Leaving the Law for Mediation
In the March 2017 issue of the Law Gazette, we spoke with lawyers who took the leap early in their careers, leaving life as employees to start their own law firm. In this issue, we chat with a law school graduate who started his career by taking over ownership of a mediation company, Peacemakers Consulting Services.
His name is Sean Lim, and he graduated from National University of Singapore with his law degree in 2015.
Alicia Zhuang (AZ): Sean, when I go to Peacemakers’ website, there are three words in big font: “mediation”, “dispute resolution” and “peace”. Can you tell us more about Peacemakers, and the significance of these words?
Sean Lim (SL): Peacemakers is a private mediation company. We hope to play our part in increasing awareness of mediation as a useful dispute resolution mechanism, and to create a more peaceful society. This is all part of our wider goal to improve social harmony and access to justice. Peacemakers is currently focused on delivering conflict management training courses to corporate clients, customised for their specific industries and corporate cultures. We also offer standardised courses for individual professionals who wish to pick up mediation and dispute resolution skills. Additionally, Peacemakers teaches secondary school students in Singapore how to resolve conflicts amicably at the annual Peacemakers Conference.
Besides our training services, Peacemakers also connects people with quality mediators in our network who are the best fit for your dispute resolution needs. We also have an “Appropriate Dispute Resolution” conference (name subject to change) in the pipeline for 2018, so please keep a lookout for that!
AZ: What is the history behind Peacemakers?
SL: Peacemakers was set up in 2011 with the vision of teaching secondary school students conflict management skills through peer mediation training. We believed that age was no barrier to being an agent of peace, and we wanted to equip and empower youth with the necessary skills for that.
With the assistance of A/Prof Joel Lee, A/Prof Lim Lei Theng, and Mr Aloysius Goh, this vision materialised into an annual not-for-profit event called the Peacemakers Conference, which is still running. We just ran the 8th edition of the Conference earlier in June!
The Conference consists of a mediation training workshop and a friendly competition segment. To date, we have trained about 500 secondary school level students from Singapore and the region. Schools pay a nominal fee of $120 per student for the 3-day Conference (and that is inclusive of us feeding and clothing them!). Interested schools can find out more from our website at http://peacemakers.sg/events/pmc/, or email us at [email protected].
Since taking over the helm at Peacemakers, I have been building it up into a training-focused company. While that also means that we are now a commercial entity, my personal commitment is that the Peacemakers Conference will still run every year on a not-for-profit basis.
AZ: How did you become the big boss at Peacemakers?
SL: This is a really long story. It all started with my admittance into NUS Law, which I was encouraged to apply to by my parents despite my personal desire to read Business instead. To date, law school is still one of the most mentally, emotionally, and spiritually challenging times of my life.
AZ: Okay I’m going to butt in here … this is definitely different from the usual stories. I’m sure everyone has heard of these ones in some form or other: “I studied Law because my family / friends / some respected person [delete as appropriate] thought that I was good at arguing with people and should therefore study law”. Or “because I was in my school’s debating team and represented my school in 1001 competitions”. Or simply, “because my JC results were good enough to get into law school”.
Why did you want to do Business? Why did your parents want you to do Law? And why was law school one of the most challenging times of your life?
SL: I grew up with parents that are both involved in business, so my personal desire to also be a businessman one day was cultivated from there. My parents, however, believed that a career as a lawyer would be more lucrative and comfortable, and a law degree would put me in better stead to do business anyway should I choose not to practice, so they encouraged me to read law instead.
I struggled a lot with my purpose and calling in law school. I was struggling to understand legal concepts, struggling to make legal analyses, and struggling to remain interested in the subject matter – basically I was a terrible law student. What made matters worse however, was that I could not see God’s purpose for sending me to law school. That lack of clarity caused me to constantly question and doubt both God and myself, and that’s not the healthiest of mindsets to work with every single day.
AZ: How did the switch to mediation happen?
SL: In Year 3, I had the privilege of taking the Mediation Workshop under A/Prof Joel Lee and Mr Aloysius Goh. That class, together with the Negotiation Workshop I took earlier that same academic year, provided me some much-needed encouragement and hope to get through that difficult period of my life. Later that same year, I was offered the chance to be a student facilitator at the Peacemakers Conference – an opportunity that I gladly took.
AZ: Why did you find the Mediation and Negotiation Workshops encouraging in comparison?
SL: The workshops provided a welcome reprieve to the rest of the “hard law” modules of law school. Classes were always fun (thanks to A/Prof Joel Lee) – so that helped! I think the thing I am most grateful for is learning the importance of self-mastery, and starting on this lifelong journey towards attaining a higher degree of control over my responses and reactions to any/every conflict situation I face. Beyond the mere equipping of the skills taught, this change of mindset towards conflict helped me to reconcile my own personal convictions with what I was learning in law school, and that was hugely encouraging for me.
AZ: So what happened when you graduated from law school?
SL: I was having great difficulty securing a training contract (“TC”). I think a lot of it could be attributed to my innate lack of interest in legal practice, despite my outward efforts to convince myself and others otherwise. I remember one particular firm’s managing partner, who was also a Christian, asking me at my interview, “Do you think God is trying to tell you something if you haven’t been offered a TC despite all your applications?” My response was that since I hadn’t heard anything from God telling me otherwise, I was just going to keep the faith that God knew what God was doing in sending me to law school, and to take the traditional route that law graduates take in getting called and entering practice. (P.S. I wasn’t offered a TC by that firm either.)
Two weeks before I was scheduled to begin the Part B course, Aloysius texted all the student facilitators from the last Peacemakers Conference to ask if we were interested in a full-time position doing mediation-related work with him at his place of employment. Since I had some flexibility of time during Part B and no TC, I agreed to help.
During the time we worked together, Aloysius and I got along so well both professionally and personally that we became good friends. I became heavily involved in all subsequent editions of the Peacemakers Conferences, and eventually ended up taking over as the Overall-In-Charge.
Subsequently, Aloysius and I left the company that the both of us were at, to pursue other opportunities. Although I explored other opportunities in the mediation industry before I left, nothing seemed to be a good match. At some point, someone (jokingly) suggested that perhaps I should take over Peacemakers from Aloysius and grow it as a private mediation service provider. After both Aloysius and I gave it some thought, it didn’t actually seem like that crazy an idea. So here we are!
AZ: You do sound different when you talk about mediation and negotiation as compared to law-law. What is it about mediation that interests you so much really?
SL: Imagine if you were sick, and went to see a doctor. If the doctor told you about a drug out there with a 70% chance of curing your illness, failing which you could pursue other forms of treatment anyway, would you take a chance on it? If you’re anything like me, you’d say yes.
That’s one of the ways that I view mediation – as a tool that we can use to solve many real world problems. Admittedly, mediation is not a panacea, and there are disputes that are not appropriate for mediation. But for most other disputes, I sincerely believe mediation can help in some way or form, even if the dispute isn’t settled at mediation itself.
What really appeals to me is that mediation is the only process that takes parties’ relationship into account. The mediator endeavours to not worsen the relationship further, and even strives to improve parties’ relationship when the opportunity to presents itself!
The world is already rife with conflict. We all have a role in shaping society’s mindset when a dispute arises. At the risk of sounding like a beauty pageant contestant, if we can move away from a confrontational approach towards something more conciliatory, we would be building a better and more peaceful society for everyone to live in. That is one of the reasons why I believe mediation is the way forward.
AZ: What has running Peacemakers been like? Tell us about the good and bad.
SL: I know this term is overused, but it’s really been a huge challenge.
Despite already having existed for a number of years, Peacemakers is essentially still a start-up. Coupled with the fact that I am running the company alone, and on my own funds – it’s really been quite the struggle. I didn’t really have the personal contacts or professional network to provide Peacemakers with a jumpstart either, so I have had to build almost everything from scratch.
My relative youth compared to my peers in the mediation industry also counts against me. Hence, I have to work harder to make up for these underlying prejudices and prove my competency. (On that note, that is also why I grew a stubble.)
AZ: Hah! Yup, I know what you mean. Many people mistake me for being much younger than I am. Boon in non-legal life. Bane in legal practice. Well … I can’t grow stubble. Some friends joked that I should put powder in my hair for that salt and pepper look. And I know someone who was wearing non-prescription glasses just so that he would come across as older and more serious.
SL: Me too! We work with what we have I suppose.
Other than the age issue, the mediation industry is also not one you’d associate with great potential for revenue generation, so that’s always a challenge for any commercially-minded entity. That said, I am grateful for supportive friends and mentors, without whom I would not even have lasted to this point.
AZ: That’s the same thing I’ve heard from other mediators. With the push for people to explore mediation before going to trial, one might think that the number of mediation cases in Singapore would have skyrocketed, and there would be many more cases for mediators. But what I have been hearing from mediator friends is that actually, mediation cases rarely land on their plate. Why is this so?
SL: I believe there are a number of reasons for this phenomenon. In terms of the absolute number of cases, I do believe that it has been increasing steadily. Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC) reported a record high of almost 500 cases last year, and I am fairly certain that there are similar increases in various other mediation bodies and schemes, especially those under the courts or other ministries. This is a testament to the amount of work everyone has been putting into growing the mediation industry, and are the fruits of their labour.
That said, I believe that the majority of cases fall under the court system (which include family cases and small claims, etc). Only specific individuals and panels are allowed to mediate those cases under the court system, and most of these schemes have stopped taking volunteer mediators. That leaves the rest of us with a much smaller remainder of cases to mediate. Of these remainder cases, the majority are referred to the established mediators in the country, which leaves an even smaller percentage for the rest of us.
The reality is that there are a couple hundred mediators in the market waiting for the remainder of those cases. With that in mind, you can understand why it is not unusual to hear of recently accredited mediators only receiving a case every 2 years or so. Hopefully, as the industry continues to grow and further efforts are made to professionalise mediation, that the entire ecosystem will scale accordingly, and there will be a decent volume of work for all our professional mediators in Singapore.
AZ: Then how are you finding the money to keep the company running and support yourself?
SL: Hahaha, I’m not! I am running Peacemakers on my savings alone, and there is no safety net or backup plan. Thankfully, I also have no real dependants to support at this time. So, Peacemakers will continue to operate for as long as I have the finances to keep this going … or until my parents decide to kick me out of the house.
AZ: Ouch. Given all these factors, why’d you decide to take over the company? Why not start out by joining an established mediation service provider?
SL: Not being affiliated with any one particular mediation institution has also allowed me to befriend and collaborate with all of them. I have also been enjoying the flexibility associated with being my own boss, especially in terms of how I can choose to spend my time. For instance, I am also the head of the Worship Ministry in my church, and running the ministry takes up a lot of my time and attention – scarce resources which I am less likely able to afford if I had to account to someone other than myself.
Not being in practice has also allowed me to support my friends who are practising lawyers, because that way they do not have to burden a learned friend with their woes, but still obtain some semblance of mental and emotional support from someone who knows a bit of their struggles at work.
AZ: Now that you have finished your law degree, ever thought of studying Business?
SL: I would be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it! But instead of learning about it in a classroom, now I’m learning from the school of hard knocks. Some might say the lessons taught by the latter are more effective too.
AZ: Do you think you will ever practise law?
SL: In the timeless words of Joe Cocker: Who knows what tomorrow brings? Perhaps one day God will tell me to finally get called to the Bar and to enter practice. For now though, Peacemakers is my priority.
AZ: Where do you see yourself and Peacemakers in 5 years?
SL: This is a question I often get, and one I always have difficulty answering.
My honest response is … I have no idea. I sincerely hope that I will still be involved in the mediation circle, and that I would have established some form of credibility through my work with Peacemakers. By then, hopefully Peacemakers will be established as a reputable private dispute resolution service provider, driving the growth of Singapore’s mediation industry alongside our established mediation institutions.
My dream is also for Peacemakers Conferences to be held not just in Singapore but in our neighbouring countries as well, and that the seeds of peacemaking are sowed in our youth in the hopes of leaving behind a better world for the future.
Simultaneously, I am cognisant of the commercial realities and the real possibility that this venture might not succeed, which may force me to explore something else eventually so that I can feed myself and my family. Perhaps a better time to ask me this question again would be in 3 years, when I can answer you with 2020 vision instead!