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Time is money – and that is no more so the case than for lawyers, who charge by the hour. But what is the true cost of pro bono work? N Sreenivasan ’85, Abraham Vergis ’98 and Nadia Yeo ’09 tell Victor Katheyas ’13. 

 

N Sreenivasan ’85, Abraham Vergis ’98 and Nadia Yeo ’09 are busy litigators, for whom a 12-hour work day is nothing unusual. However, all three manage to set aside time for pro bono initiatives.

 

Sreenivasan (or Sreeni, as he is known at the Bar Room) is managing director of Straits Law Practice LLC, and to date has taken up 11 cases under the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (‘CLAS’). This scheme arranges for accused persons who are charged with an offence that is not punishable by death to have legal advice and representation. He also does counseling at legal clinics, and advises voluntary welfare associations (VWOs). His pro bono efforts were most recently recognized in 2010 when he received the Law Society Pro Bono Ambassador Award.

 

Abraham, a director with Drew & Napier LLC, is similarly involved with CLAS initiatives. He has taken up 7 CLAS cases so far, and is involved in fundraising for the scheme, especially for its annual Charity Golf Tournament. He also volunteers at legal clinics.

 

Nadia Yeo '09Nadia, an associate with Kelvin Chia Partnership, has already taken up one CLAS case since graduating from NUS Law School just over a year ago. She also volunteers at Legal Clinics held at South East Community Development Council (at which she volunteered as a student as well) and the Criminal Legal Clinics in the Subordinate Courts. In addition, she assists in mediation sessions at the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) from time to time.

 

Why do pro bono work?

 

All three agree that lawyers have an obligation to assist those who cannot afford legal advice and representation. Lawyers have a monopoly on the practice of law, so pro bono work is important in order “to ensure that the legal system does not become a rich man’s game,” says Sreeni.

 ... pro bono work is important in order “to ensure that the legal system does not become a rich man’s game”

Nadia agrees, and adds that the lack of financial ability to hire a lawyer should not mean that a person “ought to be deprived of the benefit of legal advice or at the very least some guidance in relation to court proceedings or the law.” Legal advice is often essential because court proceedings can be fairly intimidating to the average layperson.

 

Abraham Vergis ’98 and N Sreenivasan ’85Nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of criminal law, points out Abraham. Unlike many other jurisdictions, in Singapore there is a state-funded body to assist the poor in civil cases (the Legal Aid Bureau), but there is no such state-funded assistance for the financially needy who are facing non-capital criminal charges.

 

Ironic, as the need for legal assistance could be argued to be even greater in criminal cases, as the consequences have to do with personal liberty. This is where the volunteers from the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) come in.

 

Abraham recalls one instance where an accused person had pleaded guilty to a drug trafficking offence – and was sentenced to 9 years’ imprisonment – because he could not afford a lawyer to defend him at trial. The High Court requested for a CLAS lawyer to look into the case when the accused appealed in person against the length of his sentence. Abraham was appointed to represent the accused person and, on the evidence, applied to set aside the conviction. The High Court sent the case back to the Subordinate Courts, where the accused person was acquitted after an eight-day trial.

 

A worthwhile investment

 

Pro bono work is certainly rewarding, but not without its strains and stresses. As any practising lawyer would agree, there is never quite enough time in the day to complete all the work on your agenda; so how does one fit in non-paid volunteer legal work into that busy schedule?

 

“Sleep less, wake earlier, and work that much harder!” says Nadia. “Back in university I used to volunteer regularly at the South-east CDC legal clinic run by Law Society and at some Singapore Association of Women Lawyers legal clinics, assisting in the administrative work. I also assisted at the Subordinate Courts Small Claims Tribunal under their Friends Of The Court mediation scheme; and did a pro bono stint in Morocco under the United Nations. After being called to the Bar, it was much harder for me to find time to actively participate in pro bono work. I spend time after office hours and over the weekend working on my pro bono files or volunteering at legal clinics. Trust me – I don’t get enough sleep!”

"I do the hands-on pro bono work because I enjoy it ... the best way is for the younger lawyers to actually see the senior partners do it hands-on and put in the time" 

Nevertheless, all three are motivated to continue doing pro bono work. The incalculable satisfaction that pro bono work offers – especially seeing the difference one can make in other people’s lives – is motivation enough, says Abraham. And it keeps them volunteering, year after year – Sreeni started doing pro bono work in 1990. “In 1990, when I first entered into private practice from the Legal Service, I became a CLAS volunteer. I was a member of the Law Society’s first Law Awareness Committee, chaired by George Lim SC ’81; and was the project chairman for the first Law Awareness Weekend at Raffles City. I have stayed involved since then.”

 

N Sreenivasan '85As a senior lawyer and Managing Director of his firm, is Sreeni not tempted to just farm out the volunteer work to the more junior lawyers in his firm, whose opportunity cost in billable hours is less ‘expensive’? “I do the hands-on pro bono work because I enjoy it. In the firm, we encourage 100% participation and the best way is for the younger lawyers to actually see the senior partners do it hands-on and put in the time.”

 “Pro bono work gives young lawyers real-world experience and an important opportunity to stand up in Court to argue their own cases on their own, This is an opportunity they otherwise might not be given, especially in the early stages of their career.”

Abraham adds that volunteering one’s legal skills is not at all detrimental to a lawyer, or his/her law firm. “Pro bono work gives young lawyers real-world experience and an important opportunity to stand up in Court to argue their own cases on their own, This is an opportunity they otherwise might not be given, especially in the early stages of their career.”

 

Sreeni agrees: “Law firms stand to benefit from the increased width of knowledge and experience of their lawyers. Most of our lawyers come from middle and upper income families and have gone to elite schools. Pro bono shows them the real problems that Singaporeans face.”

 

Furthermore, the strong pro bono culture developing in our local law schools has resulted in today’s law students becoming increasingly interested in doing pro bono work as lawyers. When applying to firms, these young people look for law firms that allow them to strike a balance between professional achievement and altruism. “Law firms that offer that balance will attract the best,” says Abraham.

 

Looking to the future

 

There has been increasing support in the legal fraternity in Singapore over the past few years. Sreeni notes: “Pro bono work used to be driven only by the Law Society - now there is full support from the Singapore Academy of Law and the Ministry of Law. The additional financial resources have been of great help.”

 

But does more need to be done? “Always. The sandwich class - too rich for legal aid and too poor for full fees - is a difficult group to assist.”

 

The majority of lawyers in Singapore practice civil or corporate law, but the most urgent demand from the public is for criminal representation. Sreeni points out: “In the area of criminal representation, those lawyers whose knowledge and understanding of process, the sentencing tariffs and practices and the availability of charge reduction – and who therefore would be the best and most appropriate volunteers for accused persons – are the very ones who earn their living in that very area of practice. This is why I truly admire the CLAS volunteers - they are actually taking bread away from themselves.”

 

Sreeni agrees with the suggestion of Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong ’61 at the Opening of the Legal Year 2011: if lawyers are not donating some of their time to do pro bono legal work, they should donate the equivalent hours of their earnings in lieu. He says, “Monetary contribution is the medium for matching. In practical terms: we need the money, and it would be nice to compensate (at least partially) those who are slogging it out. The balance has to be struck between access to justice and making sure that lawyers who provide the services can earn a decent living.”

 

Donating money would allow those lawyers who may not have the appropriate skill set or perhaps are unable to spare their own time for pro bono work to contribute to the delivery of legal services to the poor. Sreeni says, “Many lawyers give neither time nor money. If we cannot get their time, let’s encourage them to give money.”

 

March 2011

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