Adventures in corporate law
If David Zemans’ high school self could see him now, the younger David likely wouldn’t know what to think. Back in the 1980s, he had big dreams—of travelling and pursuing a career in public service. “Corporate lawyer”—or, more specifically, head of Milbank’s Asia practice—wasn’t high on that list. Or anywhere on it, for that matter.
No, teenage David wasn’t attracted to high-end offices. And heading off to university right after graduation wasn’t for him either. That’s why he opted to take a gap year at the end of high school.
“I took a gap year before the concept even existed—and definitely before it was ’cool’ to do so,” he says. “I lived and worked in Bolivia for a good part of the year and was also a waiter at Expo ’86 in Vancouver. By the time I got home, I was ready and excited for university.”
David spent a few years at McGill University before writing the LSAT and attending Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law. “I was initially interested in working internationally in the foreign service—potentially as a Canadian ambassador—and I thought law school could help me realize that goal,” he says. “During my time at Dalhousie, however, I had a chance to work at the Canadian Embassy in Washington and, while I loved my time there, I realized that particular line of work wasn’t for me.”
The Osler turning point
It wasn’t until he was accepted into Osler’s summer alternative program in 1990 that everything started to fall into place. The program offered a small number of students the opportunity to spend half the summer in the firm’s various departments, with the second half of the summer reserved for pro bono or community work. It was right up David’s alley.
“While I was curious about corporate law at the time, I didn’t think I would pursue it as a career. Rather, I was really interested in social issues and, specifically, a South African legal clinic that worked on a number of high-profile anti-apartheid cases,” he explains. “I asked if Osler would be willing to support my interest to work in South Africa for part of the summer and they very kindly said yes.”
And, from the moment David started at Osler, he was blown away by how warm, welcoming and smart everyone was.
A summer to remember
David enjoyed the first half of that summer so much that he was almost sorry when it came to an end, and it was time to board the plane to South Africa. Once he landed, however, it was hard not to get caught up in the enormity of the moment. With Nelson Mandela having just recently been released from prison, South Africa was abuzz—and David recognized that he was witnessing events of historic importance.
“It’s hard to describe how impactful this moment in history was. Mandela was released in February and I arrived in June. The country was still in the middle of some of the worst racial segregation of the century—and it was eye-opening to witness the abject poverty in which people lived. Despite that, the optimism of the people post-release was inspiring and will be with me my whole life,” he recalls. “Once I could see these individuals’ circumstances with my own eyes, the inspiration and energy Mandela injected into their lives was palpable. They genuinely believed that tomorrow would be better. I feel so lucky to have been there at that moment. I will never forget it.”
A corporate calling
By the end of the summer, David had acquired experiences and memories to last him a lifetime—but while he thoroughly enjoyed his time in South Africa, he was eager to get back to Canada to finish law school and then article for Osler. But before heading home, he took a detour—to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and venture on a backpack safari in Kenya.
“I tried to prolong the experience as much as I could, but I ultimately knew corporate law was my future,” he says. “I knew Osler was the place that would really allow me to be challenged intellectually. I had found a work environment where I respected the people enormously and had a lot of fun—and I wanted to go back.”
And, after completing law school, that’s exactly what he did. From 1993 to 1996, he worked as an associate in corporate law.
“Until that point, my various jobs had taken me around the world—but I was feeling very settled, happy and I was about to be married. Then I was asked by a partner at Osler to go to Singapore,” he says. “I thought the travel bug was out of me, but as soon as I arrived in Singapore I realized that I was still very driven and excited by the opportunity to work internationally.”
A life worth living
What was supposed to be a two-month placement in Singapore was extended to four months and, before long, David was seriously thinking about leaving the comforts of Toronto and working abroad. The thrill of working in different countries—and experiencing different cultures—truly energized him.
So, while on their honeymoon, David and his wife thought long and hard about where they were going to begin their early years of married life together.
“I didn’t think we would stay outside of Canada for more than a few years when I took a job with Milbank in New York and, ultimately, moved to its Singapore office,” he says.
“Asia was super exciting—it wasn’t really on the radar screen of North America at the time. The growth, development and energy of Asia was unbelievable. A lot of like-minded people were living there and we really felt comfortable there. So, before long, we opted to start a family and, one thing led to another, and we have now been in Singapore for over 22 years.”
Every day is an adventure
Part of the reason David has stayed in Singapore so long is that his practice has evolved and expanded to meet the changing needs of clients and the fast-paced growth of Asia. In addition, David’s role at Milbank has continuously changed and he has been challenged with new and exciting opportunities. Today, David is the Managing Partner of Milbank’s Singapore office, Head of Milbank’s Asia practice and a member of the firm’s Global Executive Committee.
“The firm’s Global Executive Committee consists of five members, and I’m the only one not in the U.S. So I have the opportunity at a time of significant international growth for the firm to bring an important global perspective to those discussions.”
Additionally, the role is anything but predictable—which plays to David’s temperament. On any given day, he might be travelling to meet a client and helping them solve complex legal issues, wearing his manager hat and finding ways to improve the firm, or looking for ways to strengthen the Asia team.
“Our people are our most important asset and I enjoy working to make the team even stronger,” he says. “Asia has typically been a transient place, so it is hard to retain people for an extended period of time. We have managed to build and maintain a fabulous group of people. My partners in Asia and globally are people I deeply respect.”
Making time for the important things
In addition to keeping up with Toronto sports teams, David also enjoys spending time outdoors and taking advantage of Singapore’s year-round good weather. With his kids poised to leave home in the not-too-distant future—his daughter is set to attend university in North America in the fall—David enjoys spending whatever time he can with them, whether it is heading to the cottage or going for a hike.
If David has one piece of advice he would like to impart to new lawyers starting out, it is this: Say “yes” to every opportunity.
“Soak up every experience—and don’t be intimidated by the unknown,” he says. “No one knows everything the day they start work, and the people you work with know that. Also, have fun. Being a lawyer is hard work and it takes time and patience to really master. So dig in and enjoy the ride. Finally, cherish the relationships you build with your colleagues. Some of my closest friendships were forged during my years at Osler. It’s a special place.”
David recently read: Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright; and Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder.
David: “Both of these books detail corruption and greed at the highest political and business levels. One takes place in Asia; the other in Russia. Both of them are true stories and well-researched. Essentially, they show that when people are exposed to complex business dealings, money and power can lead to temptation and bad behaviour. They are fascinating from an intrigue level but also a reminder that there is a right way to do business and a way not to do business.”