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The Singapore Law Gazette

Let’s Change

If there is one word to describe 2020, I would say it is change. I would not be exaggerating to say that we went through changes every other month this year.

Changes can be categorized as positive or negative. The changes this year, though regarded by many as negative, can be given a positive twist. As humans, we are conditioned to welcome positive changes to life events such as graduation, finding a new job, getting married, having children and being promoted to partnership in a law firm. We naturally do not like negative changes such as being inflicted with illnesses, breaking up in a relationship, getting divorced or losing loved ones to death.

Change can be negative and yet be positive as this year has shown us.

We have lived and practised law in a certain way in Singapore. And the pandemic forced us to change all of that in a weekend in April this year when Circuit Break was announced. New ways of living and working were imposed on us. The strength of the human spirit is that we can adapt to change. We can change, if we wish to or rather have to. We dutifully stayed home, worked from home, limited socializing and for some of us like me, the whole perspective of life changed entirely this year.

Some changes are permanent whilst others are temporary. Are the changes in 2020 going to be temporary? Whilst socializing in the ways we used to know, travelling and working together may return, if not wholly in 2021 but in 2022, some changes will be felt for a very long time.

We have labelled periods in human history in many ways – BC, AD and so forth. 2020, to me, is the beginning of a new era, where we start life on a new slate – where we are given an opportunity to live and work in a new, different and better way. It does not mean that there was anything wrong with the way of we operated our lives before January 2020. This year has just given us a golden opportunity to examine our life and make positive changes to the way we live and work in the coming post-COVID years.

We had practised law in a traditional manner till 2020. We had our physical law offices, attended meetings and Court hearings physically. 2020 has shown us that we can work from home, conduct virtual meetings and participate in virtual Court hearings. Some years ago, there was a discussion of enhancing the role of technology in Court hearings and the Court house being a physical structure that Court users do not always have to go to. We have seen that idea coming into fruition in 2020. The Family Justice Courts, where I practise in, has gone nearly virtual.

Whilst the tendency to go back to our working life pre January 2020 is very strong, it would be a shame if we discard the changes we went through and label them as temporary and return to our old ways. It would be as if 2020 did not exist at all.

2020 gave me an opportunity to break out of the traditional law practice model and allowed me to use the year as a testbed to see how my dream of many years of running a virtual law firm will pan out. My report card after eight months of running a virtual office is a positive one and our revenue and productivity was the same as when we were operating in a physical law firm last year.

The way to go forward is to do adopt a hybrid method of law practice where we go into the physical office when there is a need to. Technology has enabled us to plug in and work from anywhere. I have attended meetings in the midst of hospital visits or whilst being on the go and worked from cafes whilst waiting for the next appointment.

Though physical contact and body language are essential in Court hearings and mediations, again we can have hybrid Court attendances as well. Tele Case Conferences conducted by the Family Courts have helped us to save time and these conferences are conducted expeditiously compared to the days of travelling to Court and waiting for our turn at the Case Conference which often does not last more than 10 minutes. Online Court mediation sessions have also been effective, except for the occasional IT glitches and fatigue caused by sitting in a Zoom mediation for continuous periods of time. It saved us time from going in and out of the Mediation Chambers for our private sessions and scrambling to find that physical private space in the Courts. We now have break-out rooms in Zoom and the Mediation Judge comes in and out of the rooms effortlessly.

The pre-2020 way of working was the only way we knew how to run our law practice. We gave lip service to video conference hearings or to technology in law practice. But now, we have been shown that there are other methods of working which are more efficient and productive. Does change have to be imposed on us by pandemics or by the movers and shakers in our society? Or should we be responsible to make the changes that we wish for?

Change is shaking up the status quo and is uncomfortable. It is difficult to accept and adapt to changes. But changes are introduced to our lives every day by external forces – physical aspects of Singapore change from year to year. Old buildings that have been part of our growing up years are torn up and replaced with glass towers and retail malls. Retail shops just close down suddenly after enjoying a long history in Singapore. Mobile phone technology changes once every two years.

Life in Singapore is about change, whether consciously or sub-consciously. As Minister Indranee Rajah said, future life in Singapore is going to be phydigital.

Let’s make changes ourselves and not wait for changes to be imposed on us.

Rajan Chettiar LLC
E-mail: [email protected]