In the blink of an eye, I have been 30 years in the law.
Oh what a ride. And the ride is still ongoing.
I’ve been more lucky than most. I’ve lived all tenets of the law.
You can say the law has been my mistress.
She has shaped me – calibrated my moral compass, challenged my intellect, inspired my compassion and opened my eyes to human frailty.
The law has been good to me – providing a more than meaningful livelihood.
But she has also dictated how I lived my life.
At times she has been relentless and unforgiving to me.
The Honour and Privilege of serving
My first job in my early days was in the Courts.
It was a steep learning curve – precarious and dizzying in fact.
One was thrust with great authority the day you were appointed and expected to dispense justice impeccably in every small thing we did – from hearings, management of files, overseeing admin functions of the various admin counters and arms of the court system.
And with great power comes great responsibility.
You had to learn to fight ego in a big hurry or else it will consume you.
With all that bowing and being called “Your Honour” and being inundated with respect and servitude one sometimes do not deserve or necessarily have earned.
And I was still a young punk at that.
Fresh out of law school and feeling on top of the world. Thinking I could make a difference.
Fight ego and learn humility – I decided early on for myself.
It’s your chair they are bowing to – not you.
You will know in time when you have earned their respect and they are bowing to the man and not to the institution.
That was a common mantra I passed on to newbies who had just joined the courts and I had to mentor them (we had a mentor system to ease newbies into the role).
Dispense justice – answer to no one except to your oath and to God and Country.
I have one simple rule – for as long as I can look myself in the mirror and look my children in the eyes, I can do no wrong.
Have no fear or favour and cower to no one while carrying the scales of justice.
Lex Justitia Ruat Caleum
Let Justice Prevail though Heavens May fall.
I had the privilege to breathe and live that motto everyday coming in to work.
It was intoxicating and exhilarating.
That experience I was infused with has lived with me to this day.
My moral compass has been firmly attuned from the privilege of serving justice in the most unadulterated form so early on.
And all the trials and tribulations and temptations in the last 30 years doesn’t bother me in the legal world.
There’s that line in the sand – it’s as clear as night is day. I can’t cross it and I don’t want to cross it. I know better than that. I was taught better than that.
I have taken that oath and even though I have left office, that oath will never leave me.
Private practice was to me a simpler equation.
Back in the boomer days, we were not confused by thoughts like quality of life, what do we really want in life, does that job suit my physical and spiritual needs, does it satisfy my intellectual and physiological yearnings.
None of that nansy-pansy self indulgent thoughts.
It was so simple to me.
Choose the biggest and baddest (in a good way) law firm with the biggest swagger and swinging appendage.
Then work like crazy to be as good as your peers who, to a man, were the insanely high performing type and who were bluer than blue on paper.
My paper was checkered at best.
Earn their respect – check.
Surpass them if you want or can – tentatively check.
The truth is personally for me, I didn’t need to be a superstar. I am acutely aware of my many limitations.
My blood does not run blue.
So ok a mini superstar will more than suffice.
Make partner – check.
Then more lofty ideals.
Make Head of Department which, in a large firm will take maybe 20 years to achieve.
And you will probably have 5- 10 other colleagues all vying for that elite spot.
So 20 years wait plus one in 5 or 10 odds.
Gravitas in the profession
What about professionally ? How does one earn some street cred amongst your peers in the profession?
Respect from your peers in the wider profession is at times seemingly easy to be earned (since you have already earned respect from the high performers which are your peers), but at times notoriously difficult.
First you must attain supremacy and dominance in your practice areas.
Be say top 10 in the whole legal profession in the areas that you practice. Be on that list of names that Lawyers will rattle off their tongue when asked by someone to recommend the top Lawyers practising in any given area.
This can’t be forced. You either have made it or you don’t.
What is perhaps more difficult to achieve is gaining respect and respectability amongst your peers in the legal profession other than competence in practice.
This can be surprisingly difficult.
Many a times we will hear – “yah he’s top end in his practice but he’s an unbearable arsehole.”
See ? Both brains and ass covered.
You want to avoid that.
You also need likability and charisma and god knows he dishes that out in limited quantities.
Arseholes need not apply.
It is sometimes easier to win over someone in court than over a glass of whiskey.
So try to be the best that you can be. Serious minded but chill.
Do not do unto others what you don’t want to be done to you.
If you are a litigator, be reasonable and accommodating most times but when you have to fight, tear off those limbs and head.
And shove the dismembered limbs into the neck where the head used to be.
Make them fear and never forget you.
But otherwise, be nice.
Don’t be a lawyer 24/7.
Above all else, be modest and humble.
And let them finish their sentence and listen for once.
Nobody blames a lawyer for talking too little.
Give that trap a rest. It is not god’s gift to mankind.
Use your ears more than your mouth for once.
If you can do all that, then maybe your own kind might like you a little, and you can gain some grudging respect and gravitas in the profession.
Have I achieved that ?
I’m not sure. But I’ve tried.
The Final Hurrah
I’ve been luckier than most.
I have and still is performing a role that no other (that I know of) has had the privilege of enjoying.
The role of putting the legal world of Singapore on the map so to speak.
We have two great firms transcending our borders through a regionalisation exercise, and I have had the privilege of being involved with both.
Offering to the world integrated South East Asian legal networks that are cutting edge and at the top of their game. Dynamic, cutting edge and visionary.
I never imagined that I would run the whole gamut of the law and leaving on a high at the end of my journey.
Let Justice prevail though Heavens may fall.
Thoughts I expressed 20 years ago
The Law Gazette: An interview with our new Council Members:
Q: Tell us about yourself
A: I started life in the legal service and was an assistant registrar for three years before moving to private practice in 1992. Those were three of the most fulfilling years in my entire working career. I am blessed with a supportive wife and four wonderful kids who I consider to be my greatest achievement as a human being thus far. I have a passion for anything culinary, horological and oenological.
Q: Is there any particular area which you would like to focus on during your term in council?
A: I have been active in the Law Society Advocacy Program and will continue in that role. Other than a firm commitment I have made to devote time and effort, I have no lofty ideas about wanting to address any particular issues relating to the profession immediately in my participation in Council. I am a new kid on the block and I am here to serve. My place will be the job which my President and fellow council members call upon me to undertake. So we shall see.
Q: What are your views on the state of legal practice today ?
A: I think it has matured nicely and our general competency, even on the world stage, is something we can all be proud of. But I think we have lost some virtues of the past in the process and we need to take stock, comprehend and not lose our way.
Personally, I am saddened by the image of the lawyer in today’s context, with the spate of negative developments concerning lawyers in the press because of the errant few. We need to regain not just the image but the ideal, without compromise or exception, that a lawyer’s word is his bond, and you can take anything away but his honour. That is a long and arduous road and every step counts, but to steer that you need a strong Council and leadership.
PS: My dearest Megan.
I hope you enjoy a life in the law as much as I have.
Do what makes you happy.
Your training in the law will help you in anything you wish to pursue.
Your happiness is more important to me than anything else.