Laying down the law, and loving it

Koh Swee Yen
Partner, Commercial & Corporate Disputes and International Arbitration Practices
WongPartnership, LLP

Alumna, NUS Law

In only her third year as a full-fledged lawyer, Koh Swee Yen was given the chance to take the lead on an international arbitration case – regarding a dispute over the sale of crude oil – in Houston, Texas.

Swee Yen could hardly believe her good fortune. After all, it was rare for a then-relatively new lawyer like herself to be entrusted with such an important case.

She was understandably nervous, but Swee Yen was determined to seize the golden opportunity presented to her with both hands.

Swee Yen (2nd from right) at her NUS Commencement ceremony in 2004

What followed was a gruelling seven-day period which saw her do the case’s oral opening and closing, as well as the cross examination of witnesses.

All of Swee Yen’s hard work ultimately paid off, as that proved to be the catalyst for her subsequent successes in the field of law.

Reflecting on the case, which took place about a decade ago, Swee Yen said: “It was a very challenging and intense period. But it was also enriching, as the experience was different from what I had experienced in the courtroom. The client was extremely happy with the way I conducted the hearing, particularly the cross-examination of the witnesses.

The tribunal, and even my opposing counsel from a US law firm, came up to me after the hearing to congratulate me on a job well done. This experience earned me a lot of credit, and my career in international arbitration really kicked off after that case.”

Now a partner in the Commercial & Corporate Disputes and International Arbitration Practices at WongPartnership LLP, Swee Yen, 36, has amassed a multitude of honours and prominent victories.

Swee Yen was a speaker at the 3rd Annual Global Arbitration Review (GAR) Live in Singapore on 7 June 2017
Image credit: Global Arbitration Review (GAR)

Among her notable accomplishments include being named in Asian Legal Business’ inaugural 40 Under 40 List, which showcases 40 of the brightest young legal minds in Asia.

Given Swee Yen’s success now, it is hard to imagine that she did not initially want to be a lawyer. She only applied to the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Law on her sister’s advice to take a professional degree.

While Swee Yen’s first year at NUS was unremarkable, two encounters in her second year changed her previously nonchalant attitude towards law and set the wheels in motion for her career in litigation.

The first was when a professor pulled her aside after class one day to have a quiet word.

“He (Swee Yen’s professor) told me that I was cut out to do law,” said Swee Yen, who went on to graduate with first-class honours. “But he also said that I did not work hard enough, and that if I had put in more effort in my work, I could become a very good lawyer. That was the wake-up call I needed. It helped me change my mindset to be more serious about studying law.”

Swee Yen took part in the 10th Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot in 2003

Soon after, Swee Yen was persuaded by her friend to take part in a mooting competition. That experience not only sparked her love for advocacy, but also convinced her that law was her passion.

“My mooting experience was stimulating,” Swee Yen recalled. “I particularly love the adrenaline rush, just before and during the oral arguments. I was lucky to have been taught by amazing and dedicated coaches at NUS. I picked up many critical skills which came in very handy in practice, in particular, being able to develop a case theory, critically analyse issues and find solutions to problems.”

“Thankfully, NUS offers law students many opportunities to take part in mooting competitions…I managed to go overseas because of this, thus broadening my horizons and providing me with a more worldly view.”

One of the regular catch-up sessions over food with ex-classmates from NUS law

The holistic skillsets Swee Yen developed at NUS equipped her to take on responsibilities outside of her own law practice, which includes being the co-chair of the International Bar Association’s (IBA) Arb40 Subcommittee - a committee that aims to engage the younger members of the arbitration committee.

It is a role that Swee Yen is proud to hold, as she believes her work with the IBA has helped to put Singapore’s legal capabilities on the map.

“The IBA is made up of lawyers from all over the world, so it is a privilege and honour for me to be appointed to lead one of its subcommittees,” said Swee Yen. “I have spoken at many overseas conferences in the field of international arbitration, and my work with the IBA has also had an impact on the practice of international arbitration beyond the shores of Singapore. I believe this has helped in some way to put Singapore’s name on the global legal stage.”

Swee Yen in Washington with members of the IBA Arbitration Committee

Swee Yen also leveraged on her international repute, and capitalised on the government’s push towards establishing Singapore as a dispute resolution hub. She was given the opportunity to be involved in a number of international investment arbitrations, including representing foreign investors against the Laos Government in investment treaty claims arising from the misappropriation of gaming investments, securing a ground-breaking victory on the applicability of PRC bilateral investment treaties to Macau SAR based on state succession principles, and successfully acting for the Independent State of Papua New Guinea in defeating an ICSID claim brought against the State for expropriation of mining assets.

Swee Yen’s successes in the legal field have been nothing short of extraordinary. Still, her long-term career plan remains simple – all she wants to do is to be a “better lawyer” each day, and continue to uphold the integrity of the justice system.

Based on what she has achieved so far, no one will dare argue against her doing just that.