Pro Bono Tips for Newly Called Lawyers
Congratulations on getting called to the Bar! This is a significant milestone marking your entry into the legal profession. From this day on, you have the privilege to serve the needy and vulnerable in our community, in a way only your fellow members of the Bar know how.
Eight years ago, I was called to the Bar. Since then, my legal career has been shaped by my pro bono experience, which paved the way to my present role in an organisation focused on facilitating access to justice in the community.
It was sometimes challenging to find the time to do pro bono work and to do it well. But over time, things got easier. Here are some tips from my journey.
You are Not Too Young
That was my first concern. That someone would place all their hopes in me, a junior associate with next to zero experience, and I would not be able to deliver an ideal outcome.
I was lucky to overcome this concern quickly. I started out in A&G, a firm with a strong pro bono culture, where some partners took the time to mentor me, even showing up to watch my first few mitigation pleas.
So, the first step to overcoming the fear of lack of experience is to ask for help or find a mentor. At LSPBS (Law Society Pro Bono Services), we try our best to match volunteers to opportunities appropriate for their PQE and provide support and resources in all the ways we can. For example, we have a 409-page Community Legal Clinic Manual for our volunteers’ use which sets out the basic legal position for issues which commonly arise during legal clinics.
The second step is to keep trying. I strongly believe that diligence will get you there. While I may have chosen to start a career in litigation, public speaking doesn’t come easily to me. The first time I opened my mouth in court was for a CLAS (Criminal Legal Aid Scheme) matter. I was incredibly nervous despite knowing that I only had to take trial dates and the Deputy Public Prosecutor was a friend from Law School. Even in the years to come, my heart continued to pound in open court. I’ve lost sleep the night before hearings and trials. However, if you keep trying, you can only get better.
The third step is to believe in yourself. You have more skills and ability than you realise. No matter how much you lack in experience, you would still be able to bring something to the table – research, drafting, negotiating and referrals to appropriate social service agencies to resolve other accompanying non-legal problems. Laymen will struggle to even know where to start.
In summary, if you have any interest at all to start pro bono work, the time is now. Start with bite-sized assignments. Shadow senior lawyers. Remember that you are not too young to take on pro bono work with LSPBS. We value each and every one of you.
Pick a Cause or Organisation That You Feel Passionately About
Given that I started my career in litigation, it was quite a natural progression for me to take on pro bono cases which required court representation.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I took on a case under LSPBS’ Ad Hoc Pro Bono Scheme to commence maintenance proceedings against a Singaporean father who refused to pay maintenance to his ex-wife and daughter, who had moved back to Japan. The matter required urgent attention as the time bar for claiming maintenance arrears was fast approaching and the ex-wife was unable to work or attend trial in Singapore due to health issues. Further, the daughter has a dream of going to medical school, which would not have been possible without maintenance being paid.
I felt personally motivated to pursue justice for the mother-and-daughter pair. After issuing several letters of demand and commencing maintenance proceedings, the Singaporean father paid every single cent of maintenance arrears due and has not been in arrears ever since.
Pick a cause or organisation that you feel passionate about, or at least have an affinity to. It will energise you. It will not feel like a burden. It will also allow you to meet like-minded people and open doors to alternative paths.
As a young lawyer, I would never have imagined that my pro bono experience would lead to a unique in-house role within the social service sector. That I will continue to contribute to the community, not case by case as I used to, but through an organisation with an outreach to tens of thousands, and which is a helping hand for other charities.
Do not be discouraged if you do not immediately find that cause or organisation. My first attempt to do pro bono work was unsuccessful. My university’s pro bono club was incredibly popular amongst students and my application was rejected. However, once I started practising, I found an array of pro bono opportunities with LSPBS and beyond.
I have acted for accused persons who struggle with psychiatric illnesses, addictions, poverty and intellectual disability. I’ve obtained personal protection orders and domestic exclusion orders for domestic violence victims, including an elderly grandmother who was beaten, starved and prohibited from using the toilet or common areas in her own HDB flat by a grand-daughter with mental health issues. I have advised non-profit organisations on contractual issues and a group of students from an Institution of higher learning on compliance, legal and volunteer management issues in relation to their fundraising activity for a campaign to end online child grooming.
There are many living in dire need amongst us. LSPBS can help to match your passion with need.
Do not Pre-judge
During my secondment to CLAS to do full time criminal defence work, I acted for 30 accused persons at any one time. Some of the cases assigned to me were the ones no one wanted due to the perception of an unmeritorious defence.
I was assigned to act for an accused person who had been repeatedly sentenced to long jail terms for drug consumption. The client was charged again for consumption of heroin as his urine test results had tested positive. The urine test was part of a routine supervision, given that the client had just been released from a seven-year jail term for consumption of heroin.
Every single time I met the client in Changi Prison, he fervently maintained his plea of innocence and insisted that his urine test results had tested positive due to the codeine in the cough syrup he was taking. His defence was complicated by the fact that he could not recall the name nor location of the clinic he obtained the medication from, save that the clinic may be in Hougang Avenue 5 or 8. He claimed that CNB (Central Narcotics Bureau) could not find the medication in his house as he had finished the bottle right before his urine test and thrown the bottle away. He couldn’t even remember the name of the medication or when he visited the clinic!
I recall returning to the office, frustrated beyond belief and convinced that the client must be lying to my face. The Director of CLAS told me to do my due diligence so that I can discharge my obligations properly.
A significant amount of time then went into investigating the client’s defence. I made cold calls and wrote letters to various clinics. My family lived in Hougang for many years and was familiar with the area. My dad helped to take photos of clinics in the area so that I could concurrently try to narrow the search with the client. Eventually, I found my client’s records at two clinics, one of which included a prescription for cough syrup containing codeine. After submitting written representations with proof of my client’s prescription, the Prosecution withdrew their charge (which attracted a mandatory minimum imprisonment term of seven years and mandatory caning of six strokes) and the client was given a discharge amounting to an acquittal.
The client came to see me the day after he was released. He thanked me fervently. He broke down several times. He continued to maintain that he was innocent. That the acquittal could not have been due to a technicality or a fluke. The whole experience left me quite shaken. I was thankful for the outcome but felt guilty for having pre-judged him. I spent a lot of time wondering if my scepticism in his defence showed, and how awful he must have felt knowing that even his lawyer doubted him.
This case motivated me to do better.
The Balance Between Pro Bono Work and “Work” Work
To avoid burn out, young lawyers must learn how to balance pro bono work and other work.
First, if you are passionate about pro bono or low bono work, it will help tremendously to practise in an environment which supports young lawyers to pursue such endeavours.
Second, it is important to draw boundaries between your personal and professional life. I was once harassed by an ex-CLAS client to the point where I had to change my phone number. When I was still representing him, I let him call me on my work mobile at all hours as I knew that he suffered from a mental disorder, was suicidal and struggled with unemployment and being a single parent. However, the late-night calls continued even after he was released from prison. The last straw came when he showed up uninformed at my office to see me after I told him the calls had to stop.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that I could have handled the situation better and avoided a lot of unnecessary anxiety. I should have ended the non-emergency late night calls more decisively. I should have insisted that he contact other more appropriate professionals in the social service sector, such as a counsellor, or his psychiatrist.
Finally, a wise lawyer once told me that private practice is a long-distance marathon, not a short distance sprint. Pace yourself to give your pro bono clients the quality work they deserve and the sustainable practice you deserve.
I wish each and every one of you the best.
When I was a junior associate, my pro bono work gave me the invaluable experience of client management, planning case strategy and advocacy as first chair. It also exposed me to new perspectives on social and other cultural problems remote from my life and forced me to relook at some of the prejudices I wasn’t aware I held.
I hope that many of you will have a similarly enriching experience and develop personally and professionally from your pro bono work.