Protecting the Environment, Elephants and U.S. Relations in Thailand

2/14 Pratt School of Engineering

David Lyman traveled the world after graduating in 1958, eventually leading a life based in Bangkok focused on climate conservation and animal protection

A man in a yellow life vest floating with a dolphin in water
Protecting the Environment, Elephants and U.S. Relations in Thailand

From Durham to Bangkok, through a laudable law career and military service, David Lyman still uses the wisdom he gained in his undergraduate engineering education.

Since graduating from Duke Engineering with a degree in electrical engineering in 1958, Lyman has served in the Navy and relocated to Thailand. He currently works as the chairman and chief values officer of Tilleke & Gibbins. A law firm of one office and 33 people when Lyman joined in 1967, Tilleke & Gibbins today has seven offices in six countries, staffed by over 600 lawyers and support personnel that work in 18 languages. Lyman’s career is especially notable for his tireless devotion to climate conservation and animal protection, which he continues to this day

He has received many awards and recognitions for his work, notably the royal decoration Member (Fifth Class) of the Most Admirable Order of Direkgunabhorn in 2021 from the king of Thailand for his work in promoting Thai-American relations.

David Lyman in his Navy ROTC uniform in 1956 (left) and today (right). After serving in the Navy, Lyman spent his career building U.S.-Thai relationships, promoting environmental programs and protecting animals large and small.

Lyman came from an unusual educational background before pursuing his bachelor’s degree—he was educated all around the world at schools in the United States, South Korea, Japan, Thailand and South India. Lyman finished his last two years of high school in Geneva, Switzerland.

Entering his time at Duke, Lyman was looking for a challenge. Skilled in math and science, he decided on electrical engineering. Aside from his ECE classes, Lyman was also an active member of the Duke Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC).

His college career was not without setbacks. In his junior year, Lyman failed two courses and had to spend the summer at the only university at the time that had the classes he needed—the University of California Los Angeles. Lyman returned to Duke the following semester with a renewed sense of determination and hustle.

Studying for a degree in engineering demanded dedication, focus and learning—the scientific method of approaching issues. This way of thinking I still use to this day.

David Lyman Class of 1958 • Chairman & Chief Values Officer at Tilleke & Gibbins International Ltd.

Though he would go on to become a highly successful lawyer dealing in compliance and investigations, dispute resolution and litigation, and corporate mergers and acquisitions, a law career was not on Lyman’s mind at the time of graduation from Duke Engineering. Instead, he entered into military service and was assigned to be an engineering officer on a minesweeper vessel based in Long Beach, Calif.

“I had a yearning to qualify in submarines, so I applied to the U.S. Naval Submarine Officers Training School, and to my surprise I was accepted,” Lyman said. “After six months of intense training in New London, Connecticut, and graduating in the top 20% of my class, I might add, I was assigned to my first submarine in Honolulu, Hawaii.”

Lyman spent two more years as an engineer on submarines until his four-year NROTC contract commitment was up. He continued his naval service in a submarine reserve unit in San Francisco.

Coming from a family of lawyers, Lyman decided that law school would be the next logical progression in his life. He applied to Hastings College of the Law (now the UC College of the Law, San Francisco).

David Lyman at a submarine base in San Diego in 1964.

“After my first semester of law school, I realized that I had found my life’s calling,” Lyman said.

After passing the California bar exam and practicing law in Oakland for a few years, Lyman returned to Bangkok to join his parents at their law firm in 1967 where he has remained to date.

Lyman has led an admirable law career, spending his years in Thailand advocating for better business environments, a cleaner planet for future generations, animal welfare and positive U.S.-Thai relations.

He was a founding member of the Thailand Business Council for Sustainable Development and has served as a member of the board of the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals since 1993. During his time as vice president of the organization, Lyman, along with other members and activists, presented the Cruelty Prevention and Welfare of Animal Act to members of parliament in 2012, and the law was passed in 2014.

Strive to be a force for good, stand up for what is right, learn how to make a good cup of coffee and never pass up an opportunity to use the nearest bathroom.

David Lyman Excerpt from “Some of My Life’s Lessons Learned”

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tilleke & Gibbins, Lyman raised money to help the Rajapruek Institute Foundation plant trees in degenerated forest areas in Thailand. Tilleke & Gibbins has now spent over two decades raising money and planting trees on 435 acres of land throughout Thailand, along with supporting the Rajapruek Institute Foundation’s efforts to spread awareness of the reforestation efforts.

Aside from serving on committees, influencing legislation and legally representing environmental conservation agencies, Lyman is fiercely dedicated to protecting abandoned animals.

For over a decade, he was the primary supporter of Mrs. Manee Saengjun, a woman who cared for and fed over 500 dogs and a small number of cats at her home in Pathumthani Province. Ever since her passing in 2020, her daughter, Vilailuk Peawsung, has cared for the animals, and Lyman continues to support her.

David Lyman at his graduation from Duke in 1958.

After floods destroyed elephant camps and the displacement of their elephants in 2011, Lyman and his wife raised over $8,000 and made a personal donation of $275,000 to rebuild the elephant camp and replace the equipment lost in the disaster. He and his wife co-founded the Thai Elephant Medicine Fund in 2006 and the Thai Dog Welfare Fund in 2007.

Lyman has spent decades traveling the world with family for conferences, awards, festivals and celebrations, and he regularly visits the elephants he supports in an elephant camp north of Bangkok.

Apart from his first book Lyman’s Laws for Lawyers (and Everybody Else Too!), which recently reached its 12th printing, Lyman wrote and published in 2020 a list of Some of My Life’s Lessons Learned that he distributed to family, friends and colleagues—and now to current Duke Engineering students.

Lyman writes that we should strive to be a force for good, stand up for what is right, learn how to make a good cup of coffee and never pass up an opportunity to use the nearest bathroom.

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