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The Singapore Law Gazette

Celebrating Teamwork: The Law Society Family Conference

Taking a leaf from Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

In this article, we want to celebrate teamwork, and in particular teamwork that has been effective and has created an impact on the legal profession and beyond. After all, we are members of a noble profession, looking beyond ourselves. And if we can work well together to produce something good that benefits the larger community, it is definitely worth doing and worth celebrating.

Following from the successful inaugural Family Conference in 2018 – a cross-practice collaboration proudly spearheaded by the Family Law Practice Committee, together with the Probate Practice and Muslim Law Practice Committees of the Law Society of Singapore – the Family Conference returned for its second instalment in 2019 to yet another resounding success. 

In both years, the Family Conference was a gathering of judges, lawyers, counsellors, mediators, and even law students; what I would call the ecosystem of practitioners in the family space.

The Family Conference Organising Committee, comprising experienced practitioners from the three Committees and beyond, wanted to provide for its diverse audience a holistic and multi-faceted view on Family Practice over two days, encompassing specialised panel sessions as well as smaller workshops, which discussed Family Law issues catered to practitioners of all levels of seniority.

Adopting the theme of “Supporting, Healing and Reconstructing”, experts and professionals spoke on a range of diverse and important issues including safety in relationships, parental alienation, estate planning, mental capacity issues, mental health issues in practice, comparative review on jurisdictional issues in the Family Justice Courts and Syariah Court and practical knowledge such as improving court craft skills.

Teamwork was not evidenced merely by the cross practice collaboration within the legal profession.

The Organising Committee also worked with our supporting partners, which included the Ministry of Law, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Office of Public Guardian, Family Justice Courts, State Courts, the Syariah Court, the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, and all three of our law schools at the National University of Singapore, the Singapore Management University, and the Singapore University of Social Sciences, in ensuring the comprehensiveness of the Conference programme, the inclusiveness of the issues concerning Family Practice, and the robustness and relevance of the discussions that took place during the Conference.

We speak to Ms Michelle Woodworth, Director at Quahe Woo & Palmer and Co-Chairperson of the Family Law Practice Committee, who is also the Organising Chairperson for both years’ Family Conference, to learn of her experience in leading the Committee, and her personal take on teamwork:

Genie: The Family Conference was a first one ever organised by the Law Society of this nature and scale. What inspired you?

Michelle: The Family Conference was born out of a vision to bring Family Practice together under a single canopy, encompassing matrimonial, probate and Syariah matters. In 2017, I was enthusiastic about putting together a series of informational talks for Family Practitioners. The goal was to thread familial topics holistically and collaboratively with the Probate Practice and Muslim Law Committees and the germination of conceptualising a conference was born. President and the Council of the Law Society of Singapore gave their blessing, for which I am ever grateful. Being the first of its kind, the support received was invaluable as we took on this ground-breaking and ambitious effort, a first for the Law Society of Singapore.

Genie: It is often tempting for one to feel that things get more quickly done when one works alone, as working with others simply complicates matters. Are there occasions where having too many cooks does ruin the broth?

Michelle: Not at all. During my Welcome Remarks at the 2019 Conference, while I said in jest that my brothers-in-the-law, fellow Committee Chairs, Raymond Yeo, Goh Kok Yeow and Ahmad Nizam, demonstrated their apprehension when I first approached them in 2017, they, together with my 2018 and 2019 Organising Committee members, in fact believed in my vision and supported my idea to have the Conference without reservation. Together with the Secretariat, the Conference Speakers, Moderators, Masters of Ceremonies, Supporting Partners, Sponsors and Volunteers came together to make the Conference a reality. I was merely a catalyst.

Genie: How would you describe your experience working with the Organising Committees for both Family Conferences 2018 and 2019, comprising practitioners from different but related practice areas?

Michelle: It is always very heartening to be a part of efforts working towards the betterment of the Family Justice ecosystem. I had the fortune of working with stellar teammates for both Conferences and learnt a lot from my peers. At his 2018 Opening Remarks, President of the Law Society, Gregory Vijayendran, SC, shared what both Organising Committees epitomised, that “The practice of family law cannot be viewed in isolation. Likeminded family, probate and Muslim law practice leaders have collaborated strongly to add breadth and depth to this conference.” Recognising that the Family Justice ecosystem comprises many stakeholders, we are also encouraged by the support of practitioners beyond the three practice committees who lent their support without reservation to the Organising Committee and to assist at the Conference as ushers, etc.

Genie: Were there challenges which the team encountered along the way, especially in the first year, and how did the team overcome these challenges?

Michelle: Trying to coordinate mutually available dates for meetings! We managed somehow, despite everyone’s busy schedules. On more serious note, we were very encouraged by the interest generated from the inaugural Conference as we encountered over-capacity issues and had more people than we had chairs! In 2019, we catered for a larger capacity and saw an increase in delegates.

Genie: Assuming that experience does count, did the challenges in the second year differ? Could you tell us more about your experience?

Michelle: We strive to learn from year to year and to keep doing what we can better. In 2018, the Conference began on both days with Plenary Sessions. This year, we opened day one with a Plenary Session and closed day two with the second Plenary, bringing participants together at the start and end. We took the post-Conference feedback from 2018 on board and saw an approximately 20 per cent increase in numbers attending the 2019 Conference, with about 10 per cent of delegates being non-practising solicitors. Our theme from the inaugural 2018 Conference was SH&Re – Supporting, Healing and Reconstructing. We decided to continue with the same theme into the second year of the Conference and I hope it will be a prevailing theme at future Conferences.

Genie: The Family Conference has been cited on multiple occasions as a sterling example of good teamwork and effective cross collaboration. What, in your opinion, were the defining moments for enabling such successful teamwork? What were the key factors which contributed to the success of the team?

Michelle: It has been a blessing to work with colleagues who have a positive attitude and who are always motivated to say yes. It was evident from the teamwork that they too believed in this effort. There has been a mutual theme of trust and respect between the Organising Committee members. I think we all knew implicitly that we could count on one another to bring the Conference in both years to fruition. As a side note, food always helps – never ask anyone to work on an empty stomach! We always meet over meals.

Genie: Is there anything which you are looking forward to in the next instalment of the Family Conference in 2020?

Michelle: Have to admit I am already in the midst of planning the third instalment, and am hoping the dates for 2020 can be firmed up as soon as possible. With experience from the last two Conferences, it is my hope that the third instalment will be another success for the Law Society. It is said that hindsight is 20-20. In the year 2020, my personal wish is that Conference will inspire acuity to Family Practitioners coupled with compassion for those in need, especially the most vulnerable – the children. I believe this is aligned with the Law Society’s thinking on these issues. The Law Society has recently launched a Vulnerable Witnesses Best Practices Toolkit, which provides tips to defence counsel on the cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses such as child witnesses. I aspired in my 2018 Welcome Remarks that as we heed this call to provide practical, constructive and effective solutions, let us never give up on the ideals of making our community a better place, one child, one family, one day at a time. I look forward to our continued collaboration to support, heal and reconstruct.

Michelle Woodworth and Vice President Adrian Tan presenting a thank you token to PJ Debbie Ong at this year’s Family Conference.