Name: Mr Yap Teong Liang
Status: Happily Married
Career specialisation: Family Law
- Called to the Bar of England and Wales (Middle Temple) in 1991
- Admitted as an Advocate and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Singapore in 1992
- Runs his own law firm M/s T L Yap & Associates
- One of the Court Appointed Counsel to represent the interests of children in high conflict matrimonial cases, as appointed by the Family Court
- Chairman of the Family Law Practice Committee of the Law Society of Singapore
When we were both handed the task of interviewing a lawyer, we knew it was going to be educational, eye-opening, and perhaps even fun. It was all of that. But it was also (strangely) deeply moving and reflective, entreating me to ask, once again, why we had chosen to study law. It called into question the motivations each of us had, perhaps because we did not see (yet) in us, the kind of unwavering and undeniable passion Mr Yap had for his interest in his specialisation. Some of us have the mentality that the true and steadfast fervour for law could hardly be found among those who were working – perhaps they like it, yes, because of the pay, because it is what they do best – but after meeting Mr Yap, it was clear that the hard-nosed, amoral stereotype of a lawyer was perhaps more of an untruth than anything else. So long story short – paradigm shift.
For Mr Yap, his decision to specialise in family law was probably not as grand and spectacular as one would have expected after reading the previous paragraph. In fact, it was more of a go-with-the-flow, “I don’t really know how to do any other work” (that is what he joked) mentality he held when he first started. But the passion in that specialisation brewed right from day one. Explaining his inspiration in deciding to specialise in family law, he slowly delved into what fascinated him, and what continues to challenge him. To me, there was a certain musing and reflectiveness about it.
“I think it’s just a natural thing; I started off from there and I started getting involved in doing matrimonial work. I just like it.. I like the human psychology part of it actually. You know, why people fight over petty things, how difficult people can be. You have access problems, like how the child doesn’t want to go [to the other parent]. How do you solve these problems? Is the child capable of making up his own mind? Sometimes you deal with allegations of child abuse, sexual violence. Do you make a decision to cross-examine a child? What if you have no choice?”
Similar to what we believed to be the reality of family law, there are bound to be emotionally draining cases that specifically deal with the human element, more so than the law. It is one aspect that I find especially intriguing, where lawyers not only have to know the law well, but must be adept at resolving human conflict while balancing their client’s interests at the same time. To the question of how the cases were emotionally draining, Mr Yap compared the human aspect of family law with other specialisations.
“More so than your arbitration law, commercial, corporate, transactional law, or mundane work, because those clients don’t have the baggage, the emotional highs and lows. you don’t have a situation where your wife is leaving you, after being married for 25 years, when you have three kids, and you have no income. In other cases you deal with business relationships you can do without, or you fight for money. In family law there is also fighting over money, but it’s different, the money is still within the family wealth. The loss is physical and monetary – eventually I don’t have to work with you anymore, but for family law, it’s about relationships and emotional tangles – after the divorce, you still have to work together to some extent because you still have kids.”
How did he manage this human aspect of the law?
“You try not to get personally involved. You need to maintain a lot of objectivity. If you do get personally involved, you’ll also get ‘personal’ with your opponent. You’ll start putting in your own personal views, preferences, because you use your personal experience or your own personal life, and you inject that into how you handle your client’s case, which may not necessarily be in the best interests of your client. Then you are not being objective.”
Besides this, he highlighted that there were fine distinctions in being the right lawyer for the client.
“As a family lawyer, you also have to decide what kind you want to be. Do you want to be the type to apply every single rule that is possible? It doesn’t help all the time, and can instead aggravate and make matters become acrimonious. Interlocutory applications sometime create more problems; it doesn’t necessarily solve all problems. [Your efforts] may backfire, [as the other] party may be willing to resolve things out of court, but your actions can create a whole new set of problems that may not have existed if you didn’t take that approach.”
We moved on to how our law school experience would help us. Not to deny the many things law school will teach us, but it is true that in many areas, the law is very dynamic, and the skills should be the main takeaway for us, not the content. We learn enough, but we soon find out it is hardly enough. Inevitably, law school will likely be unable to encompass everything the working world is raring to throw at those fresh out of school, and it is in this vein that Mr Yap had a little cautionary advice for us.
“You’ll realise that the law school experience is a very small percentage of what you actually require, when you go out to work. I think it gives you the fundamental basics of knowing the law, for the qualification, but there’s actually a lot of practical areas which the LLB doesn’t teach you, which is precisely why you have your post-grad, your Part B – you’ll learn your advocacy, you’ll learn your family tutorials – which are more practice-oriented. When you leave law school, you’ll think that you know everything, but that’s the beginning of your downfall. You artificially learn how to apply the law in law school, but in reality when you practise family law, it’s a lot of other issues, and clients nowadays are really clever. There’s no point just telling them the law, you must give them the right, practical advice. For example, in corporate law, sometimes you need to understand the business to advise the company properly. It’s the same in family law – you need to think about the problem and think about the solution.”
He went on and reiterated the importance of hard work and getting the basics right, “morals of the story” that all of us know but hardly apply.
“The foundation of a law student is everything. Four years of law school and another for pupillage and passing the bar, that comes up to five years of studying. Yet merely cutting and pasting means nothing. Law is more than just that. The world does not owe you a living; there is no replacement for hard work. Cutting corners in the early days could very well turn out to be your downfall. These days, clients are well-educated and well researched. Just like doctors, a lot more is demanded of us these days. In order to cope, you really have to love what you’re doing. Look at the practice of law as something which enables you to help people. That is the motivation you need.
The world does not owe you a living; and the world meets no one halfway.”
Additionally, he encouraged young lawyers to do pro bono work.
“Try to involve yourself in pro bono work, in addition to just studying. Not necessarily criminal pro bono, but civil work as well. Helping people in difficulties to realise their legal rights will give you a good grasp of what it means to be a lawyer. The pursuit of money is not what an aspiring law student should be concerned about. Right now, there is a huge pro bono movement going on. That which enables you to help others should be part and parcel of being a lawyer.”
As one can tell, Mr Yap firmly believes in character and the right attitude in order for success in this industry. In his own words,
“I was in the office till one in the morning last night and I still woke up early today. The life of a lawyer may not be an easy one. However, you should be looking at what you can do to help and learn from your firm, and not what your firm can do for you. If you are only looking for short hours and a high salary, you would find your experience an extremely painful one.”
According to him, a new lawyer ought to be humble and willing to work. The first few years are crucial in shaping the kind of lawyer one turns out to be.
“Take, for example, the drafting of court documents. You could always just ask someone who has done it before to send you a precedent, with you just editing the document to fit your needs. In doing so, a three hour task could be finished in just one. However, in doing so, you are not truly learning anything at all. That is the wrong approach. Take the time and effort to understand why things must be done in a certain way, and do not be afraid to ask questions. Making mistakes as a junior associate is excusable to a certain extent. When one becomes a senior associate and makes mistakes, it would greatly affect one’s reputation and credibility. As such, the first few years of legal work would often turn out to be the most vital.”
We started the interview, seeking to find out more about what family law was about. But at the end, we were offered a whole career-span of valuable insight and reflection
Article contributed by: Marc Teh (Law 1) and Clement Yap (Law 1)