Taking in the rows of students dressed in suits in the Auditorium on Monday, 25 July 2022, one might think that they were there that evening to attend a private screening of Minions: The Rise of Gru.
Instead, the members of the Pro Bono Group (PBG) had gathered in the Auditorium to celebrate its annual Pro Bono Appreciation Event, which was held in person for the first time in two years. PBG had invited all the beneficiaries it had worked with in the past year down to the Bukit Timah campus for the event to express their gratitude and appreciation for their meaningful partnership over the years. Among the beneficiaries in attendance were representatives from Methodist Welfare Services (MWS), the Community Justice Centre (CJC), the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Baker Mackenzie Wong & Leow.
After an opening address from Vice Dean (Student Life and Global Relations) Associate Professor Eleanor Wong (better known as Prof El), the outgoing Project Directors (PDs) of PBG’s various projects took turns to go on stage and deliver their thanks to the beneficiaries whom they had invited to the event. At the end of each speech, a representative from the beneficiary organisation was invited to join the PD onstage to receive a small gift and pose for a photo together.
The PDs’ thank-you addresses were heartfelt and personal. Many of the PDs mentioned the names of specific individuals from the organisations they had worked with and referenced instances when they had been grateful to receive practical guidance from the beneficiary in undertaking their projects. Although the scale of the event was modest, a wholesome spirit of gratitude pervaded the atmosphere, making the auditorium seem much fuller than it actually was.
Besides the PDs and Prof El, the Presidents of PBG for AY 21/22, Ryan Koh, and AY 22/23, Whang Chia Ning, also delivered speeches.
In her closing speech, Chia Ning thanked the outgoing EXCO members for their hard work and dedication throughout the trying COVID period. She also thanked the beneficiaries for attending the Appreciation Event.
“My team and I are excited to reaffirm our partnerships over the next academic year. It is my sincerest hope that we will continue to take PBG to even greater heights while promoting access to justice.”
The event ended on a sweet note with refreshments outside the Auditorium at 9 pm. Many beneficiaries and PDs—both outgoing and incoming—took the time to socialise. Beneficiaries and EXCO members could be seen milling around the entrance of the Auditorium, seated at the round metal tables and chatting animatedly over chocolate muffins, curry puffs, chicken pies and packet drinks for a long time after the event had officially ended.
To quote Prof El’s opening address: “I love the philosophy underlying [the Pro Bono Appreciation Event]. It’s not the ‘Let’s Show Off How Many KPIs Our Students Achieved’ Dinner or the ‘Annual Pro Bono Oscars Award Ceremony’. Rather, it’s the beneficiary appreciation dinner.”
To Prof El, “appreciate” was an apt descriptor for the Pro Bono Appreciation Event for three reasons. These reasons have much to do with the three possible interpretations of the word “appreciate”.
The first meaning of ‘appreciate’, is to ‘increase in value’. At first glance, this might seem to have very little to do with pro bono. However, one of the reasons that NUS Law strongly supports initiatives like PBG and clinical education is because active participation can build up or appreciate students’ knowledge and skills, increasing the breadth, depth and value of students’ abilities. Even better, it does so as a side effect, since most students don’t do pro bono because of this meaning of appreciation.
The second meaning of ‘appreciate’ is to ‘have a full understanding of a situation’. One of the goals of law school is to mould law students into good lawyers who don’t just understand the what and how of law, but who understand and who appreciate the who and why of law. This is another thing that engaging in pro bono projects can teach us.
“Whether it is about raising a person’s awareness of the law or helping that person to exercise their legal rights, every pro bono project puts you right next to the who and thereby shows you the why,” said Prof El. “For that kind of beneficiary appreciation alone, pro bono is well worth doing.”
And finally, we come to the most obvious meaning of the word ‘appreciate’—to show gratitude.
“Appreciation means, of course, gratitude,” said Prof El. “And tonight is all about us at NUS Law saying thank you to the many beneficiary organisations, friends and colleagues who have worked so hard with our students to facilitate and create opportunities for service. Service is the core of what it really means to be a lawyer and we are extremely grateful that through your collaboration and efforts, our students get to experience that core.”
All photographs courtesy of Joshua Chan from Pro Bono Group.