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Alumni Feature:
The Art and Craft of Litigation (Part 2)

Continuing our interview with Attorney-General Steven Chong ’82 
(Photos by Kelvin Ma  ’03, Mofyphotos) 

Young lawyers and litigation

LawLink: Having been on the Bench for a while, do you think the lack of court exposure is palpable amongst younger lawyers?

AG:  In the trials that I had presided over, it was quite rare to have young lawyers acting as first chair. It has to do with awareness by clients. Perhaps due to rankings in law directories or the status of Senior Counsel, clients are now more aware of who they want to represent them. In my time, the clients would choose a law firm. They wouldn’t always insist on specific senior partners handling the cases. They were quite prepared in most cases to accept the recommendations of the senior partners.

Today, clients will say, “I want so-and-so to argue the case.” You know, with litigation and cross-examination, you develop those skills through experience - getting it right, getting it wrong, and improving. There is simply no substitute for first-hand experience.

LawLink: So what’s the solution if you’re a young lawyer, and you’re just doing memos for your senior partners?

AG: I think the solution is for the big law firms to be more willing to get their younger lawyers to do more independent work.

On the Bench, I tried to encourage the lead counsel to involve the younger lawyers. In cases, involving many witnesses, I would suggest to the senior lawyers, “There are fifteen witnesses. Some of them are not so critical. I see you’ve got a number of juniors. Get them to do some cross-examination.”

I was glad when they did it, because I was there to guide them, to encourage them. That was my part in encouraging the young to participate in the trial process.

As a young lawyer, you take a lot more ownership and pride in your work if you are first chair, you know you have no safety net when you go to court, you tend to be more prepared. When you win a case, when you achieve a certain result, the satisfaction is infinitely higher than if you are second or third chair. You will also learn when the outcome is unfavourable by examining where you went wrong. I think the lack of opportunity to do independent work has contributed to the high attrition rate amongst the younger set

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Maintaining the passion

LawLink: What advice do you have with regard to keeping yourself sufficiently motivated when you work? Many lawyers from my generation will leave at some point.

AG: At every stage of your career there are challenges, but there are milestones for you to cross which would spur you to carry on.

It’s very important to maintain the passion because it is a stressful and demanding calling. As a profession, people expect high standards from you. They pay top dollar for you. And it’s not easy to always maintain the interest level if you don’t maintain your passion in the profession.

One thing I did, in my early years – I was very keen in shipping/admiralty practice - it was important to translate the enthusiasm in the practice to interest in the industry. I made it a point to keep myself updated on the commercial developments in the maritime world – the freight market, bunker prices, changes in the top management of leading shipping and insurance companies etc. In this way, I could speak the language of the industry. I regularly delivered papers at Conferences. This helps you to gain recognition amongst your peers and the industry leaders. The recognition will in turn motivate you to carry on, because you know that you are making a significant contribution to your practice

An affinity for things nautical

LawLink: What led you to be a shipping lawyer?

AG: I was fortunate to have served my NS in the navy. So I formed an affinity towards things nautical. I know how to operate radar, how to navigate, I know basic seamanship. These were all very useful in my admiralty practice – handling collisions, salvage, casualty work. I handled a significant number of the major maritime casualties in our waters – the sinking of the Royal Pacific and the Sun Vista, the RSS Courageous collision and the largest oil pollution in Singapore waters arising from the collision between the Evoikos and the Orapin Global.

In Law School, some of my favourite subjects included Contract, Shipping and Conflicts. Contract and Shipping were taught by Justice Tan Lee Meng ’72, who was a mentor to me. He made these two subjects very entertaining and interesting.

Tort was also one of my favourite subjects, taught by Professor Tan Keng Feng ’71. And if you look at all the leading tort, contract, conflicts cases – most of them arose from significant shipping disputes.

I wanted to practise in an area where I felt that my technical skills as a navigator would assist me. It was helpful when I interviewed the crew members as I could understand their language and the technical terminology. In the 1980s, Drew & Napier had the best shipping practice. So it was natural to apply to that firm. In fact, that was the only firm I applied to.

 

LawLink: What was it like to be elevated to the Bench? The late Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin once mentioned that…

AG:

It’s the loneliest job in the world? Well, let me tell you my take on this.

When I became a Judge, I threw away my BlackBerry.

I didn’t need my BlackBerry because nobody sent me emails. That was a huge positive! When I woke up in the morning as a lawyer, the first thing I would do was to reach for my BlackBerry and look at many unread emails.

Second, my mobile phone hardly rang. No client would call me; no lawyer would call me; so, the only people who would call me were either my family members or my close friends.

However, it was important for me as a Judge to remain connected with developments at the Bar. While on the Bench, I chaired the Professional Affairs Committee (“PAC”) of the SAL. That committee has a very wide reach to various constituencies of the profession – young lawyers, in-house counsel, foreign lawyers, practitioners, District Court Judges, DPPs. Through my work in the PAC, I interacted with members of the Bar, Legal Service Officers and other stakeholders of the profession. For me, the “job” on the Bench was not as lonely as one would imagine it to be.

 But the big difference is: when I worked, I had no distractions. Managing a firm has huge distractions – conflicts, complaints, risk management issues, accounts, recruitment, resignations in addition to managing my own caseload. And they happen all the time, and there’s no queue system. So when I was working on complex cases, I would lock myself in a “war room”, which is what I did in Rajah & Tann.

 As a Judge, the one thing which I enjoyed the most is that it reconnected me to the law in a very intense way. When I was at the Bar, I specialised – shipping, insurance, banking, complex commercial disputes. But on the Bench, I did everything - employment law, family law, trust law, criminal law, constitutional law to name a few.

In a way, my engagement, my involvement with administrative and constitutional law and criminal law was the best preparation for this office. I felt much more prepared making the transition from the Bench to AG than I would have from private practice to AG.

Take a Few More Days

LawLink: Tell us about your time on the Bench.

AG:As a lawyer, I found part-heard trials to be very unsatisfactory. It is very disruptive to the entire process. It is a waste of resources for the lawyers, the clients and the judges to have to refresh themselves before each tranche with the inevitable outcome that the whole process including appeals is delayed. When I was on the Bench, I would hold a pre-trial conference with the lead counsel on the first day of the trial. I would ask the parties, “When you asked for seven days for this trial, you might not have fully appreciated all the issues in the dispute. Now that you’re before me and you know the issues, is this enough? If not enough, go to the Registry now and tell them to allocate a few more days.” So as a result of that active case management, I was able to complete every trial in one tranche; except for two cases - but those had to be adjourned because of medical issues.

Two: I mentioned that I wanted to encourage the young, which I did

Litigation – an art and a craft

Three: I don’t believe advocacy should be practiced by way of written submissions only. Every trial that I have presided over, I required counsel to open and close with oral submissions.

I felt that litigation is really our art, our craft. And you can’t practise litigation if you don’t stand up and address the court in submissions, and engage the judge.

Opening statements are also useful because they help you warm up; clients who are in the courtroom can understand the case better; if I have any query about the case, I would take the opportunity to seek clarity from counsel.

The other thing that I found very useful was that at the end of each trial, I would craft the issues. I would do a list, sit down with counsel, and say, “These are the issues which arise from the pleadings. Some have since been abandoned during the trial. As a result of this practice– it takes no more than an hour - I iron out the issues, so when I read the submissions, both counsel would address the same issues. This would in turn eliminate the need for sequential submissions. And it’s helpful to me because ultimately I have to reduce my decision in writing.

LawLink: It’s more efficient.

AGAnd in a number of my judgments, I would always – when the opportunity arose – make observations about best practices: You shouldn’t plagiarise, you shouldn’t cut and paste without acknowledging the source of the article, if you should decide to abandon any substantive point you should tell the other side in advance. Ultimately the Judge has to control the case, decide on the merits, but I think we can shape the conduct of lawyers – how they conduct themselves in court

And these best practices are geared towards ensuring that there is dignity in the process. To the extent that I could, I encouraged lawyers to observe those rules. It makes practice much more enjoyable, less stressful and fosters professionalism.

Advice for young lawyers

LawLink: What are some of the other challenges facing young lawyers?

AG: Today, we have one thousand foreign lawyers. Their presence is a force. Big law firms, magic circle firms, opportunities to travel, to go for overseas attachments et cetera. And you’re spoiled for choice in terms of career options– merchant banks, private banks, statutory boards, foreign law firms, private practice, Legal Service.

As a young lawyer, first you’ve got to ask yourself: What do you want to be? Where do you see yourself in five to ten years time? So you make that first analysis – do I want to be a litigator? If so, the choice is quite obvious, because you can only practise litigation in the domestic firms.

So once you make that choice, then the options become more manageable. Then you can ask yourself, in terms of your own makeup, whether you fit better in a large law firm like WongP, R&T, A&G, D&N … or you want to join a medium-sized or small law firm where you will be given more opportunities to do independent work, or the Legal Service. Speak to your seniors for advice. Helpful to join an organisation where you have a senior who can act as your mentor and role model. If you have particular interest in a specific area of the law or industry such as shipping, intellectual property, you might want to consider specialising. I should add that you could also choose to specialise at a later stage of your career. Your skills as a general litigator would help you make the transition or to switch to corporate practice. Once you decide to specialise, it is critical to maintain interest by keeping yourself abreast of developments in that industry.

I should do my part in encouraging young lawyers to consider a career in the Legal Service. Since taking office, I have worked with a number of officers in AGC. I have to say that I am extremely impressed with their commitment to public service. They chose the Service because they want to and believe that they can make a difference. Many of them could walk into any of the leading law firms but chose to pursue their careers in the Service.

The reality is that the Bar will continue to lose lawyers. Now a number of them have opened cake shops, restaurants, wine bars. Some of the best chefs in town are lawyers!

 

 

 

 

 

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