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The Singapore Law Gazette

Interview with Mrs Arfat Selvam, Pro Bono Ambassador 2017

LSPBS sat down with Arfat Selvam, Managing Director of an international law firm, Duane Morris & Selvam LLP and Pro Bono Ambassador 2017, to ask her what motivates her to continue doiing pro bono work as well as what advice would she give to young lawyers who are interested in pro bono work.

Mergers, acquisitions, takeovers and capital markets – all words that we would expect to associate with the work of a corporate lawyer. But what about, charity, giving and for the public good … still thinking about a corporate lawyer?

The average layperson would be forgiven for thinking that the former and the latter aren’t generally embodied by the same person. Or at least, not so far as stereotypes go. But after sitting down with Arfat Selvam, Managing Director of international law firm, Duane Morris & Selvam LLP, it’s unequivocally clear that you can in fact, be both.

A corporate lawyer with almost 50 years in legal practice, Mrs Selvam’s accolades in the corporate world stand equally alongside the projects and causes she has contributed to, outside the office. As the founder member of Breast Cancer Foundation, President of the Muslim Financial Planning Association, and founding director of Hope Villages Fund Pte Ltd (to name a few), her appointment as Law Society Pro Bono Ambassador for 2017 is fitting, to say the least.

But how did this well-seasoned celebrated lawyer – formerly Law Society President, recipient of the Law Society’s CC Tan Award, and cited not once, but three times in TheLegal 500 Asia Pacific’s “Recommended Lawyers” for Corporate and M&A – get started in pro bono? And why does she think it is important? We sat down to talk volunteering, advice for young lawyers, and her hopes for the pro bono landscape in Singapore.

Where it All Started

“Heart to God, Hand to Man” – the Salvation Army slogan that Mrs Selvam recalls, set off a passion for volunteering when she was a young lawyer. It is where her interest in pro bono began, and as it turns out, sparked a passion for projects, dedicated to the greater good, that would last a lifetime.

Originally approached by a friend, who asked if she would like to join and volunteer, Mrs Selvam proceeded to spend almost 20 years as a Board member of the Salvation Army. She recounts how they were a well-established organisation. “The Salvation Army was very structured, and they did all the fundraising themselves, so they didn’t need help with that.” Instead, Mrs Selvam’s contribution centred around corporate governance issues, and helping out with policies – a role which she remembers as so fulfilling, that at the time she thought: “I’m just going to do more of that.”

Why Pro Bono Work is Important

It is the sense of giving back that encapsulates Mrs Selvam’s overwhelming support towards pro bono. As lawyers “we’re trained in a profession, we have special skills, we’ve benefited so much from the community, we need to give back. It’s a sense of moral obligation to give back to society”, Mrs Selvam said. “It’s about how the underprivileged are allowed access to justice, and there’s a sense of fulfilment achieved in making a difference to somebody’s life.”

She offered a quote from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, encapsulating the vision for pro bono work:

“Certainly, life as a lawyer is a bit more complex today than it was a century ago. The ever- increasing pressures of the legal marketplace, the need to bill hours, to market to clients, and to attend to the bottom line, have made fulfilling the responsibilities of community service quite difficult. But public service marks the difference between a business and a profession. While a business can afford to focus solely on profits, a profession cannot. It must devote itself first to the community it is responsible to serve. I can imagine no greater duty than fulfilling this obligation. And I can imagine no greater pleasure.” – 78 Or. L. Rev. 385, 391 (1999)

Advice to Young Lawyers Interested in Pro Bono Work

Encouraging young lawyers to do more pro bono work is something Mrs Selvam finds fulfilling herself. The benefits that result, both to the community and to the lawyer, are something she strongly believes in. Pro bono work “opens up opportunities and helps [young lawyers] build their confidence. It helps them stand on their feet, helps with their advocacy, and is character building”. But that is just one part of it. “Because they are young, they can make mistakes, and so it allows them to go beyond their comfort zone.”

Apart from pro bono work adding to a young lawyer’s skillset, Mrs Selvam also reflects on how young lawyers who take up pro bono work are recognised by the firm. “They’re acknowledged within the office, and if they do well, they’re acknowledged outside as well. They’re acknowledged by their peers, and by their seniors. Without bragging about themselves, they can shine.”

Advice to Law Practices Interested in Pro Bono Work

The benefits of pro bono to a firm are also something Mrs Selvam speaks of with great conviction. Perhaps the biggest benefit? “The bonding that is created by people who are working together on a pro bono project.”

Speaking from personal experience, Arfat reflects on how pro bono work adds value to senior lawyers and their careers as well. “It helps build up your leadership qualities and teaches you how to get people to work together – a skill that’s very useful when managing a law office.” It allows the lawyer to build a network outside the law, as he interacts with fellow lawyers in charity and civil organisations.

While proud of the structure they have at Duane Morris, where associates are given 100 hours (and partners 50) of billable time to dedicate towards pro bono, Mrs Selvam’s advice for other firms is to ensure they have a sustainable structure for supporting pro bono. “You need to set aside resources, allow billable hours [for pro bono], and recognise and acknowledge people who want to do it.” A clear pro bono policy to encourage and guide young lawyers, is key.

Not only does she consider taking up pro bono a corporate social responsibility, but “for the younger lawyers especially, there’s a sense of pride that you belong to a firm that does pro bono work.” In August 2018, as part of its CSR project, she led her firm in the mission to give back to the underprivileged in a Hope Village project in Cambodia.

“Pro Bono enhances the perception of the law practice. It is an important part of how the law practice defines itself externally.”

Personal Journey, and Hope for the Pro Bono Landscape in Future

While she credits her grandfather as a driving and encouraging force behind her education and enrolment in law school in the first place, Mrs Selvam credits pro bono, and her contribution to it for the past four decades, as a catalyst for understanding herself more, developing a sense of gratitude, compassion and empathy for the underprivileged in her career.

Her hope is that law firms, of all sizes, recognise pro bono as their corporate responsibility, and that they “really advocate for finances, resources and support, to make their structure sustainable.” When asked her thoughts on whether pro bono should be mandatory, her response is what resonates most amongst all of us pro bono advocates out there: “no – it has to come from the heart.”


Mrs Arfat Selvam