Best Interests of Lawyers
At the recent Singapore Academy of Law Annual Lecture Hong Kong Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-Li addressed the Supreme Court Auditorium filled with lawyers on “Lawyers and the Public Interest: Is There Still Honour in the Profession”. A former barrister, Chief Justice Ma was the best person to speak about challenges facing lawyers.
The thought provoking Lecture highlighted the dilemmas faced by lawyers. Law is a business and yet an honourable profession which provides access to justice for members of the public. The public’s legal rights are protected and enforced so that the private and business spheres of society can function effectively.
We face various challenges in law practice. There are many stories of counsels not helping the clients to reach a settlement and at times being an obstacle during the mediation process. There are lawyers who file unmeritorious suits, interlocutory applications or appeals. We all know of lawyers who litigate in Court on the reason of client’s instructions. Others engage in personal attacks against their opposing counsels or poach clients from other lawyers.
Whilst some clients can be difficult and unreasonable, most of them would usually listen to lawyers’ sound advice. They want to solve their disputes in the most cost-effective manner. They have no interest in engaging in long drawn litigation. Therefore, citing the client as a reason in Court also reflects on the lawyer’s reputation.
The dilemma lawyers face concerns earning a livelihood and balancing the duties owed to the Court and the client. The business of law is competitive and making a decent income is becoming tough nowadays. So, the way law is practised is understandably dictated by commercial realities. Thus, we are knowingly or otherwise not discharging our legal duties properly.
If the client is indeed making it difficult for lawyers to discharge their duties, then the ethical duty is to cease acting for the client. Many of us may not do so. Yet clients change solicitors easily. Some clients probably consider lawyers as hired guns and therefore do not treat us with due respect. Obliging such clients is sometimes the beginning of difficulties with such clients. Sometimes, we go far to make a living, and not all of us become the subject of disciplinary proceedings for such conduct.
Ethics is part of a person’s character and values. We are bound by ethics in all aspects of our lives. I measure the value of a day’s work by the good sleep I get at night. If I am bothered by a work issue after I leave the office, then something is amiss which requires reflection and rectification. It is said lawyering is an honour and privilege. The work we do affects human lives and families and futures. Being a lawyer is not a job or even a career. It is a calling. We have a duty beyond ourselves and our families, to the people around us, to society and even to the world as we live in a global village. If we do not act properly in the best interests of the client, then are we being honourable lawyers?
There are many of us who are litigious in this current amicable dispute resolution climate because of the training we have received. We find it difficult to change hats as litigators and mediation advocates. This is why not all lawyers are suited or able to do alternative dispute work.
There are two groups of lawyers – the litigators and the others. The others are also referred to as the “converted”. They appreciate and embrace the philosophy of settlement before litigation. They do not pay lip service to alternative methods of dispute resolution. They work hard during negotiations and during mediation sessions. The “others” group understands the litigators as they were part of that group in the past. They find it difficult and stressful working with litigators. Sometimes, they move to the other group when the clients want to litigate for emotional and other reasons such as principles. They have a choice to discharge themselves but they often do not as they wish to continue their service to the client and to make a living. They do not engage in traditional litigation as they are continuously guided by the settlement philosophy and looking out for the clients’ best interests. At times, they know the clients’ best interests better than the clients themselves.
The keen interest shown by lawyers towards pro bono work and to alternative dispute resolution as a means of settling disputes does show we care and want to protect public interests. And many lawyers, young and old, have shown through their work that there is honour in the profession.
Increasing membership in the converted group is not an easy process. Besides creating awareness, we have to consider several complex issues – preserving lawyers’ commercial interests in the light of the various changes to practice including simplification of Court processes and various initiatives to assist litigants to act in person. The price war between lawyers to attract clients is not helping lawyers’ business or even clients. We need to collaborate and share experiences and skills on client management.
It is time to examine the personal interests of lawyers as their welfare has a strong influence on the development of the legal profession in the future and to upkeep the honour in our calling.