Sustainability in Legal Practice
First, let me congratulate all of you on your call and welcome you to the Bar. I share below some of my own insights and observations based on my journey in practice. I hope you will find these useful in navigating the path ahead as a young Singapore lawyer.
If you treat people the way that you want to be treated, it helps create the foundation for a good relationship. Regardless of whether they are clients, fellow members of the Bar, partners, colleagues and or staff – I have found that this simple rule has helped in my dealings with others.
In other words, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In one’s interactions with others, it is important to show that you appreciate the other person’s participation in what you are doing together. By listening attentively to what they have to say and recognising their efforts, one can easily show appreciation to those around us. Appreciation addresses the innate human desire to be valued, and feel important.
These simple acts allow us to bridge the gap with those around us, increase collaboration and work towards collective success.
Journey of Legal Practice
At the start, you must work hard at becoming a good lawyer (i.e. learn the law and master the facts of each case). As one progresses, people skills and client management skills take centre stage.
Legal practice is a marathon. At the start, you must work hard at becoming a good lawyer (i.e. learn the law and master the facts of each case). As one progresses, people skills and client management skills take centre stage. Further on, client acquisition becomes a priority and then team or firm management responsibility become important. Therefore, one has to enjoy the journey of legal practice – all aspects of it, including the business of law. Each stage of practice comes with unique challenges but can also bring great and immense satisfaction.
Having the right guidance especially in the early years of practice is critical.
I have been in legal practice for almost 50 years. I have worked at the same firm throughout my legal career (except when I served for two years as a Judicial Commissioner with the High Court). I was very fortunate that my early days of practice were shaped by the mentors who I worked with (including Mr CC Tan, my father Dr. A.P. Rajah, and Mr HS Cheah, the three founders of the firm). These mentors modelled not only excellent craft but demonstrated the qualities of what it meant to be a lawyer. Seeing this first hand made a great impact on me as a young lawyer and shaped my own values as a lawyer and eventually as a leader in the firm.
The pace of legal practice today has massively changed from when I started in practice. Technology has enabled much progress. But with the advent of e-mail and enhanced connectivity, clients expect legal service providers to be available 24/7. Surveys have shown that younger lawyers struggle with the work life divide, and many decide to leave practice for that reason.
But hyperconnectivity and the pace of transformation is not confined to legal practice. No industry is immune. The way e-commerce has affected the retail industry is illustrative. Businesses that cannot transform in time become obsolete. Therefore, the challenge for young lawyers is to learn how to integrate the various aspects of their life with their work goals, bearing in mind that one cannot achieve success at work without putting in the sine qua non of time and effort to learn the fundamentals.
Ultimately, in practice, the days may be long, but the years are short.
Personally, what has helped me is to focus on the task at hand, the matter before me and to do my best for the client and to assist the Court/Tribunal in the most helpful way. The rest usually works itself out.
Finding Meaning and Purpose
Doing a case well (whether securing a good result in court or negotiating a fair outcome for our client) is part of our job, and matters immensely to the client. We must not forget the impact of what we do can have on the lives of each of our clients.
As our society matures, prospers and progresses, as is natural in any first world country, people become more aspirational. The search for meaning and fulfilment in what one does becomes more important at an earlier stage in one’s career.
How can one derive meaning and purpose from the work we do as lawyers? Each time a client comes in, there is a problem to be solved. Some of them have suffered losses (including loss of loved ones), others have come to the end of a marriage or a business relationship. To that client, their legal problem is overwhelming. When they come to us, they look to us to not only provide legal advice and representation, but for support. Doing a case well (whether securing a good result in court or negotiating a fair outcome for our client) is part of our job, and matters immensely to the client. We must not forget the impact of what we do can have on the lives of each of our clients.
As a team, working together on a court submission, where each member plays a part and puts in his or her best to persuade and convince the Court can result in a product beyond the grasp of any one member. If one person can make a difference, imagine the difference a team can make.
In this way, meaning and purpose can be found in what we do every day. They reside in the simple things. Simple things that make an impact and matter to us and others.
Looking to the Future
The legal industry has evolved significantly over the course of the years.
As Singapore has progressed economically, lawyers have moved from being local providers to becoming regional players.
In the arbitration context, our homegrown Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) is now a recognised global thought leader and one of the best arbitral institutions in Asia if not the world. We have international luminaries working with and in SIAC. Commercial parties in Asia and increasingly in other parts of the world too rank SIAC as one of the top go-to institutions for arbitration.
Our high quality judiciary has also pioneered the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) and supported Singapore’s efforts to maintain its status as a global arbitration and litigation hub and build a global restructuring centre. All of these create exciting new opportunities for young lawyers in Singapore.
Success is Always Best When It is Shared
For the young Singapore lawyer, the world is your oyster. But it is up to you to identify what matters to you, what you want to achieve, and summon the passion and drive to pursue it. As you strive to greater heights yourself, do remember to help lift others up with you as much as you can. It does not have to be lonely at the top if you bring others along to enjoy the view.