Mass Call Speech by Vice-President Chia Boon Teck
This speech was delivered by Vice-President Chia Boon Teck at the afternoon session of the Mass Call on 21 August 2023.
First of all, welcome to the legal profession and let me congratulate all of you and your proud parents on this momentous occasion.
How many of you are here today to fulfil your parents’ fantasy of having a lawyer child? Or are you here under the influence of Boston Legal, LA Law or Suits? Or because you have seen lawyers morphing into judges and ministers? Or seen them driving fast cars? (I mean the lawyers, not the judges) Or because you want to give back to society?
Whichever is your answer or a combination thereof, I must warn you that you have to first survive the legal profession’s five-year pain. You have all heard of the seven-year-itch in marriages. I am sorry that the legal profession doesn’t have any itches to offer you but instead, we have a five-year-pain. This is the period when you will be tempted to go in-house, become an influencer or TikToker, sell fast cars, or better yet – marry rich and drive your fast car into the sunset. Before I get accused of being a sexist, I am referring to both sexes when I say “marry rich”.
The first five years of being a lawyer is tough because the learning curve is very steep. Knowing how to research the law is only the beginning. Of equal importance is your mastering of the facts, learning the procedure, looking for the evidence, understanding your professional ethics, placating your clients, and suffering your supervising partner’s mutilation of your drafts!
My own son didn’t survive the legal profession’s five-year pain. After training with me for just three months, he threw in the towel and proclaimed, “Dad, there are many easier ways to make a living.” To which I jokingly replied as I cried, “You could have told me this before I mortgaged our house to send you overseas.” When I share this story with my friends, many of them blame me for setting a bad example vis-a-vis work-life balance. In my defence, I have to put food on the table, so failing or slowing down was not an option.
There is no shortcut to the learning process. With every research that leads you to a dead end, that journey is not a wasted exercise because it forms and adds to the database in your head. When your supervising partner instructs you to do something, he deliberately doesn’t want to share his preliminary views with you because he does not want to prejudice your research. He wants you to prove his instincts right or surprise him otherwise. So take each piece of work as a learning experience to grow as a lawyer, and not as a chore or a nuisance.
It helps if you are a reasonable person with a good common sense. Because with these qualities, you will instinctively know what is right and who is right; and this instinct will help steer your research in the right direction. If you are an unreasonable person with a warped sense of justice, you will always be barking up the wrong tree and giving your clients wrong legal advice.
As a junior lawyer, find time to quickly familiarise yourself with the Legal Profession Act and the Professional Conduct Rules. One of the stresses of legal practice is not knowing your rights vis-a-vis your client, your opponent, and even the Court. When you know your rights, you will be able to think on your feet and handle or diffuse a situation without getting yourself into disciplinary or legal troubles.
Now let me say something about work-life balance.
Whenever I interview applicants for a job at my law firm, I would always ask them to rate on a scale of one to 10, the importance of the following items to them:
- Work-life balance;
- Challenging work;
- Working environment.
I find this a very good exercise as it makes the job applicants address their minds to their priorities. One can’t have more money and work-life balance at the same time. Money and work form a vicious cycle. More work means more money. Less work means less money. It’s not rocket science. The employer has to bill clients to pay employees, rental and a range of overheads. If the employees work efficiently, the employer can bill timeously to pay the employees decently. If the employees want work-life balance and drag out the completion of the clients’ matters, the employer can’t bill the clients until then. And if the efficiency level falls too far behind salaries and rentals, the employer closes shop. It is really not rocket science.
Are you Zoomers not hungry like us Boomers were in the 1990s? A senior partner of a large law firm shared an observation that escaped me which is that Zoomers are not getting married, not raising families, and therefore only needed enough income to feed themselves. They don’t have to buy a property, they don’t need a car, and they can work from anywhere in the world with a laptop. So there is no pressure to earn an income to feed all these burdens. This explains the call for work-life balance. Is this true? You tell me during the reception afterwards.
Work-life balance is not just an arrangement between the employer and employee. Even if the employer and employee can have such a cosy arrangement, the clients must be agreeable to having their matters dragged out because the lawyers want a slower pace of life. And the Courts and Rules of Court must also agree to adapt to this new way of life!
Nobody is denying the importance of work-life balance. But we must be honest about legal practice being a business. Work-life balance will impact productivity, which in turn impacts the income available for salaries.
Bearing in mind all of the above, it is clear that the choices we make have consequences. It is important to decide early on what you want in your working life – is it money, work-life balance, or something else. I have tried to impress upon you that you can’t have it all. You must be honest with your aspirations and have realistic priorities. This is something you must determine for yourself.
Law is an old profession, a noble and powerful pursuit, the practice of which serves as the bedrock of a just society. As newcomers to the profession, you have chosen a path that requires and demands intellect, integrity, and a deep sense of responsibility. You count amongst the torchbearers of justice, entrusted with the duty to defend the rights and freedoms of individuals, and to shape the future of the law.
My young learned friends, you are embarking on a remarkable journey – one that will shape not only your own lives but also the course of justice in our society. This is a lofty undertaking. Embrace the challenges, seize the opportunities, and uphold the principles of justice that are the cornerstone of our honorable profession. Stay true to your passion for the law, and let it guide you on your path towards excellence.
Let me end my speech by giving you my heartiest congratulations again for having come this far in your arduous journey and I wish you every success in your budding legal career.