From a Sociology Major to One of Singapore’s Most Influential Lawyers

By the SMU Social Media Team

SMU School of Law alumnus and current Senior Associate at Withers KhattarWong, John Tan, was recently named as one of the 20 most influential Singaporean lawyers under 40 by the Singapore Business Review.

However, John did not start out with the ambition to prowl the court room or the negotiation table. He began as a Sociology Major, with a Minor in Business Management; and it was only during the pursuit of his undergraduate studies that he developed a curiosity for the law.

“Having observed the relationship between law and society, law and politics, and law and the economy during my undergraduate studies, I knew that reading the law would provide me with the opportunity to build on my social science degree and to equip me with knowledge to better navigate professional life,” he says.

With that, John enrolled in SMU’s Juris Doctor (JD) programme immediately after completing his undergraduate studies, which is a graduate programme designed for individuals who hold undergraduate degrees in other disciplines and for those who hold degrees in law from civil law countries.

“Back in 2009, there were only two law schools in Singapore. I chose SMU’s JD programme as I relish the prospect of socialising and learning alongside candidates who will bring with them a wealth of experience from their respective fields. This has brought about many learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom.”

Yet, taking the first step into the unknown is often intimidating.

“It was a daunting experience when I first started. Majoring in Sociology had shaped me to think and see the world differently. It was a struggle to abandon the perspective I had and to adopt a new one, or to switch between the two.”

However, John’s prior experience in another field has proved helpful in his professional life, giving him an edge over others in advising clients.

“Once you have acquired the requisite legal knowledge and have adapted to the discipline of law, knowledge and perspectives from other fields, in my opinion, becomes a valuable asset, as clients look for lawyers that understand them and their business. Therefore, having insights on the wider political, social and economic factors helps in providing practical solutions that work for your client,” he explains.

He goes on to share how his prior experience has also given him better insight on the areas of law he wants to practice.

“My current practice area is Banking and Real Estate, and I deal with various aspects of it across all classes. So, I handle conveyancing, corporate real estate, leasing work, real estate financing and corporate transactions with a real estate element. What motivated me to move into this area of practice was my interest in cities and real estate as an investment vehicle, which was incubated when I was studying urban sociology and finance during my undergraduate years.”

While it’s been a fulfilling experience pursuing areas of law that he is interested in, John remarked that his journey as a lawyer has certainly not been easy.

“There were countless instances where I thought of quitting law totally and to venture into other fields. The demands of the practice—such as the long hours, the sacrifice of personal time and the everchanging business and legal landscape—is physically and mentally demanding. The reason I am still here is because of the satisfaction I get from completing each transaction successfully and the support that I receive from my mentors, my colleagues, my clients, my peers and my family.”

John remarks that having had the opportunity to learn from and to act across the table from various luminaries of the legal industry, it’s clear that ‘grit’ and a ‘curious mind’ are common traits amongst the most successful lawyers.