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The Singapore Law Gazette

Fifteen Years – and More?

April is a significant month to me. Besides the anniversary of this column, which turns 16, I also started my law firm 15 years ago this month.

Whilst my colleagues and I celebrated the Firm’s anniversary, the event was made even more joyous by the presence of former colleagues who had contributed to the early growth of the Firm. The growth and success of the firm are the people, who are after all the most important asset in any organisation.

At the centre of this large stage known as life are people. We are complex beings, not understood well by each other and that is not surprising when we are still struggling to understand our own selves every day.

I have learnt a lot about the nature of fellow lawyers in the fraternity – their personality, what motivates them, their authenticity, how they interact with each other and the type of relationships they build with each other and their expectations of each other.

Mental health for lawyers was finally brought up into the open last year. A couple of years ago, I was burnt out and did not know it. I felt disillusioned and depressed with a heavy heart. I did not care about the people around me and was just simply unhappy. When I finally discovered that I was burnt out, I was surprised at myself. Recovery from burn out can take a very long time, up to a year. We keep up external appearances very well and display a picture of perfection and control. This often gives the impression that inability to cope with practice and experiencing life and health issues is taboo. If we can share our inner experiences as a lawyer and how law practice affects our personal lives, there is a wealth of learning and support we can receive from one another.

Family law clients come to us at the lowest and most vulnerable point in their life. They are emotional, unable to see reason and often transfer their frustrations onto the lawyers. We take in their negative emotions. We then deal with opposing counsels, some who can act just like the clients. We absorb that as well. Opposing lawyers in family cases are different from those in civil cases. As opposing counsels face difficult clients, it is rather common for them to transfer their clients’ plights into the court proceedings. This makes the family proceedings adversarial.

Our personal feelings, views, values and life experiences do inevitably affect our family law practice. How do we manage that? Not well but somehow we manage it by building ourselves to be emotionally strong, keeping a strict professional relationship with the opposing counsel, talking about it with fellow family lawyers or finding ways to destress over food and drink.

Senior lawyers are not taught two important skills – how to manage people and those who are law firm owners, law firm management. Managing colleagues and clients is one of the most difficult tasks I do every day. The modern workforce is an interesting lot, keeping us on our toes and teaching us valuable management skills.

Law firm management is an interesting subject in itself. Running a law firm for me was to fulfill my entrepreneur dream. Entrepreneurs, I think, are not satisfied with just running a business. They get the itch to venture elsewhere and to do more. My itch developed when I felt that I was done with law practice after 21 years. During lunch with a senior lawyer whom I respect, I asked him what keeps him going after so many years in practice. He said, “Staying at home is so boring, you know.” I laughed and reminded him of his many pursuits outside of law. I shared with him how I am no longer sure whether I can keep on soldiering in law like him and many others who never stop. He suggested having a varied practice so that there is a change which makes law practice interesting. He then smiled and said, “If you want to ease off, plan a slower pace of life. Transit into it slowly and see how you like it.”

The last 15 years have been like travelling on a long roller coaster ride with no end in sight. There are lows and highs, sweat, tears and frustration. Many mistakes were made and many valuable lessons were learnt.

The common sentiments of difficulties faced by small law firms are not peculiar to us. All sized firms face challenges today.

Keeping away from naysayers and becoming heavily involved in the work of the Law Society gave me the necessary bigger picture of the legal profession. I appreciated the challenges faced by the various sectors of the profession and did not feel alone. Interacting with fellow lawyers, various leaders of the Bar, the Bench and other stakeholders made me feel hopeful and invigorated about practice. If I did not have such meaningful external engagements, I do not think that I would have lasted very long as a lawyer.

Finally, my thanks for the endless support, patience and assistance rendered by my parents, the Wife and to all who have worked and continue to work in the Firm. This is a journey of many individuals, without whom I would not be here today.

Rajan Chettiar LLC
E-mail: [email protected]