Chat with Zara Lim

9 mins

Zara is a commercial litigation lawyer at Aptum, a boutique Melbourne law firm. She also runs an incredible creative business as the founder of Edward Kwan.

Edward Kwan is a fashion label specialising in unique handmade ties, bow ties, pocket squares, hair bows and paintings. Zara regularly works with clients to create hand-painted designs and custom wedding orders.

Edward Kwan is named after Zara’s grandfather who, until the age of 85, worked full-time as a master tailor at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore and has made suits for Bill Clinton, George Bush Senior and the first president of Singapore, Yusof Ishak.

A little-known fact about Zara is that she previously trained to be a professional ballerina before going into law.

LB. Hi Zara, I’m pretty excited to have you on Legal Brew. You’re now a lawyer at Aptum, a boutique law firm specialising in commercial litigation and insolvency. Can you tell us a little bit about your law journey to date?

ZL. I originally planned to be a professional ballet dancer, not a lawyer. I trained full-time in ballet for seven years and when I quit, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I studied law because I heard it was a good general degree with broad career options. When you quit ballet, you basically have to start your life all over again, so that in itself was really hard. Quitting ballet and going into law school was even harder and for the first time, I found myself with no passion in life. I know a lot of ex-ballet dancers struggle with that. But I just pushed through with my studies and did what everyone did—I applied for clerkships. The year I applied for grad jobs was the year that the job market was the worst ever.

LB. Was it 2013?

ZL. Yes, I did three clerkships but missed out on a grad job. One firm took three grads out of 40 clerks. I had worked casually at Macquarie Bank during uni, so I ended up staying on there in a full-time role. I won a scholarship from the Law Institute of Victoria which paid for my College of Law tuition so then I did part of my PLT with Macquarie’s legal team in Sydney. Around that same time, the firm that had only taken three grads out of the 40 clerks contacted me and offered me a grad job for the year after. So that’s how I ended up there.

My first graduate rotation wasn’t great. I found the team dynamics challenging and my mental health took a real hit. That experience made me think law wasn’t for me and I considered leaving the law at that point.

I requested to go into the Intellectual Property team for my next rotation. I had a great time because I was doing a lot of fashion litigation work, everyone was lovely and they were really happy with my work. Once I settled into that team as a first-year lawyer though, things sort of changed as I got pigeonholed into trade mark prosecution work. I just didn’t find the work meaningful at all—it was exasperatingly boring to me and naturally my work started to go downhill. It again made me think that maybe law wasn’t for me—I was after all a creative, artistic person and maybe law just didn’t suit my brain. So I considered leaving the law for a second time.

This is where I would tell law students that there are so many different areas of law, different firms and different teams within firms—they can be so so different. You could be in banking law and absolutely hate it, but be in criminal law and absolutely love it.

Luckily I had also been thinking of being a judge’s associate and ended up as associate to the Honourable Associate Justice Efthim at the Supreme Court of Victoria. And this is where I met you, Candice! Doing an associateship was the best decision. It honestly made me love law for the first time ever, being so immersed in the Court and real cases. My judge and I are still good friends today—he is a legend. I learnt way more about law than I ever learnt at a law firm. Before I got to the Court, I couldn’t even tell you the steps in a court proceeding.

LB.  Yes, me neither! My judge was shocked at how little I knew.

ZL. Yes! Despite the awesome time I had with my judge though, I was still scared to go back to a traditional law firm because I didn’t want to go through the same experience all over again. However, I was lucky to cross paths with Alex Nicol through a matter my judge was mediating and later found out he had started his own law firm with Nigel Evans, a commercial barrister.

One thing that stands out for me about the law firm I’m at now, Aptum—apart from the fact that I actually enjoy the work—is that Alex and Nigel support me running my side-business. Rather than seeing it as a threat, they see the value that I can bring from it, like business development and marketing skills.

Another thing is we don’t do time recording. Nigel is really against time recording because he doesn’t like the culture it creates. We do value pricing—it is similar to a construction contract where you quote upfront for the stages of litigation.

Healthy working hours are also a focus at Aptum. I just ran two back-to-back trials so I put in whatever hours I had to, but generally, we don’t encourage unacceptably long hours. It’s not about being lazy. The way that I describe Aptum is that we’re all super chilled, but we’re good lawyers without all the bullsh*t. It doesn’t mean compromising on the quality of the work.

LB. I’m a big believer in that! When I was at the Court, I realised that everyone had really normal lives. But they were doing some really incredible work. Like all the judges generally had standard hours but were producing a great deal. So you don’t have to work insane hours to have an output.

You have a creative outlet and side business, as the founder of Edward Kwan. Can you tell us more about how Edward Kwan came to be?

ZL. Law school was such a massive change from ballet, so I needed a creative outlet and enrolled in some beginner sewing lessons. My grandfather is a tailor, so my business is named after him. He still works full-time in Singapore and is 88 this year! Up until he was 85, he had a fancy shop in the Shangri-La Hotel and would get a lot of expat customers. Some of his clients included Bill Clinton and George Bush Senior. It was originally my great-grandfather’s business but he disappeared during the war when my grandfather was 13, so my grandfather had to take over once he finished school. My grandfather is a real inspiration. He’s always provided for the family and from a humble tailoring business, expanded quite a fair bit at one point to own a few factories. Then he brought it back down to one tailor shop.

LB. I’m a big fan of the Edward Kwan Instagram feed, where you have nearly 30,000 followers. What were the early days of running the business like?

ZL. I used to make dresses for myself in uni and I would post photos of them onto social media. I sold a few pieces to friends and then one day in my last year of uni, I made a tie for fun and a friend was like, “I’ll buy one from you”.

LB. Oh!

ZL. That’s literally how it started. He bought one and then…

LB. Your friend kickstarted your business!

ZL. Yeah, so I posted a photo of him wearing it. It was around Christmas and other friends said, “oh I’ll buy one for my boyfriend for Christmas” and then it all just happened organically.

LB. I think a lot of people love your work.

ZL. I also really love my work, and that’s important. What has made my business do well is that I have always believed in my products from Day 1. I’m naturally good at marketing but at the same time I don’t try to “sell”. I want people to buy my products because they actually want to.

LB. Can you give us a peek into the creative process at Edward Kwan and how you produce beautiful pieces for clients? Especially when you’re a busy lawyer and you don’t always have time.

ZL. There are two parts to my business. There is the custom order part and then the normal online store orders. I pay my dad to sew everything. The regular orders are pretty easy. If I get an order, I just send it straight to him and he makes it, so I don’t have to do too much for that. For the hand-painted custom orders, my customers will tell me what they want—like ties or bow ties, the colour scheme, the bridesmaids’ dresses. I have all my past designs on my website, so I will often say, “can you please take a look at my past designs, so I can have some sort of idea of what you like”. They might also send me photos of their floral arrangements. And then I just come up with something. I don’t know…

LB. Is it like a bubbling, creative process?

ZL. I don’t want to sound weird—but I kind of just go into my head and come up with something. I’ll create about four draft designs and send them to my customer for their thoughts, like if they want me to tweak it or change the colours. Most of the time, they are not too picky. I did have one customer though who wanted the designs tweaked a million times. I remember being at work doing law and—this has never happened before but—I thought to myself, “oh my god, law is so peaceful and relaxing”. Haha!

LB. Yes, it’s all relative, isn’t it! So, what or who are your sources of creative inspiration? I know we talked about your grandfather. Are there any other people?

ZL. Because of my ballet background, I am naturally inspired by that art form. There is a choreographer, Alice Topp, from the Australian Ballet who created this incredible work last year called “Aurum”, which was so moving and beautiful. But it doesn’t necessarily influence my actual designs—it’s more that other creatives inspire me to create my best art.

LB. How do you balance being creative, running a thriving business (from creating, sourcing, marketing, shipping), and #lawyerlife? Do you have special powers?!

ZL. People always ask me that! Sometimes I can’t cope and it’s about knowing when to admit that. Like recently, I was running two trials back-to-back over five weeks in Court. I was full-on working all the time and was so focused mentally. I had some custom orders for Edward Kwan already on the go but I put a stop to further custom orders during that period. Another thing is prioritising sleep and social life so you can be more productive when actually working. I also consciously try to have the mindset that everything is easy in life. I’m not going to say that I don’t get stressed but it’s that one little thing I try to do!

LB. It’s a “can do” attitude—OK, I’m inspired by that! Ballet is another of your secret interests, maybe not so secret now. You did full-time ballet training at the Australian Ballet School. Can you tell us a bit more?

ZL. I trained full-time at the Australian Ballet School for four years and before that, I was at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. Realistically, most people who train full-time in ballet will at some point experience some kind of eating and body image issues. When you go to ballet school at 15 or 16, you’re at a vulnerable age going through puberty. You literally stand in front of a mirror all day, every day and train yourself to be perfect. You were never good enough because it’s not actually possible to be perfect. Ballet dancers can be very perfectionistic, driven, competitive, a bit obsessive… so it can be a real recipe for mental health struggles. On the other hand, you love it so much and it’s the most beautiful thing in the world—you feel it in your soul.

LB. It sounds all-consuming because you train for hours and it’s your whole life.

ZL. It was very full-on. You train six days a week, then you might go home and do extra gym exercises. I think I was talented and had a lot of potential when I got accepted into the ballet school, but because I really struggled with anxiety, body image issues, the competitive pressure and got into a really negative, destructive perfectionistic mindset—I didn’t progress at all. No matter how much potential I had, I was never going to make it because my mindset was completely sabotaging me.

LB. Was that something that you observed in dancers?

ZL. Yes, I think so. It’s all about mindset. But when you’re young and less mature, you don’t understand.

LB. You have such a great story. It’s actually quite powerful because we don’t think about mindset as much in law. But in a very intense industry like dance, ballet especially…

ZL. Actually, with that whole mindset thing—when I joined my first law firm as a grad, I actually remember feeling like, “oh, I’m back at ballet school”. I didn’t like the competitive, high-pressure environment and I think I started to crumble in the same way. It was only during my associateship that I thought, “I actually need to change my mindset. I’m actually a good lawyer. I’m actually intelligent and I’ve always been intelligent—I shouldn’t doubt myself.”

LB. What tips do you have for law students or young lawyers who want to discover creativity in their day-to-day lives or start a side business?

ZL. I’d say start something because you’re passionate about it and maybe it’ll grow into something big. But it’s one thing to sit here and talk about being passionate—I think people maybe struggle to find what they’re passionate about… and I don’t think I have any tips for that… because my business is all just a big accident, to be honest.

LB. It’s nice to know that sometimes there are good accidents—maybe just having the mindset to be open to the possibilities is key!

If you could turn back time, what do you wish you could go back to tell your past self about?

ZL. I reckon the main thing for me as to how I live my life now is that I believe that whatever you truly believe actually comes true. It goes back to the same mindset thing.

Postscript…

Keen on acquiring a beautiful Edward Kwan piece? Check out their online shop here.

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