Sunday, 3 September 2017

Lawyers: the advocacy of life.

Alas, law, that dastardly career that wrecks your social life and gives you sleepless nights. 

Yesterday's mass call to the Singapore bar saw 483 young entrants into this unwholesome dungeon of emotional turmoil.

At the gate welcoming them is our CJ, who urged firms to show compassion to these younglings on their maiden voyage negotiating the narrow straits between the Scylla and Charybdis of the legal profession. 

He noted that these legal neophyte needs guidance via enduring/meaningful mentorship with heart and soul as he understands that they are entering a warped field where the immense burden of a litigant will rest on their small and fragile shoulders to be carried to a certain finishing line. 

It's going to be both a stressful and distressful journey for them.

CJ also noted that "a recent survey in Britain found that more than 90 per cent of 200 lawyers felt too much emotional or mental pressure at work." 

He added, "If this were not troubling enough, one in four described the stress he experienced as either "severe" or "extreme"". 

The papers today cited another Australian study "which reported that lawyers suffer from significantly lower levels of psychological health than other professionals."

Lesson? Three, and it is taken from VK Rajah's speech to NUS law graduates in July this year. He gave some sound advice to the glowing crop of legal eaglets.

1) He said: "Unlike the hospitality business, the client is not always right. A good lawyer does not slavishly follow the client's instructions. Instead, he counsels the client to achieve balance."

It's not going to be easy for young lawyers here. Their inexperience will somehow show. After 19 years of practice, some clients still walk into my office and ask me, "How old am I?" 

I have a look that doesn't square with my experience. But for me, I often skip that first impression and jump straight into securing the second. And that's where I try my best to understand the prevailing interest behind their grievances or legal woes.

Confidence is the bridge here. Sometimes you have to put your foot down to tell them to draw the line of moderation/balance of their vindication, vengeance and ventilation.

Second is empathy, especially for clients in the throes of divorce, criminal charges and serious accidents. 

Knowledge comes third because you bridge the emotional gap with confidence and empathy before you anchor them on what you think in your professional view is the best course of action or even inaction (or refrain) for them. 

All this will take time, and good mentorship is the key to unlocking the skills to identify the nuances of human emotions and to develop a resilient client-lawyer relationship. 

SMU law dean Prof David Llewelyn said: "While many are able to adapt and think laterally, there are those who need mentoring to take them through their early years of practice, which...are at the worst, as you are learning something new every day. It is very different from university."

2) VK Rajah continued: "Unhappy lawyers are not just unhappy persons but a lack of commitment can have adverse consequences for others. Find your passion by all means. Today, a law degree opens many doors," 

While a law degree opens many doors, let's just talk about the door leading to legal practice in the long run. 

This is a long journey and the sojourner takes it one small determined step at a time. But watch out, there will be a lot of fumbling and stumbling to be expected. 

Traps are everywhere where you have to deal with earfuls of nagging, complaining, griping, ventilating and lamenting - not to forget the most emotionally unsettling of them all, accusing. 

VK Rajah is right, passion is everything. It is the fuel that gives you the resilient mileage to go the distance after a long tiring day of experiencing emotional blackhole where light or life is practically sucked from you. 

You draw passion not just from consoling and psyching yourself up in the morning (or night), but you draw it from perspectives on the other side. 

Oftentimes, it is not just about winning (or losing) a case as it is about connecting with the person. 

When you resonate with your client, the feelings, worries and helplessness, you know you have made a connection that comes with making a difference in his or her life, at least for the legal work he/she is engaging you to do. 

This difference deepens your passion not only to do your best, to put your best effort forward, but it helps you to get perspective, that is, knowing deep inside that you are able to help a soul in need or move him or her forward in life. 

That's the anchorage of meaning we experience as lawyers standing in the gap, and in turn, growing in maturity as we persevere forward. The growth and resolution door swings both ways. 

And finally...

3) VK Rajah added: "Try and be lawyers with good heads and good hearts. Be wise lawyers. In Singapore, we have many clever people but not enough wise ones."

The good head part is not the hard part. We have a lot of academically bright lawyers around. 

It is the good heart part that is not found in any law school curriculum. It comes through trials and errors, overcoming disappointments and personal inadequacies, nurturing an understanding and patience that look beyond the here and now, and developing a capacity to let go and enjoy the moment as they present themselves to us. 

Every lawyer, or professional, therefore needs a weekend diversion that has totally nothing to do with their work (For me, it's running, reading and writing). 

Let me end by saying that wisdom for me is the statecraft of the heart where our soul acts as a mediator with the outside world, where our soul filters and sieves through the debris of experiences to retrieve only the good stuff for soulful digestion, and where it moderates the wild and unsettling emotions we face and takes a horizon viewpoint of all things.

I believe every problem has a solution. The issue is not what it is. Most of us know what it is. The issue is how prepared and resolved we are to take that first step towards its resolution. 

Most times, our greatest challenge is not about knowing what to do, but doing it.

So, if law is going to be a rewarding career for its practitioner, esp the young, we need to connect with the people we are helping, instill a sense of passion and purpose in our calling, never underestimate the difference we can make one life at a time, and let that be our stepping stone to incremental fulfillment, nurture the wisdom by building inner resilience and perspective, and lastly, practise with a good heart because most clients no doubt expect professionalism from us, but they do know we are humans too. And humans are humans because we are all vulnerable, yet always willing to learn (with them).

I thus wish the 2017 law cohorts all the best in their career, and go forth to make a difference, an enduring one. Cheerz.

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