What practice has taught me

~ By Adrian Tan ~

I have been in practice for 20 years.  My view of the law as a career?

The pay is unremarkable.  A junior lawyer’s income is the same as that of a fast-food restaurant manager, when hours worked are taken into account.  Because lawyers work all hours of the day (often at great cost to their personal lives).

Despite that, there is hardly any career path to speak of.  Most law firms are not very large, so there are just two rungs on the career ladder: associate or partner.  There is only one meaningful distinction between the two.  The associate who makes a mistake may be dismissed.  But the partner overseeing that associate is personally liable for that mistake.  Few other jobs offer such risk.

So if you are looking for money or security, then the law is not for you.

In fact, if you are looking for some respect, you should go elsewhere.  Lawyers are often sensationally depicted on television and in films.  We are shown to be grasping, aggressive and morally ambiguous.  And we are the butt of more jokes than any other profession.  Only politicians are more ridiculed (but they are merely lawyers in another guise).

Add to that mix the stress that practitioners continually have to cope with.  At the start of my career, a senior lawyer told me, “After a patient sees his doctor, he will still have his headache.  But after a client leaves his lawyer, it’s the lawyer that has the headache.  Our job is to cure a client’s headache by transferring it to ourselves.  A lawyer’s main professional skill is coping with the stress that our own clients inflict on us.”

Why, then, do we remain in this profession, year after year?

The poet Kahlil Gibran had the answer.  He wrote, “Safeguarding the rights of others is the most noble and beautiful end of a human being.”

A great lawyer is a stubborn lawyer

Those of us who continue to practice, year after year, realise this.  No other profession is as rewarding.  Each day, we are faced with the challenge of protecting a client’s rights.  Often, clients come to us as a last resort, when everything else has failed.  We are expected to resolve long-simmering conflicts, untangle complex issues, or find a comfortable space between a rock and a hard place.  And very frequently we have to finish our work as soon as possible.  To do all that, we are armed with only three weapons: our knowledge of the law, our wits and the stubbornness of our character.  The first may be improved with diligence, but not the second.  And it is the third – stubbornness – which distinguishes the good lawyer from the great.  The good lawyer advises the client on the state of the law, and the problems the client faces.  But the great lawyer chips away, relentlessly, at the problems, until a solution is shaped.

Nowhere is the need for tenacity more important than in the courtroom.  In every trial, there are moments when everything seems dark, and the case is doomed.  Some lawyers may be tempted to throw in the towel.  But the great lawyers never surrender.  They soldier on, making argument after argument, asking question after question, trying to push back the darkness and uncover some small spark of light that may reveal their case to the judge.  They do this day after day, trial after trial, until optimism becomes a habit.

So practice has taught me to value tenacity.  I have learnt to accept that in litigation, as in life, the victor is the one who shows up the next day.  And the day after that.  And the day after that.  Always hoping for the best.  Because the ultimate point of tenacity is a belief that things will improve, if only we stay the course.

Practice has also taught me something else: to shun animosity.  There is a common image of the lawyer as a combatant, someone who is intimidating and quick to take and give offence.  But practitioners know the futility of aggression.  I do not know of any situation which has been improved by an insult, malice or by open hostility.  The true worth of a lawyer to his clients is his ability to find reasonable and reasoned solutions.  So what is needed is light, not heat and smoke.

Practitioners know too that they are part of a community.  Adversaries in one case may become allies in another.  So they learn to limit, not escalate, conflict.  In practice, as in life, there is no value in unpleasantness.

Love thy neighbour

That leads me to the third lesson that practice has taught me.  Every society has laws, and every democracy prides itself on having the rule of law.  What then is the law?  The answer is surprisingly simple.  It can be found in the 1932 House of Lords decision in Donoghue v Stevenson, which dealt with the question of when a person would be liable for negligence that hurt another.  Lord Atkin, in the House of Lords, explained that “The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law you must not injure your neighbour… You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour.”

The decision established the tort of negligence, one of the most important areas of law today.  It paved the way for patients to sue doctors who botched surgeries, for consumers to sue manufacturers who produced shoddy goods and for anyone who is hurt to sue the one who caused the hurt.  What has always impressed me about that decision was its origin: love your neighbour.

In a very real sense, that has always been the essence of law in society.  It sets a standard of human behaviour which is consistent with the principle that we love our neighbour.  It imposes on us a duty to love each other.  Because if there is love, there is empathy.  If there is empathy, there is fairness.  If there is fairness, there is justice.

Persistence, civility and love.  That is what the practice of law has taught me.

This piece appeared as an epilogue to a collection of essays on legal practice in 'The Practice Of Law' (2011) edited by Tang Hang Wu, Michael Hor and Koh Swee Yen, and published by LexisNexis, with all royalties going to The Special Needs Trust Company.

'The Practice of Law' is available at NUS Co-Op (Bukit Timah and Kent Ridge campuses) and Kinokuniya, and can also be purchased online at LexisNexis for S$26.75. Enquiries on the book can be made at [email protected].

TOC would like to thank the editors of 'The Practice Of Law' and Adrian Tan for allowing us to publish this piece.