages of strategy – he may be far more involved.

The case may then move ahead through its usual timelines and procedure – and his team members would then be more involved.

As the case ramps up toward the evidential hearing date – Jern-Fei will be far more involved in the preparation.

It is ultimately about building trust with the people he works with.

#5: Overcoming challenges

One a question about overcoming challenges, especially when as a junior barrister going against a more senior barrister or opponent. Jern-Fei shared the advice about how being underestimated can be your strongest weapon.

You can exceed the expectations of the opponent, the judge or the witness. He shared the example of how a particular witness underestimated how prepared and how tenacious he would be in the cross-examination.

Some parting words

Jern-Fei can see that more disputes are being and will be arbitrated here in Malaysia. A lot of opportunities for Malaysian lawyers to be involved in more global disputes and for Malaysia to also act as a hub. It is a reflection that the legal market here has matured.

For a past article featuring Ng Jern-Fei, you may access the article here:

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