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The Singapore Law Gazette

Today, Be the Person Whom You Can Be Proud of Tomorrow

Dear Young Lawyer,

My heartiest congratulations to you on your call to the Bar. I recall being very happy, very satisfied when I got called to the Bar years ago. Finally, all those hard work from your days of education and during your training period have paid off. And finally, you are closing this chapter of your life. But just as you close one chapter, you are concurrently flipping open a new chapter.

With the benefit of starting on a clean slate, you are like a blank piece of canvas. Stroke by stroke, you paint on this canvas. Hopefully, one day, it is a beautiful piece of art staring back at you. That would be when you look back at the strokes that you placed on the canvas, and feel proud that you made the right moves.

Often, the right decisions are made when we have the right principles underpinning the decision-making process. As a former young lawyer, I learnt along the way, sometimes in ways harder than I would have liked. Given the brevity of this article, I share just three ideas with you, which I hope will help you choose the right strokes as a young lawyer, as a new entrant into the workforce, as a team mate, as an employee, and one day as a leader.

Work-Life Balance

Forget it. It does not exist.

Or … maybe it does. Then get real. Accept the trade-offs.

We live in the digital age of smartphones, web mails, and seamless connectivity. The texture of work and expectations of how we work have changed tremendously. Expectations of the speed of correspondences are much higher for example. The line between work and personal lives are becoming blurred. Your clients, your boss, your colleagues may be calling for attention and it is difficult to ignore these too many times without being misconstrued as unhelpful or unmotivated. Is it ever going to change? Yes … it will only get worse.

But look at it in good spirit. As with most things, one needs to put in the hours to become good. A lawyer’s job, or most jobs in the corporate world for that matter, is not one where one becomes experienced and proficient without a significant investment of time and effort. Experience takes time.

Respect Experience, Which Comes with Commitment and Sacrifices

The story goes like this. The engine of a large commercial vessel failed and no one on board could fix it. Then the crew brought in a man with 40 years of job experience. He inspected the engine carefully, and reached into his bag to pull out a hammer.

Gently, he knocked a knob on the engine and it jumpstarted to life! The next day, the owners of the vessel received his bill for $10,000. They objected to the costly bill, saying, “you hardly did anything!” and insisted on an itemized bill.

The man’s reply:

“Please find my itemized bill appended below.

1. Tapping with a hammer — $1
2. Knowing where to tap — $9,999
Grand total — $10,000

Thank you.”

Do not ever underestimate the power of experience. It helps you cultivate an intuition about what might be the right thing to do at the right time to deal with a difficult problem at hand.

Experience is valued and is valuable. It requires you putting in the hours. Particularly if you are interested in carving out a career which you can be proud of, or if you are genuinely passionate about your work, you will want to go the extra mile, commit to the hours (however long they may be) because you feel responsible for it, and perfect your craft to deliver the work. The satisfaction when you do a good job and manage to build a meaningful career? Priceless.

Enough said. Let us say you have got your life priorities clear. And you prioritise your personal pursuits higher than putting in the extra hours at work. Then the best favour you can do for yourself is to make peace with your choice. Be happy that you chose (whatever it may be), despite having a flatter career progression or being paid less bonus. If this is something that you can live with, and for good reasons you can be at peace with, go for it! I personally know of people who do and are perfectly happy with their choices.

Spirit of Excellence

A final word about adopting the spirit of excellence in your work. It is always seeking to value-add.

A professor delivering a lecture I once attended brought a bar of chocolate to class and asked all 35 of us to scribble on paper how much we would be willing to pay for it. We were forewarned to take this exercise very seriously because he would randomly pick any of us and make an offer to sell the chocolate bar at the price indicated by the particular student, who would in turn be obligated to purchase it at the price indicated.

We submitted our offers and the spectrum of prices for which people were willing to pay for the 180g bar of chocolate was astonishingly wide-ranging – from $3 to $200!

When the professor asked the person with the most generous offer price of $200 about her motivations, she simply said, “I really love chocolates. I have $200 in my purse. This is an amount I am willing to part with for this chocolate bar.” And the transaction took place there and then before our eyes. Money really did change hands!

It did not matter how much the professor’s chocolate bar really cost (it was $18 by the way). What matters was how much people thought it was worth and were willing to pay for it.

Likewise, if we could be commoditised, I recommend adopting a mind-set where your “value : price” ratio should always read more than “1”. Value being how much value you deliver and bring to the table, as opposed to price being how much you are paid for the job, the formula should read:

Everyone wants to keep someone who delivers value over and above what he is paid to do. As a lawyer, you are generally well-rewarded, and are well-remunerated compared to many other professions. It is not an entitlement. Nobody pays you to feel entitled. If you deliver value, your excellence will shine through.

As a parting word, you may not have agreed with everything I said but if anything I have shared resonates with you, I am glad. The views expressed herein are entirely mine and you are entitled to maketh your own path and clock your personal experiences.

I encourage you to bask in the glee of being a newly minted full-fledged lawyer and face tomorrow with much tenacity and courage! As Nelson Mandela puts it, “Don’t give up. The beginning is always the hardest. Life rewards those who work hard at it.” And as everyday is full of choices, today, live life to the fullest and choose to be the person whom you can be proud of tomorrow.

In friendship,

Former Young Lawyer
Genie Sugene Gan