PRO BONO SEMINAR 1 – Doing Good while Doing Well

It’s always interesting when what you’re studying links up suddenly to what you have been doing, and something in me clicks when Mr. N. Sreenivasan, Law Society’s Pro Bono Ambassador for 2011 says, on lawyers and pro bono work: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

He is speaking at the first Pro Bono Seminar Series – “Doing Good While Doing Well”. The “All About Doing Good” Seminar Series is an initiative to gather both young and experienced lawyers to discuss various issues concerning the local pro bono scene. Currently, we are discussing whether pro bono work should be mandatory – a suggestion recently brought up by the Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong.

It reminds me of the Islamic Legal Tradition, which I’m currently studying under Comparative Legal Traditions. Under the Singapore Application of Muslim Law Act, s.32, any person can ask the Majlis – the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore – on any point of Muslim law, free of any charge, and they are bound to explain it. Later, in the class after the seminar, the professor explains that it keeps the law accessible to the general public.

“Imagine,” he lectures, “if you were to do the same – write to the Law Society and ask for advice on any piece of law, free of charge.” In Singapore’s context, with our current legal tradition, it’s a surprising proposition. I’ve long thought that the law is something that should be accessible to everyone, and the Islamic method seems to be an elegant answer to the question. It imposes a moral – and thus legal – obligation upon the legal scholar to do something like pro bono, although the term is not the same across cultures.

The sense of personal obligation stemming from knowing the law is one that Ms June Lim knows well. A former President of the NUS Pro Bono Group, and currently an Associate at Eldan Law LLP, she remembers being called to the bar and asked to “uphold justice”. The question, she opines, is how to discharge it.

She supports mandatory pro bono work, comparing it to the mandatory Community Involvement Programme (CIP) work in Secondary school. “Not everyone liked it,” she recalls, “but people did it and other people got helped”. For those lawyers who refuse to volunteer, she advocates making them pay a sum of money that is painful enough for them to want to discharge their duties instead – a view that echoes that of the CJ.

Mr Chan Hian Young disagrees with this. The partner at Allen & Gledhill, the first law firm to have a lawyer fully dedicated to full time pro bono work, feels that making pro bono work compulsory pulls the “volunteerism” aspect away from both the giver and the recipient. But he admits that it often opens the eyes of the lawyers who do the work, especially the “growing group of people who have lost touch [with the average Singaporean].” But even then, he remarks, “there’s no point forcing a person to do it.”

Mr Lim Tanguy, the Director of the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office, agrees, pointing out, “It’s a culture that should be created,” he says. “Moral persuasion is the ticket to that culture. It doesn’t happen when the law happens.”

It’s a culture that’s quickly becoming more supportive of pro bono work. Mr Sreeni recalls the first few individual lawyers doing pro bono being met with suspicion. In 25 years, he tells the crowd, we have moved from “what is pro bono work?” to “should pro bono work be compulsory?”.

And that is a good sign.

There are signs that the movement for mandatory pro bono work is gathering steam, but I feel it requires more support from the ground before it can be implemented – if it even should be. Forcing a legal obligation without a corresponding moral acceptance could very easily lead to resentment.

Part of the question lies in what a lawyer is – whether the honour, integrity, and high standards expected of the legal profession should carry over to doing charitable work. If so, the extension to mandatory pro bono work should not be an issue. But such an external imposition would remove the internal personal questioning and defining of what a lawyer is, and the kind of lawyer I want to be.

The audience (esp Serene) enjoying the session very much

The distinguished Panel

Students listening attentively

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PRO BONO SEMINAR 2 – Doing Good Well

Article contributed by: Jannelle Lau (Law 2)

Photography by: Lim Zhi Kang (Law 2)

It’s easy to think of pro bono as a purely altruistic action of giving back to the community. The incorrect notion: in giving, you receive (at least) twice as much in return.

This could easily be another of those articles on why it feels good to do pro bono, but I think most people have read those before. So here’s another story: what pro bono does for you, both as a law student and as a young lawyer.

First: it teaches you communication skills. Most law students, if you’ve noticed, speak a bit like how you would expect people to speak in a court of law – that is, in Standard English. Singlish (Basilect Singlish, for those particular about terminology) isn’t heard that often. You won’t often meet someone who doesn’t speak English in law school either, and most people understand concepts like “contract” or “negligence” (at least by the end of the first semester).

But not everyone speaks like that. Some people don’t even speak English. For those who have taken part in RELAC, some of you may have had to translate terms like “contract” into your mother tongue. Or someone comes up and asks you what “negligence” means, which might happen in Meet the People Sessions. Can you define it in simple, everyday language? How well do you know the essence of your legal concepts?

As a first year lawyer, you don’t often meet clients directly. Most of the time, you work with a team of lawyers, and your mentor would have sorted out and allocated the specific legal issues for you to work on (any flashbacks to LAWR now?).

But as a pro bono lawyer, you speak to your client directly. You see the plethora of potential legal issues, and you learn how to pick which issue is the “right” one. If you’ve been for Legal Clinics, you might remember how the lawyers related to the people there. They needed to be approachable enough to get the story from the client and give them advice – all within 20 minutes.

This skill, Ms Malathi Das points out, is “extremely useful and not career limiting”.

Secondly, it gives you legal experience – not just communicating with potential clients, but with the court. With UCF, you have the opportunity to witness (and play a role in, however minor) the court’s administration.

If, as a young lawyer, you take on a pro bono case, you have to handle it on your own (with the assistance of your mentor). This may sound like a lot of responsibility, but there’s more: depending on your case, you may have to represent your client in court. This is a tremendous opportunity – corporate commercial lawyers in big firms normally only go to court in their sixth or seventh year.

Depending on your firm, your pro bono work may also be indicated in your performance assessment. Of course, you should ask the firm you’re with before taking up pro bono work, but most firms (if those who went for the pro bono seminar series are an indicator) are supportive.

Third: there’s also the opportunity to network. In pro bono work, you get to meet other people with similar interests, be they law students or lawyers. (This includes events like the Pro Bono Seminar Series.)

And the work doesn’t stop. “[Pro Bono] is a continuum which you can do the whole of your career,” Mr Thio Shen Yi reflects. If you’re bored after the first few years, there’s “more complex pro bono work”, such as public interest litigation. Mr Thio’s law firm works with organisations like HOME and TWC2 on a pro bono basis. Or there’s pro bono work for charities, like Project Law Help, which Mr Cyril Chua spearheads as chairman.

At this point, it feels prudent to caution interested parties: If you’re doing pro bono, do it for the right reasons. “Don’t expect everyone to be grateful because you’re doing something you think is noble,” says Mr Sheik Mustafa Abu Hassan, Senior Assistant Director of Legal Aid. “You’re not doing this because you want the client’s approval or gratitude – you’re doing it for self-development, or for society, or for a greater purpose.”

I’m not suggesting that you do pro bono only for the reasons above either: you can do pro bono because of a “commitment to justice”, as Mr Gregory Vijayendran puts it, or because it grounds you, as it does Ms Malathi Das, or because, as Mr Tan Cheng Han feels, “what will be worthwhile [at the end of the day] is the knowledge of a life well-spent, in giving time to people who need that extra help.”

But at the end of the day: Do pro bono.

Our charismatic Dean Tan Cheng Han addressing everyone

A plethora of expressions from the audience

The Panel

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Article contributed by: Jannelle Lau (Law 2)

Photography by: Lim Zhi Kang (Law 2)