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The Singapore Law Gazette

Tips for Rookie Lawyers

As a “rookie” lawyer, there will be many articles you can find on how to ‘learn the business’ of lawyering, demonstrate your value to clients, even future-proofing yourself to be AI-ready. This article takes a different focus, being reflections on how to invest in sustainability for the newly-called lawyer.

The Emotionally Intelligent Lawyer

Grades, good ones, are key to distinguishing law students. What I wish I knew at the start of my legal career is: even if one is not a scholar, EQ can differentiate the imprints we leave on others: colleagues, opposing counsel, judges, clients. My current boss has extremely high EQ: it often takes me hours, sometimes days, before it dawns on me what she was trying to tell me in a non-offensive/provocative way. One example was when I simply forwarded a letter from opposing counsel to the client without any input on its relevance. Shortly after, my boss e-mailed me to ask what would be my proposed response to the letter? Added in parentheses, like a gentle explanatory whisper, were the words “for your training”. There were many such examples where I initially took the face value interpretation; realizing later her effort to convey learning points with the most diplomatic of manners, the lesson was indelibly imprinted.

High EQ is also one of the hallmarks of the most successful lawyers I have worked for. For a period of time, my previous office had as its leaders individuals from the very pinnacle of eminent firms: their polished manner of speech often left me wondering, at that time, why the best lawyers spoke in such a “roundabout” way instead of taking the bluntest route which would surely get the point across? Years later, I too have become someone who sandwiches tough messages between many layers of “love”. Lawyering is as much about managing risk as it is about selling hope. While there is value in candour and application of the truth as is, sometimes there is equal or more merit in employing soft skills to explore a middle ground that can keep the relationship amicable.

A tangential application is in litigation, where there is usually a “winner” and a “loser”. To some extent, one does need that “fire in the belly” to go “all out” to achieve the objective for that case. But what is the objective? In my previous life, the different Attorney-Generals that passed through the doors of Chambers reminded that the goal was not a conviction at all cost but the public interest. In my current life, I am reminded that without compromising our client’s best interest, it is not always necessary to “kill off” the opponent’s client because one day, we may have the shorter end of the stick with the same opponent. A satisfactory outcome is sometimes possible without overkill – leave the other party a way out.

Managing Downwards and Upwards

One of my first work buddy dispensed what turned out to be some of the most valuable advice: your legal executive/secretary is the most important person after your boss. The staff that perform seemingly less important administrative work are akin to oil that smoothens the running of an engine. This is especially the case for legal work, where it is not practicable to work in a silo. For billing purposes, segregate what work can be farmed out to qualified paralegals or able secretaries.

A seamless relationship with the administrators responsible for different tasks related to your legal work will help keep you afloat, even if bigger things (eg promotions, pay) are not aligned with expectations.

A former leader I worked under described persons who only managed their superiors as “brown-nosed”. In his first few weeks of work, he prowled the corridors one night and found a handful of junior colleagues still at work. He gathered that group and spent half an hour at 10pm finding out about each of us, our backgrounds: he said he wanted to know the people that “dig the trenches”. I learnt the importance of managing downwards as much as it is expedient to manage upwards.

Staying Principled in Practice

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.

One of many examples is the thorny issue of gifts from clients. Rule 25 LPR talks about “significant” gifts. What about expensive meals or thank you gifts? These may not amount to millions or thousands in value but, when is it appropriate to accept on a personal basis items costing hundreds of dollars? How to say “no” sensibly? A wise counsel shared that his litmus test included: (a) the likely intent and purpose of the gift; and (b) whether the firm would be “worse off” by not getting its due compensation (in legal fees).

Encountering these grey areas felt like being brought to a high mountain and being shown the world, together with all its pleasures. I then revisited my role as a criminal defence lawyer: I need not pretend I was a “public defender” with some “Superman cloak” bearing last vestiges of deference from my prosecutor days. There is much scope for principled lawyers to work goodness in the dark worlds of society who have fallen on the wrong side of the law. Some examples: offering fair fee costs; not according preferential treatment to clients according to the depth of their pockets; lending a listening ear to a client who is unable to pay hourly rates; resisting the urge to use confidential information acquired in the course of practice; towards other members of the profession, should one hear a “bad review” about another practitioner from a prospective client, resist concurring to “net” the prospect: in due course, who is “good” and who is “not that good” will be revealed.

It is Often About Perceptions, Less About Right and Wrong

Lawyers are naturally opinionated, bifurcating between right and wrong; sometimes, this occupational trait may spill over into interactions. Yet sometimes in the course of proving one’s point irreparable damage is caused to relationships, including work ones. My younger self had been brusque, offensive to egos and in some cases knocked too persistently on doors that had no intention of opening. I did not know how to “take the cue” from the Court and understand the purpose behind questions fast enough. While tenacity is an important trait of a good litigator, one must also have situational awareness – when it is time to give up one’s “point” that finds no favour with the hearing judge however meritorious we may think it, sit down or walk away?

Handling Challenging Clients

Early on as a defence counsel, I met V, an expatriate banker who got off with a fine for an offence where imprisonment was the norm. He told me I sounded “prosecutorial” in my advice. Your personal and professional background will invariably shape your lawyer personality.

V pointed out many things that had the ring of truth, yet we were too proud to admit them. But I learnt most from V, not the clients that highlighted only good things.

There is no single way to win over challenging clients. The retainer with V almost ended on a contentious note over disagreement on fees. Happily, in V’s case, both sides took a step back, had a candid airing about the nub of the dispute, and arrived at a middle ground. Identifying “root causes”, with an open mind, is often key to mediating resolutions.

Be Kind, Show Mercy

After resigning from a decade-long career, I remember most the kindness of my ex-bosses: those who listened to my incessant complaints for hours and thereby had less time for themselves and their work; they made working life more bearable.

On the quality of mercy, I learnt it is not always necessary to pinpoint someone’s wrongdoing. When in a position of authority, one must always be mindful to exercise the reaches of our power in a judicious manner – even if we are not in fact judges but decision-makers in our respective roles. When a subordinate has made a mistake, consider gentle correction rather than shaming in a manner that hurts his/her future.

Lawyers have great power to be influencers in the lives of those that we deal with, be they clients, stakeholders or the public who cross our paths. To the extent that your billing targets allow, squeeze in time for pro bono work for that effects some degree of social justice.

The Fulfilment of Mentorship

A person only has about three decades of working life. In a good organisation, no individual should be indispensable. True legacy prepares for smooth succession. This is especially important in a profession with high attrition rates, particularly between years five to 10. The value of having someone who has been through the same overnighters at work, who understands the same pressures non-lawyers may not comprehend, can make the difference between staying or leaving.

“Mentorship” should be interpreted broadly: persons within the same sphere are of course best-suited to mentor each other (eg senior/junior practitioners). At the same time, carrying out one’s duties in an exemplary manner can mentor others who look up to us. Regardless of which side of the Bar I appear on, I learn from judges who are at the top of their game (usually those who ask the most probing questions). As a DPP, I was given to understand that my reputation preceded me in terms of exacting standards for investigations.

In my current capacity, I am blessed to know a wallflower, A, who spent two years helping refugees in between graduation and legal training. A appeared so quiet at first blush that the true strength of her opinions floored me. You will find that the best mentees expand your mind and clarify your thinking, as you see legal practice through their millennial eyes.

What Goes Around Comes Around

When I started out as a bright-eyed prosecutor, I never expected to end up working for one of the defence counsel I met in my first year of work. She impressed me as someone very “nice”, and over the years I never heard a bad word about her in the corridors of my former office.

To the extent that it is possible in a saturated market: choose well who you work/pupil for, for their standing and networks are not unconnected to your own.

The legal sphere and its stakeholders are a tight community: be your best possible face, for your personal reputation cannot be meaningfully separated from your professional one.

Patrons Change, Priorities Shift

In the civil service, I thought it integral to promotion prospects to have a “patron” – someone to distinguish you at annual promotion panels and give opportunities to shine. It made me immensely disgruntled every March, when promotion results were announced. I later learnt that rather than being gripped by comparisons, one can prove good stewardship by excelling in small things, because a person who cannot handle a little will not be able to handle bigger tasks.

Deciding to resign from a cherished vocation showed me priorities truly shift across life: at the start of one’s law career, especially in the public service, ideals and the excitement of practising what you learnt from law school likely drives one for a significant distance. Thereafter, even if the lustre has waned, one is likely at senior associate level and the corollary salary comfortable enough to mitigate small injustices. When the push comes to the shove, it is often because money is no longer adequate compensation for other push factors.

No one likes admitting to being a workaholic, but most lawyers are in fact so. Burnout starts to set in when the initial sense of purpose gets outweighed by practical unpleasantries of everyday life as a lawyer – somewhat analogous to the humdrum of married life after the honeymoon rush of emotions.

It is important to know from an early stage what are the factors in your own work life balance, and how you intend to balance them. “Where your treasure lies there your heart will be also”: plan the pace of your legal career as with a marathon – set five, 10, 15-year goals and corresponding “reward” breaks – rather than combusting yourself sprinting beyond what your capacity allows.

Anchor your identity to other areas in life other than just being a lawyer, and apportion your time accordingly.

Where Do You See Yourself at Retirement, and How Do You Plan to Get There?

This is probably one of the first questions any lawyer starting their career should ask themselves. It is so easy to get caught up with securing a training contract, getting retained, climbing from associate to senior associate to junior partner, etc. People are often contented in the early years, until they learn to look around at their peers, for comparison is a robber of joy.

In the civil service, there is a concept known as Current Estimated Potential (CEP). A person’s CEP is assessed based on his superiors’ assessment of the highest position he can reach at the end of his career. CEP would invariably be connected to the speed of one’s promotion over the course of one’s career, in the same way a person who is to travel to a further destination within the same time might take an airplane and not a train. CEP is determined by our bosses, but we can also plan our intended “endpoint” and the roadmap, rather than being “overtaken by events”.

I never imagined myself in a small firm, nor that “small firm culture” could be enjoyable. But the real rub about immersing in “small firm culture” is the community, a place where one can know others and be known. When I met my current boss, I told her I was looking for a place to roost. A roosting place is where birds go to rest. My current firm has a family-like environment, as it is run by a husband-wife team. While at the beginning I resented having to be “known” by others to an extent that was very different from a large organisation, there are manifold benefits to having “mirrors” at work: one can view one’s reflection from many angles, even unflattering ones, and improve on blind spots. This is especially important in lawyering, a calling but also a business selling a service amidst increasingly stiff competition. No place is perfect, yet it seems I had unexpectedly stumbled on my second calling after leaving my previous job; for the first time in a long time, I have found meaning again at work.

Christine Liu spent the first 10 years of her career as a public prosecutor in the Attorney-General’s Chambers. After taking a one-year sabbatical to pursue graduate studies in public administration, she unexpectedly made a career switch to the private sector. She currently practises in a boutique law firm, where she dabbles in family law, protection from harassment cases and criminal litigation that pays little but sows much into the lives of others.