Finding Meaning in Practice
Heartiest congratulations on being called to the Bar, and a warm welcome to those entering the legal fraternity in Singapore. It is hard to picture this right now, but some of you are about to enter a profession that will be the defining arc of your lives for the next 40 years or more.
Yes, a life in the law is not only sustainable, it can also be very satisfying. Here are some elements I discovered early on in practice that have helped sustain my life in the law for the last 24 years.
First, realising that every lawyer is blessed with a unique opportunity to help others. You now have a set of skills and qualifications that uniquely enables you to help people who are facing a particular kind of challenge – legal problems. Whilst every profession is dedicated to the betterment of society, I believe that the service provided by lawyers and doctors have the distinct advantage of immediacy: they can touch peoples’ lives directly in moments of crises or calamity, in a way that other professionals cannot.
You will experience this in a variety of ways, but will perhaps experience this most vividly as a young lawyer when you volunteer at legal clinics. With your legal knowledge and know-how, you can help people directly and offer instant relief: by supplying a legal answer, or pointing them to where help may be obtained, or explaining how they can go about solving a legal problem by themselves. You will be surprised by how your simple words of counsel can be a tremendous solace to people just by clarifying their situations. And even where the legal troubles are knottier or their resolution potentially more protracted, you can offer welcomed guidance on what their options are or what their immediate next steps should be.
Second, realising that your availability is more important than your ability. Even as a young and inexperienced lawyer, you will be surprised by how much peace of mind you can bring to another human being – just by showing up and offering whatever little you have been taught to do.
When I was a first yearer in practice, a secretary asked if I could help someone who had been charged for an offence relating to moneylending. Truth be told, I was a little apprehensive as I was doing commercial litigation in a Big Four firm and had no exposure to criminal practice. I didn’t feel qualified or experienced to help this person. Nevertheless, since I was the only lawyer this person’s family had access to, I thought I should at least help to triage his situation and see where that took us.
The “client” turned out to be a slight and delicate-looking man in his fifties. He did not finish primary school and was working, until his arrest, as a craftsman in a jewellery shop. He was single and still living with his aged parents. He suffered from intellectual disabilities. When he spoke, he sounded like a 12-year-old and appeared to be naïvely innocent.
I looked at his charge sheet. He was charged for aiding and abetting in illegal moneylending activities by going around collecting debts from debtors.
It turned out that his boss was running a side racket as an illegal moneylender. The “jewellery shop” was probably a pawnshop. His boss had brought him to the bank to open a bank account and obtain an ATM card, which his boss retained. The client was given the routine task of collecting payments from debtors (without threat or coercion) and then depositing the collections at cash-deposit machines.
I could not understand why this person would be charged for a criminal offence when he was very much a victim himself, being clearly taken advantage of by his boss. I decided that I was at least capable of writing a letter of representation to the AGC on his behalf. All I did really was to explain how the client was himself a vulnerable person and gave a full account of the circumstances that led to his involvement in this matter. Much to my surprise, we received a positive response some months later confirming that the Prosecution would withdraw the charge against this individual.
This was a swift and satisfying resolution to my first pro bono case. But after the initial jubilation had subsided, troubling questions began to arise in my mind. But why did he get charged at all? And what would have happened if his family was unable to secure affordable legal representation? Would the Judge have picked up that something was remiss if the client had indicated – through a Court interpreter – that he was prepared to plead guilty because he accepted the fact that he had gone around collecting payments on behalf of his boss? Would all the availing factors that should mitigate his sentence be brought to the Court’s attention if he appeared as a litigant-in-person?
The uncomfortable ambivalence that I experienced in that case spurred me on to get more involved in criminal cases. I therefore signed up for the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), which was one of the best decisions I made in my legal career.
Whenever I did a CLAS case, I felt like the experience was as much a blessing for me as it was for my client to receive free legal representation at a crucial hour in their lives.
Whenever I did a CLAS case, I felt like the experience was as much a blessing for me as it was for my client to receive free legal representation at a crucial hour in their lives. As a young lawyer, I had the opportunity to gain invaluable advocacy experience and to even lead in criminal trials. But what was more, you experience a deep satisfaction from helping someone who was unable to help themselves or not in a position to repay you for what you’re doing for them.
Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”. Looking back at my own legal career, the personal highlights and the most memorable moments are invariably the pro bono cases where my colleagues and I were able to cause a real difference to individual lives.
Third, living for more than ourselves. To sustain a life in the law, we need to develop a sense of purpose in doing what we do. One way is to volunteer some of our time, talents and treasures for a cause that is greater than ourselves, in service of the larger community.
Get in touch with the Law Society Pro Bono Services to see how you can help out. There is so much you can do. Get personally involved. You will find that the work is not only personally enriching, but you will come away with a different perspective about your day job.
I do wonder how much of the Great Resignation is the result of lawyers feeling a sense of isolation and helplessness at work – without ever realising that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Fourth, connecting with the larger community of lawyers in Singapore. I do wonder how much of the Great Resignation is the result of lawyers feeling a sense of isolation and helplessness at work – without ever realising that it doesn’t have to be that way. Developing some healthy perspectives helps.
For example, realising that you are neither unique nor alone in your sufferings under the weight of client demands or court deadlines. Or that you can reach out to others who are similarly situated to figure out coping strategies that you might find helpful. Or appreciating that your experience of legal practice in your very first law firm or under one manager is not necessarily representative of what the rest of the legal profession looks like or what your practice life could be.
Sadly, many talented young lawyers leave the profession prematurely due to poor experiences working under an individual lawyer or firm without giving themselves a chance to experience a different kind of practice life.
By joining Law Society committees and participating in activities organised by the profession, you are opening yourself up to other people and possibilities. Ideally, you will find mentors outside of your law firms and beyond your practice areas; people who are able to give you insights into practice and your psyche, and offer new ways of looking at things. You may discover that you are better suited to another area of the law or a different kind of law firm that is more in sync with your personality or preferences. Sadly, many talented young lawyers leave the profession prematurely due to poor experiences working under an individual lawyer or firm without giving themselves a chance to experience a different kind of practice life. Thankfully, there are many resources available under the Law Society and the Singapore Academy of Law for younger practitioners to seek out mentorship and career guidance.
It is never too early to start looking for ways to use your skills to serve the wider community. Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can. You can find meaning and purpose in this profession if you look for it. The law firms of today are much more receptive to the idea of their lawyers doing pro bono work and getting involved in professional ECAs. Take full advantage of that. Finally, develop a sense of connection and community with your fellow lawyers, because the friendships you make and the good will of fraternity will continually sustain and animate your life at the Bar.