Reflections on Life and How We Practise Law
The recent full page feature on matrimonial lawyer Wong Kai Yun in the Straits Times (ST 28 December 2021) has sparked widespread interest in our profession on the topic of juggling life with how we practise law. Following the feature, Kai Yun has received many e-mails from lawyer friends who had no clue about her illness, as well as from total strangers in the profession who were so affected by what they read that it sparked a soul search on their lives and the way they have been practising law.
When I started my legal career in Lee & Lee in the mid 1990s, I was all hot blooded and would instinctively draft a reply to a nasty letter with an equally nasty response. Most of the supervising partners would live with my drafts but one partner would always mutilate my drafts to a short and sweet reply – factual and without emotions. I initially felt castrated by his mutilations until that partner enlightened me “If this matter goes to trial, you won’t be the one cringing when the Judge reads out the correspondence”. Since then, I have borne this advice in mind whenever my ego tries to influence my fingers on my keyboard. For this, I am grateful to Justice Chua Lee Ming (that Lee & Lee partner as he then was) for having trained me well.
After almost three decades in practice, I notice that a few firms still cannot reform the nastiness in their DNA. They would turn every routine correspondence on timeline management into a big conspiracy-inspired war game and reply with a threat to make an application to court and hold my client liable for costs. I would chuckle out loud, draft a polite reply, and look forward to these exchanges being read out in court at the appropriate juncture.
It is widely observed that lawyers practising family law tend to write the nastiest of letters. Is this because the clients’ emotional turmoil rubs off on their lawyers? I have seen some lawyers argue their clients’ cases as though they personally suffered their clients’ spouses’ misconduct. Whilst having some passion in one’s work is good, too much passion may cloud one’s mind and objectivity and derail opportunities for amicable settlements or happy endings.
Over the years, I must have read countless documents written by lawyers and come to this inevitable conclusion – the angry ego-stoked ones placate only the writer and achieves little; whereas the polite ones win the reader’s respect and pave the way for a win-win resolution. Have you ever written an angry letter and braced yourself for a nasty response? And how did it feel when the reply was surprisingly polite instead? Conversely, have you ever written a sweet letter and looked forward to a sweeter reply? The moral of the story is that we reap what we sow. When we are young, writing nasty letters give us an adrenalin rush. As we get older, writing such letters could give us a stroke.
Mr Nastylawyer may argue that a lawyer’s work is necessarily adversarial and antagonistic; but Mr Olderandwiser will disagree, pointing out that one can be adversarial respectfully and antagonistic diplomatically. That’s what makes us lawyers – we are supposed to be good with words. Have you ever come across cases which cannot be resolved not because of the dynamics of the litigants but because of the dynamics of the opposing lawyers? What an irony – that the lawyers’ quarrel is even more bitter than the litigants’ feud.
Have you ever found yourself in a position of weakness arising from a situation which you could have handled better? Have you ever been at the mercy of an opponent who extended an olive branch instead of capitalizing on your predicament? Some of my best settlements are from cases where one lawyer showed grace to the other from a position of overwhelming superiority and that goodwill changed the dynamics of the case thenceforth. When an opposing lawyer is nasty, it is almost always just an attitude and nothing personal. Be polite and pleasant in your responses and the nasty opposing lawyer will soon start to feel bad and change his ways. In any event, your being polite and pleasant is kinder to your heart and your health, and will save you a bomb on medical bills.
Having been a member of the Law Society Council for over a decade, I have seen more than my fair share of complaints by lawyers against lawyers. Make no mistake – when a lawyer complains against another lawyer, the intent is to get the respondent lawyer in trouble. Lawyers make life-changing decisions on behalf of their clients every day. Some decisions are made with the luxury of time while others have to be made under the pressure of time. Some decisions are spot-on while others could be better. Some decisions can be revisited while others cannot be undone. Lawyers’ decisions can be faulted by their clients, by the authorities, by their opponents, and even by unrelated parties. It is all too easy to sit on a fence and throw stones.
Can we practise law like in sport fishing where you fight tooth and nail with the fish but release it back into the water after you have caught it? Or must we practise law like in bull-fighting where the matador must pierce his sword into the throat of the bull at the end of the fight? At the end of the day, it is just about money between the litigants since all damages are quantified by money. Does the lawyer need to pierce his sword into anyone’s throat to recover money for his client? Can we live and let live? I doubt that a client would appreciate having blood on his hands that’s spilled by his lawyer.
Do we need a life-changing event like a terminal illness or the loss of a loved one to review our ways? Kai Yun’s story is an inspiration. Her hunger for life is awesome. Her care for her clients on her deathbed is exemplary. Her survival and her contributions to the legal profession should be celebrated. We wish Kai Yun good health and a wonderful life ahead.