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The Singapore Law Gazette

Pro Bono: Should I Do It?

When I was asked to write this article, I thought to myself that it really would not take too much time to write given the amount of pro bono experience I have had since I started practice. I trained at a pro bono legal clinic in Sydney Australia before going into corporate practice where I continued to participate in pro bono initiatives both in Australia and in Singapore when I finally returned home.

Now I must clarify at this point that where I mention pro bono work in this article, I am referring to volunteering at the community legal clinics.

How Did I Pick Up Pro Bono Work in the First Place

The simple answer was that it was my first job and I had no choice in the matter. The legal clinic was government funded and as long as our clientele passed the means test, we would act for and help anyone who came through the door. When I moved into corporate practice, I did find that I missed pro bono work.

People in our line of work often forget that not everyone knows that the law is meant to provide safeguards to people regardless of their social status and/or means. Volunteering at a legal clinic let me help people with very little knowledge of their rights gain some clarity on their situation.

To us, the matters may be small and/or trivial, but for these persons who really in most cases have nowhere else to go, the 15 minutes you spend with them advising them on their rights and options will make all the difference to them.

So while I had little choice in how I started pro bono work, the experience and personal satisfaction I derived from using the skills I have obtained over time to help people kept me going.

What Do Legal Clinic Sessions Entail?

Depending on which legal clinic you go to, you may get a summary of the matters that will be coming in that day. This lets you do some background research on the relevant areas of law that you may need to cover. If you see primarily corporate matters at work, the summary would be very useful to you as opposed to someone who primarily sees family law and/or probate matters at work.

If you do not get a summary, do not worry too much. Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS) has a handy volunteer manual that covers the basic knowledge needed to deal with most of the queries that come up at legal clinics.

Regardless of whether you get to prepare or not, legal clinic sessions generally follow a set format: the person attending the clinic will come in, introduce him or herself, tell you what issue they require help with and then ask you for your advice.

Volunteers at legal clinics generally do not assist with court appearances or take on the matters of persons attending legal clinics. More often than not, you will be the first step in explaining the potential options available to attendees, or explaining the general principles that they should consider when deciding to take the next steps, whether it be how to draft a will, filling in a lasting power of attorney, what to do if they want to file for divorce or what are the options available to someone who has been terminated from their job.

It is also important to keep in mind that not everyone who walks in the door will speak English. While most will be able to converse in basic English, there are instances where the person sitting across from you will only speak dialect and/or Mandarin. In those instances, you should be prepared to tell them that you will need an interpreter (from the legal clinic) or that they may have to wait till another volunteer lawyer who can converse with them becomes available.

Time keeping is also something important given that each person that sees you is there because they have a problem and they will be anxious for you to help them solve it. As such, they will bring documents, recount to you the entire history of the matter as well as the advice that their friends and relatives have given them.

Often, it is up to you to guide them with questions that will help you understand the core issues, as the person will not know what is important and what is not. However, when trying to parse the important issues, you must also understand that while you will likely see multiple people in one evening, the person has been waiting all night just to see you and will want to give you all the information they think you need (relevant or not) to help them resolve the matter.

Following from that, patience is also key as legal clinic attendees can get emotional during their sessions. Try not to react even if they seem upset that you are not telling them what they want to hear. If there is no easy answer or it is fairly clear that they have no recourse in the matter, you should be prepared to deal with some level of frustration.

What is the Level of Commitment?

The level of commitment depends on the individual. There are clinics that operate once or twice a month at one or multiple locations. A volunteer is not limited to just volunteering at a single clinic and if the mood strikes, you are more than welcome to register at multiple clinics.

What are the Rewards of Volunteering at Legal Clinics?

Honestly speaking, the rewards of volunteering will vary depending on the individual; some sessions are tiring, some are rewarding, but ultimately, I believe that most volunteers will derive some satisfaction from using their hard-earned skills to help someone who likely has nowhere else to turn to.

Every lawyer grows up having watched at least one legal drama. Matlock, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Suits or even Code of Law. While all of them at some point do touch on pro bono work involving the disenfranchised and downtrodden, the truth of the matter is that you never know what it feels like until you start doing it.

In my time doing pro bono work both overseas and in Singapore, I can say that most legal dramas do not do pro bono work justice. While the majority of the matters you will encounter are the run of the mill probate, family, employment and minor criminal matters, I have run into situations which were challenging to say the least. Dealing with persons who are verbally abusive, utterly unlikeable, self-entitled, or in some situations, high, are not things that a freshly minted lawyer will have to deal with; however, these are skills that are important to have and develop.

Most times, the people you help will never ask your name, nor will they care whether you’re a partner, senior associate or trainee. However, what they will care about, is whether you can help them, and if you cannot, whether you can point them in the right direction as to where they can get help.

As your career progresses, particularly in practices that focus on commercial and/or corporate work, volunteering at legal clinics is something that I believe is important as it will help keep you grounded through exposure to the very real problems that everyday Singaporeans face. Dealing with pro bono cases, especially at free legal clinics, teaches you that not everything can be solved neatly or nicely at the end of the session. It also hones the soft skills that many in the legal profession do not exercise on a regular basis. It is very easy to tell a client what you can or cannot do in court or what rights someone has in their contract; however, explaining it in a way that the client can understand and accept is almost a whole different skillset.

How to Balance Work and Pro Bono Work

As I mentioned above, I thought this article would be easy to write. However, finding the time to sit down and write this was an ordeal in itself. In a nutshell, balancing pro bono work and work is similar. I have been lucky for the majority of my career to have had the freedom to be able to plan ahead so that I would be available to attend the evening sessions I volunteer for; however, not all workplaces will give you that luxury.

There have been times when I have had to choose between work and my volunteer sessions. How someone manages this is up to the individual. However, I would say that if volunteering is important to you, then you should make the time for it. Speak to your seniors and bosses and let them know that pro bono work is important to you and that you have commitments in relation to the same.

More often than not, I doubt there would be major resistance in you leaving early that one evening a week. As an aside, if you find yourself unable to leave early once a week, you may want to consider if you are in the right place.

So How Can I Volunteer?

If after reading this article, you are struck with inspiration to volunteer or have an interest to see what it is like (but do not know where to start), please contact LSPBS at [email protected] to register and the good folks there will be in touch!

Selvam LLC (in joint law venture with Duane Morris LLP)