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The Singapore Law Gazette

President’s Message

Try a Little Kindness

Introduction

The chorus of an old country and western song in the 1970s first recorded by Glen Campbell goes:

“You’ve got to try a little kindness
Yes, show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness
Then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets.”

Of course, we need to try more than a little kindness, but the point was well made in that ditty.

Closer to home, General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, Dr William Wan, aka “Mr Kindness”, one of our brothers in law and elder statesmen at the Bar, profoundly quipped: “Doing an act of kindness, big or small, will change you from the inside.1As quoted in Isabelle Liew “Care to be kind? It’s an identity off greater value” The Straits Times (July 4 2018 edition)

Three Practical Ways to Show Kindness

There are three practical ways we can show kindness at the Bar.

First, as civil litigation practitioners among us know, we have a window period to come up to speed with the New Rules of Court coming into force on 1 April 2022. There will be some quick on the uptake. Others who will accelerate forward in mastery of the new civil procedure rules. Yet many may learn at a slower pace. All litigators should of course strive for maximal learnings during our three-month grace period, in the first quarter, granted graciously by the Honourable the Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.

Nevertheless, to assist in fellow practitioner member’s assimilation and adoption of the new Rules of Court, for the rest of 2022 even after implementation date, I encourage members to extend professional courtesy, mutual tolerance and understanding to one another should fellow practitioners commit errors, mistakes or lapses arising out of ignorance or misunderstandings of the new Rules of Court. This is the spirit of kindness at work. Professional indulgence should be granted, to the extent reasonably possible unless to do so would imperil your duties to your client.2I am grateful to Edmund Kronenburg, Co-Chair, Civil Practice Committee for his input on this request. If you need a reason to do so in enlightened self-interest, there is no better place to trace back to than the golden rule – recognised in different ways in different faiths. It also appears in one form or another in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Seneca.3https://www.britannica.com/topic/Golden-RuleDo to others what you would have them do to you”. And in its negative formulation, “Do not do to others what you would not like done to yourselves”.

Secondly, I was saddened to note that in recent times, there is a surge of complaints made by lawyers against other lawyers. While there will always be egregious wrongs (e.g. defalcations, conflict of interest) that need to be reported so that the Bar maintains consistently high ethical standards, some complaints that Council have seen border on the petty, stem from hostility and animosity and often time emerge from an unfortunate spat between lawyers. In a few examples, I have discerned a disgraceful gamesmanship element. Where there is too much heat, there is very little light. We have SC Mediate to help resolve genuine complaints between (i) law firm and lawyers; and (ii) between lawyers inter se. I am grateful to our Senior Counsel and senior lawyers who have gone beyond the call of duty. Serving gratis as mediators to resolve the problems and in some cases, conciliating parties and restoring relationships. Relationships at the Bar must count for something.

My appeal to lawyers, in the wake of this trend that my Council colleagues and I have seen, is let’s take a pause and step back, dispassionately look at the dispute or difference and ask ourselves if it is serious enough to merit escalation to a section 85 Legal Profession Act complaint against the lawyer involved. Please do not be trigger happy to fire away complaints to the Council with impunity without careful consideration and regard for the lawyers on the receiving end. We do ourselves no favours if we make complaints and cross-complaints against each other. Grace and goodwill (not ill will) in such situations involve making a telephone call to the counterparty to proactively raise the offence and thrash out the issues.

The third reason to be kind is that an invisible enemy is at work in our midst even in our present stage and state of battle against COVID-19. This is the onslaught of mental unwellness. I have spoken and written about this on several prior occasions (most recently writing on this for the President’s message for the October 2021 issue). I won’t make the case here. Suffice to say that if we believe we need to be kind to our own mind, let us also consider being kind to other minds. Some of those struggles are not apparent or discernible when we Zoom in and out of meetings with other lawyers. As Singapore opens up in the New Year, let’s prioritize reconnecting in person and also regularly check in with others around us on their mental wellness.

The Power of Empathy

There is a common thread connecting the three different situations I identified. Empathy. Empathy is distinct and distinguishable from compassion. Both concepts and qualities were helpfully elucidated by Kristin Gerdy in an article for the Nebraska Law Review:4Clients, Empathy and Compassion: Introducing First-Year Students to the ‘Heart’ of Lawyering” Nebraska Law Review 87 (2008): 1-61 adapted and reprinted in the Clark Memorandum, fall 2009, 29-37 at https://web.law.duke.edu/sites/default/files/clinics/healthjustice/gerdy_-_the_heart_of_lawyering_clients_empathy_and_compassion.pdf

“Ultimately, lawyering is a delicate balancing between a constantly evolving world and the fundamental principles that define our legal system. It calls upon your compassion as well as your intellect, your heart as well as your head… . [C]aring is as much a part of the legal profession as intelligence… . [I]t is every lawyer’s responsibility in every setting to serve others.”

Understanding clients and exercising empathy and compassion comprise the heart of lawyering. The Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” The English word empathy comes from the German word Einfühlung, which literally translated means “feeling into.”

“… compassion, … often mistakenly seen as synonymous with empathy, is “the feeling or emotion when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.” This definition refers to the compassion given “towards a person in distress by one who is free from it, who is, in this respect, his superior.

“… Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow describes empathy as “learning how to ‘feel with’ others,” and she asserts that empathy “is an essential part of the client-lawyer relationship.” Empathy is central to human relations and has been referred to as “the cornerstone of not only professional inter- personal relations, but also any meaningful human relationship.” Leading legal counseling scholars have said that empathy “is the real mortar of an attorney-client (indeed any) relationship.”

To “understand, from a human point of view, what the other wants to happen in the world” requires the lawyer to think, feel, and understand what that person would think, feel, and understand …”

(emphasis ours)

A powerful imagery on empathy comes from the famous fictional quote from Atticus Finch explained so clearly to his daughter, Scout, in Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

It is a truism that empathy and compassion are essential lawyering qualities. Yet it is an almost laughable to compartmentalize empathy to only our solicitor-client relationship and not other relationships in the legal profession. That’s schizophrenic. It is also evidence of a disintegrated, not integrated, life. Perhaps, this is another meaning of integrity as a quality of lawyers we need to reflect on. If we are not to lose our empathetic quotient as lawyers, it begins with how we relate to our fellow brother and sister in law. They too are in the service of law in this noble profession just as we are.

Conclusion

In truth, as Scott Adam reminds us:

“Remember, there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

And so in this final message of the year and my final message as Law Soc President, I appeal to you: try a little kindness.

In the final analysis, it is our kind and gracious words and acts rather than work accomplishments that define who we are as lawyers and how we will be remembered reputationally. Kindness is the lasting legacy.

Have a wonderful year end break all as we welcome a New 2022 with the hope and confidence of a brighter, better and more beautiful things for each of you!

Endnotes

Endnotes
1 As quoted in Isabelle Liew “Care to be kind? It’s an identity off greater value” The Straits Times (July 4 2018 edition)
2 I am grateful to Edmund Kronenburg, Co-Chair, Civil Practice Committee for his input on this request.
3 https://www.britannica.com/topic/Golden-Rule
4 Clients, Empathy and Compassion: Introducing First-Year Students to the ‘Heart’ of Lawyering” Nebraska Law Review 87 (2008): 1-61 adapted and reprinted in the Clark Memorandum, fall 2009, 29-37 at https://web.law.duke.edu/sites/default/files/clinics/healthjustice/gerdy_-_the_heart_of_lawyering_clients_empathy_and_compassion.pdf

President
The Law Society of Singapore