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The Singapore Law Gazette

Reflecting on What It Means to be an Ethical Lawyer

As you begin your journey as a young lawyer, do take some time to reflect on what you understand being an ethical lawyer entails. To help you in your self-reflection, you can refer to the snippets below taken from articles written for past issues of our Mass Call magazines. We hope that they will invigorate and inspire you for the journey ahead.

Ethical Precepts and Principles

Chan Leng Sun SC, “The Calling of an Advocate”, 2011 Mass Call Magazine

On the “weighty role” of practising as a member of a noble profession:

To fulfill that weighty role, you ought to constantly live by two precepts: Integrity and Industry. Ethics is the manifestation of integrity but integrity transcends ethics. It is the covert quality that determines your overt action. No other profession requires a fine balancing such as that required of you. You are duty-bound to honour the system as an officer of the Court, and to do right by your clients as their trusted counsel. A litigator gets into the trenches of humanity the way a transactional lawyer will not, when the measure of a person is laid bare in the rigours of battle. The recent Singapore Academy of Law publication, A Civil Practice, teaches you how to maintain good form while plotting the demise of your opponents’ case. Nobody likes a rude assassin. By all means pay your respects to grace and virtue, but do not send condolences to good. In the course of your work, you will come across darkness and light. As a hobbit almost said, there’s some good in this world and it is worth legal representation.

Christine Liu Yiwen, “Tips for Rookie Lawyers”, 2019 Mass Call Magazine

Many situations will arise in which difficult choices have to be made between adherence to principles and potentially offending a client or even bosses. Identify your core principles, and assess whether they are aligned to those of your practice. The line between doing one’s all to achieve the best outcome for clients, versus actions that in effect “bend backwards” can be a fine one. Unlike the civil service, there are no instruction manuals and the ultimate guidelines on how to interpret legal professional rules and ethics are your own principles.

Ethical Dilemmas

KC Lye, “Ethical Dilemmas and Where to Find Them”, 2022 Mass Call Magazine

In the course of a career, you are almost certainly going to meet a few ethical conundrums. If you are one of those who do not, you are either singularly fortunate, or so dense you won’t recognise an obvious ethical problem when it is staring you in the face.

The bad news is, in this job, encountering an ethical conundrum is more a question of when, rather than whether.

There is some good news.

First, serious ethical conundrums do not happen every day. You will be quite unlucky to encounter more than half a dozen in the course of your career.

Second, serious ethical conundrums almost never come in disguise. You can usually tell right off the bat when something might be ethically problematic. A good clue is when you realise you are really hoping that this is something the authorities don’t find out about. If it is something you are keen to hide, there is a good chance there is an ethical issue.

In practical terms, the problem is not how to recognise when there might be an ethical issue. The problem is what to do once you have realised there is this issue.

There are two steps once you have realised there is an ethical issue.

First – figure out what the applicable ethical rule is.

Second – decide how you are going to proceed.


Joseph Grimberg SC, “One Man’s Experience”, 2013 Mass Call Magazine

You do nothing for yourself or for your client by being acrimonious, and this applies in correspondence as well as in court. Letters written in anger often look silly when read in cold print months or even years later in court. Let your opponent be unpleasant if he wishes, but do avoid being dragged down to his level. You will score off him that way far more effectively than if you employ his tactics. Be courteous to your opponent in court, no

matter how unpleasant he may become. By all means be in control, and remember that you are both doing a job and that the judge will try to do his or hers. Neither you nor your opponent will assist the Bench by being grumpy, or rude to each other.

John Lim, “Surviving Your First Year in Practice”, 2013 Mass Call Magazine

Always remain unfailingly courteous to your fellow advocate and solicitor. When communicating, the advocate and solicitor should not write offensive or threatening letters, which may amount to unprofessional conduct. Similarly, you should not in the heat of an argument hang up the phone abruptly on a fellow advocate and solicitor, which is contrary to simple courtesy.

Thio Shen Yi SC, “Surviving the Associate Years”, 2014 Mass Call Magazine

Be ethical. For obvious reasons. Getting into trouble is not fun. But there’s a bigger picture. Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court said that “in civilised life, law floats on a sea of ethics”. As lawyers, as professionals, as good human beings, ethics must become hardwired in us, a part of our DNA. Closer to home, our Court of Appeal in Lim Mey Lee Susan v Singapore Medical Council was emphatic: “To be a member of a profession is to declare oneself to be someone of whom more than ordinary good conduct may properly be expected”. Take pride in your professionalism. Just as importantly, be courteous and collegiate. This makes sense. Today’s opponent is tomorrow’s ally. If you never give your learned friend a break, you are never going to get one yourself. Ok, so you feel that you are tough, you don’t need a break, you don’t need that extension of time as requesting one will be seen as weakness. Suit yourself, you’ll get old and grumpy quickly. You need friends in the profession. It reduces friction in transactions and in the Courtroom. It allows you to treat your opponents as friendly competitors, exhibit magnanimity when things go your way, and grace when things work against you. Your professional life doesn’t become a series of unremitting conflicts. Some thrive in that environment, but not many. It doesn’t have to get personal. It doesn’t have to get ugly. While competitive, it remains collegiate. As a litigator, my acid test is this. After a trial, despite fighting hard, can I still meet my learned friend for a coffee or beer?

Siraj Omar SC, “Letter from a Litigation Lawyer”, 2019 Mass Call Magazine

Always treat your fellow lawyers with courtesy. You are not a hired gun, but an officer of the Court. Advance your case firmly and robustly, but understand and expect that your opponent will do the same. This may be personal between the clients, but it should always remain courteous and professional between lawyers. Keep that in mind whenever you speak or write to your opponent, and resist the temptation to be rude, condescending or sarcastic. Even if your opponent crosses the line, you should not do the same.

Alvin Chen, “Why Etiquette Matters – Inspirations from C C Tan Award Recipients”, 2020 Mass Call Magazine

As a newly called lawyer, the furthest question from your mind now is probably: “How do I want to be remembered within the legal profession?” But beginning your legal career with the end in mind is important, as there is no better time than now to set your ethical compass in the correct direction. As Stephen Covey observes, “start with a clear understanding of your destination … so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction”.

As you begin your legal career, there is no better reference point than the exemplars set by the recipients of the C C Tan Award. Since 2003, the Law Society has presented an annual award to a member of the Bar who exemplifies the highest ideals of the legal profession – honesty, fair play, gentlemanliness and personal integrity. The award is named after the first President of the Law Society, Mr Tan Chye Cheng, or C C Tan as he was widely known, who embodied these ideals. Etiquette is reflected in many of these qualities.

Why does etiquette matter? Practically speaking, many rules of etiquette have been codified as ethical rules in the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules 2015 (PCR 2015), which carry not only disciplinary consequences, but also legal ramifications in some cases where, for example, one’s legal and ethical duties to the client overlap.

More importantly, etiquette underlies the core of lawyering – it is not merely a list of do’s and don’ts to observe. Etiquette is an integral component of a lawyer’s DNA, without which professional victories are merely empty or even Pyrrhic ones. Stephen Covey’s principles-based framework illustrates that private victories are as important as public ones.

Dealing with Difficult Clients

Eugene Thuraisingam, “Ethics and Professional Practice”, 2016 Mass Call Magazine

Clients. You cannot live with them. You cannot live without them.

Clients can sometimes be very difficult to manage. Very often, if you are assisting a more senior lawyer, clients tend to think that you are not senior enough to handle their cases and they do not want to communicate with you. It is therefore not unusual to receive unjustified and/or rude e-mails from clients that can be demoralizing. In such a case, you have to put forward your position firmly and forthrightly without descending into a bitter spat. Personally, when I receive an unwarranted and rude message from a client, I find that it helps to take a deep breath, distract yourself by doing another piece of work before returning to the table to craft your response to the client. Do not fight with your clients.


Alvin Chen, “Why a Resilient Professional Identity Matters”, 2014 Mass Call Magazine

Your legal training to date would have helped you develop a sound professional identity to tackle what lies ahead. But inevitably, your professional identity will be forged and crystallised in the crucible of legal practice. You will meet difficult clients, handle hard cases, work under immense time pressure and address all kinds of unexpected events arising from your clients’ matters. Legal practice will test the breadth and depth of your professional identity.

Therefore, it is crucial that your professional identity develops a certain resilience to withstand the real-life pressures of legal practice. Resilience, in its ordinary meaning, refers to a capability to “[withstand] shock without permanent deformation or rupture”. However, resilience does not mean that you should stubbornly pursue a certain course of action, convinced that only your viewpoint (moral or otherwise) is the correct one. The experience and practical wisdom of senior lawyers may frequently offer better choices.

Instead, to be resilient in legal practice means that you should critically evaluate situations which challenge your existing professional identity.

Rachel Eng, “Letter from a Corporate Lawyer”, 2019 Mass Call Magazine

Second, Resilience. What we learn in law school provides us with foundational knowledge. In practice, there are many dimensions that you have not been taught and are learnt whilst on-the-job from partners and seniors. With so much to do and so little time, you may find yourself overwhelmed, you might lose confidence in yourself and you might

make mistakes. When a mistake is made, it may be rectified with a simple apology. But, it could also be a serious error, for example, one which causes clients to miss a statutory timeline. The awful feeling of having made a grave mistake is hard to stomach and the reproach by the partner simply aggravates it. In my years of practice, I too have made some mistakes along the way. I will never forget those mistakes and I make sure that I do not make them again. The important thing to do after you have made a mistake is to acknowledge it and to learn from it. Take ownership and apologise to the partner in charge instead of trying to come up with excuses or half-truths to cover up the mistake. By confronting it directly, you and your partner will be able to take immediate remedial action to rectify the mistake and seek the client’s understanding. After the matter has been resolved, it is important to be resilient and to bounce back from the low point. Then, work harder than before and ensure that you do not make the same mistake ever again.

The Law Gazette is the official publication of the Law Society of Singapore.