On April 1, the Straits Times published an article by S Chandra Mohan, “Being a good lawyer requires you to be a good person: Opinion”.
I agree with much of what he said.
Lawyers serve the community. Often, they are the first responders to families in trouble, workers and businesses facing economic threats, and people charged with offences. In doing so, lawyers draw, not just on their legal knowledge, but on their values, resilience, and people skills. In short, they are emotional labourers. While manual labourers use their hands, emotional labourers use their hearts.
So, lawyers must be smart, honest, and caring. They must, in the writer’s words, be good persons.
Now, I turn to three important arguments the writer made, which I strongly disagree with.
Lawyers in law firms place money over ethics?
The writer suggests that lawyers are less ethical today, and says, “Increasingly, the legal profession may also now be less able or willing to cope with the ethical challenges arising from the need to balance running a profitable business with the interests and demands of a profession. If legal advisers, who are the ‘conscience of the corporations’ they advise, are themselves unethical, they cannot be relied upon to ensure that the corporations they advise are acting ethically.”
He also adds, “Many in the profession may be at fault with their over-emphasis on their business objectives of profits, high earnings, large bonuses, billable hours and early partnerships.”
We have a saying in law: Strong allegations require strong proof.
The writer’s strong and sweeping allegations, made against law firms and the lawyers who work there, aren’t supported by any evidence.
Is the legal profession more focused on money now, than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago? The writer provides no proof.
Is the legal profession less able or willing to cope with ethical challenges today? Again, there is no proof.
Are legal advisers “themselves unethical”, such that the corporations that they advise are also unethical? No proof.
Does the writer really believe that lawyers today care more about high earnings and early partnerships, as compared to lawyers of the past?
The writer is a former senior district judge and legal officer. I respect him greatly and I thank him for his many years of service in the public sector.
But speaking on behalf of the private sector, I cannot accept his comment that “many in the legal profession” over-emphasise profits, early partnerships and so on. It is his individual unsubstantiated opinion as an outsider who has had no meaningful work experience in the private sector.
Standards of present lawyers “troubling”?
The writer also said, “Recent reports of misconduct by fresh law graduates as well as lawyers of many years’ standing have been troubling. This is because the public perception of a lawyer is that of a professional of good standing, skilful and, above all, trustworthy.”
By “misconduct by fresh law graduates”, the writer is referring to an incident last year where 11 law graduates cheated in their Bar examinations.
Those law graduates were never members of the legal profession. Indeed, the Law Society objected to their admission. The 11 withdrew their applications. In other words, they did not become lawyers.
That incident doesn’t show any “troubling” decline in standards in lawyers. The 11 were never lawyers.
In fact, that incident makes the opposite point. It is evidence of the profession’s continued vigilance. We guard the profession against entry by anyone who lacks integrity.
The writer also referred to misconduct by lawyers, in general.
Let me put this in context. There are over 6,000 practising lawyers in Singapore. The “recent reports of misconduct” that the writer refers to represent a tiny fraction of the Bar. In every profession or industry, even in highly respected ones like medicine, finance, politics or religion, there will be members who misbehave. We are dealing with human beings, after all.
There are many more lawyers today. But there is no evidence that the proportion of lawyers who misbehave today is higher than in the past 10, 20 or 30 years.
I accept that, in the past couple of years, there has been a rise in the number of disciplinary tribunals appointed to look at the most serious charges against lawyers.
Still, the total number of individual lawyers found guilty in disciplinary tribunals has remained at around one or two dozen a year in the past 10 years. That’s less than 1% of the total number of our membership. We will do our utmost to see how we can reduce that number.
Can we reduce the number to zero? I will be blunt: I don’t think so. That’s because we are dealing with a profession of human beings. There will always be some who will stumble.
What is clear is this: we are a strict profession that punishes our members for breaches of our rules, and then publicizes those punishments for the public to read about. We are utterly transparent in our procedure, our findings, and our results.
The reason that the writer is able to criticize the standards of lawyers is precisely because we, as a profession, are prepared to stand up to public scrutiny. We are proud of our standards, we are proud of our members, and we are prepared to compare the conduct of our members to that in any industry, profession, or job, in finance, religion, politics or academia.
Discipline system not vigilant enough?
The writer writes, “Perhaps greater vigilance and stricter enforcement of breaches by the Law Society and its stakeholders may assist to deter misconduct. Something needs to be done urgently, both by individuals and collectively by the profession, to arrest the decline in values.”
There are several unfounded assumptions made in that passage.
The first is that the Law Society is not vigilant enough, and if only there was stricter enforcement, then misconduct would be deterred. I don’t accept that assumption.
If a complaint is made against a lawyer, it is evaluated in an independent process involving lawyers and non-lawyers. That process is long and detailed, governed by statute and rules. There is no basis to criticize the process or its outcomes as lacking in vigilance and enforcement.
The second assumption is that there has been a “decline in values”. In comparison to when? What is the time frame? Without that information, it will be hard to follow the writer’s point.
Comparing lawyers of the past with lawyers of today
It’s easy to criticize today’s generation and say they don’t measure up to those in the good old days. But anyone wanting to make such a serious comparison needs to back it up with data.
I’ve practised for over 30 years. Statistically, there are far more lawyers today than 30 years ago. But there isn’t any data to suggest that, statistically, the percentage of lawyers who misbehave has increased over that time.
There may be an impression that there are more reports of misconduct in recent times. But that may well be because there are many more lawyers today than in the past. It may also be that our reporting of incidents has become more thorough.
There is only one thing I can be sure of. Because there are more lawyers today, the Law Society works harder today to ensure that its members live up to the high standards that the public expects of us.
For their part, our members actively contribute their free time to promote pro bono for the less fortunate. They spend their weekends and evenings in community legal clinics advising the needy on thorny issues such as spousal abuse, family disputes and crime. Their tireless work is rarely highlighted in the media.
Instead, the media highlights the lawyers who have gone astray. It is discouraging. Every time one of our number messes up, we are all tarred with the same brush. We vow to work harder, and we hope that the public will judge us fairly in the long run.
I’m proud of the Singapore lawyers of today. They are not perfect, and there are bad apples among us. We will continue to expose them and take them to task. Those few do not represent us.
We are represented by the many who, day after day, serve their clients, and night after night, serve migrant workers, domestic helpers, the poor and the handicapped, for nothing in return. These lawyers are the “good persons” that the writer seeks, and he will find many of them at the Bar.