In Session: Pro Bono in Practice

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A joint dialogue organised by the NUS and SMU Pro Bono groups was held in the evening of 15th March at the SMU administration building. The session featured a panel of distinguished individuals including Mr Josephus Tan, Lead Council under the Supreme Court’s Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences; Mr Chris Edwards, senior associate at DLA Piper; Ms Cassandra Ow, ex-head of the NUS Pro Bono Group; and Mr Wong Meng Meng, then President of the Law Society of Singapore.

The 2 main issues that the session addressed were:

(1)  whether mandatory pro bono is required to sustain pro bono and

(2)  whether current law firm billing and promotion practices encourage or discourage pro bono.

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The Opening Speeches

After a short speech and video by the Pro Bono Service Office, Mr Josephus Tan began the discussing with an interesting and amusing description of his participation in CLAS the opportunities he gathered in learning the tricks of the legal trade, and even declared that pro bono gave him a high. Importantly, he noted that pro bono served more than an altruistic purpose, but a utilitarian one as well: “The more you do (pro bono), the better (in terms of technical skills) you get.”

Mr Edwards continued the discussion  by noting how lawyers can continue to do pro bono despite a heavy workload. He highlighted how the message of pro bono encompasses the three aspects of intrinsic motivation: autonomy (the desire for freedom), mastery (the desire to improve oneself) and purpose (the desire to do something in service larger than ourselves). Using DLA Piper as an example, Mr Edwards pointed out how bigger firms have set up pro bono programs and expressed great faith in the Singaporean legal community to do pro bono.

As an NUS Law alumni, Ms Ow ‘s first contact with pro bono resonated with many in the audience. She had attended a legal clinic session during her days as a law student and eventually set up Project Law Help with the advent of the NUS Pro Bono Group. Ms Ow expressed her that pro bono should not be mandatory even though every law student should be exposed to it. Articulating the purist standpoint, she stressed that passion was a definite prerequisite for pro bono.

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Open Floor Discussion

Q: What is the role of law schools in Singapore within the pro bono ecosystem?

A: Ms Ow believed that the pro bono group in each school would provide every student with a spectrum of opportunities for contact with pro bono. This would hopefully inspire students to go on to do pro bono in practice. Mr Chris stressed that students need not wait for institutions to provide such opportunities and could instead volunteer at various international pro bono organizations in need of law students. Mr Tan built on this by mentioning the myriad of initiatives under PBSO. He suggested that law students could be attached to such projects which would expose our future lawyers to the real world and its issues. Mr Wong concluded with the remark that the purpose of making pro bono as an academic requirement should be to instill a sense of civic consciousness in law students, and not simply as another test of a law student’s academic ability.

Q: Would an alternative to mandatory pro bono would be for firms to give credit to lawyers that do pro bono work?

A: The panel was divided in opinion. The three male panelists found no issue with mandatory pro bono. Mr Wong raised the point that in reality a lawyer’s performance is evaluated based on his or her contribution to the firm’s coffers. It would be difficult for a lawyer’s pro bono work to be considered in his or her performance evaluation given that such evaluation was different across firms. He also mentioned that the idea of making lawyers pay a fee if they did not want to do pro bono was considered but it would be biased to the rich. Mr Tan revealed that there was a lot of resistance to the mandatory pro bono scheme at first. He believed this was because lawyers who were doing pro bono felt that they would enjoy the same appreciation from society that they had before. He then compared the pro bono scheme to National Service, drawing parallels between how the participants in both schemes are usually unhappy with how they are mandatory but would eventually accept it for the greater good.

Ms Ow, on the other hand, clarified that law firms do have a culture in providing opportunities for associates to do pro bono, and that such an alternative suggested above was not required. Drawing on her experience in a pervious law firm, she maintained that the firm’s pro bono programs were simply a platform for the lawyers themselves to do pro bono. They were only minimally mandatory to the point for simply exposing the associates to pro bono work, but any further pro bono action would be on the onus of the lawyers themselves. She then further stressed that the mandatory pro bono scheme should be reflective of such a policy – that the scheme should be a platform for lawyers to do pro bono and not an obligation – for fear that pro bono would lose its meaning. Lawyers should do pro bono not because they must do it, but because they want to.

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Q: Should a strong pro bono culture be instilled to law firms as an alternative to a mandatory pro bono system, and would there be a lack of credible opportunities for law students to do pro bono in such a mandatory system, with the effect that it would discourage a culture of pro bono?

Mr Wong addressed these final two questions to the panel and mentioned that one should not compartmentalize the entire issue of community service and see pro bono as a separate issue. Pro bono is simply one aspect of community service, and that a more holistic view should adopted by students on every education level. A student’s world should not comprise simply of examinations and other academic activities, but should encompass helping the less fortunate. Lawyers can help others just as well as doctors or engineers can. Pro bono is simply the finishing touch in of a culture of community service that is prevalent since primary school. As such, there would be no need for efforts to instill such a culture that have existed throughout the education level hierarchy.

The session ended with a presentation of tokens of appreciation to the panelists. Every participant then adjoined outside the room for refreshments, whereby talk ranged from further discussion of pro bono to the other lighter aspects of life.

Written by: Dominic Low

Photographs by: Derrick Koh

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