A DIFFERENT BREED OF LAW STUDENTS
Within the legal fraternity, Professor Walter Woon walks as a giant.
His roots are based in academia, although he had a dalliance with lawmaking, serving as a Nominated Member of Parliament from 1992 to 1996. The first Private Member’s Bill to be passed — the Maintenance of Parents Act — was drafted by him.
Prof Woon, 59, also served as an ambassador overseas, before taking up the Attorney-General (AG) appointment in Singapore in 2008, going on to argue several cases personally. One of his last court appearances was for the high-profile case of Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong, in the latter’s appeal against the death sentence.
After stepping down as AG in 2010, he returned to his first love — academia — and is now dean of the Singapore Institute of Legal Education. Most recently, he joined RHTLaw Taylor Wessing as chairman and senior consultant.
The career choices that Prof Woon has made allowed him to spend more time with his twin sons during their growing-up years.
While his sons, Adrian and Alexander, have followed in his footsteps and pursued law, Prof Woon notes that the profession is no longer the same as when he was a rookie.
“Law has become more of a business, rather than a profession. It is a pity but it’s inevitable. The old clubby feeling disappeared when the profession expanded. Firms are 200, 300 (in size). They have to be run as a business,” Prof Woon says.
These days, young lawyers are a different breed. “They’re less hungry than they used to be. Nowadays, unlike my generation, they have the expectation of inheritance. The majority of the students who come into law school nowadays come from families that are well-off,” he points out.
Lacking drive, the newcomers no longer find it necessary to stay in the profession through “thick and thin”.
Prof Woon notes: “They have options. And I don’t say this to blame them; because why should you kill yourself doing something you do not like in order just to accumulate money, when you’ll inherit? So do something worthwhile with your life, instead of just make money.”
AN INTERESTING, WORTHWHILE LIFETIME JOB
One of the earliest impressions Senior Counsel Michael Hwang had of the legal profession came from fiction.
“Students of my generation were all inspired by this fictional lawyer called Perry Mason who never lost a case. It was the most famous lawyer novel series then,” says Dr Hwang, 72. “When you’re young, you’re reading these books, you think, ‘My goodness, what magic a lawyer can do if he is able!’; vindicate his clients and save them from wrongful conviction.”
Mason’s brilliant cross-examination of witnesses, portrayed in the novel series by Erle Stanley Gardner, enthralled Dr Hwang and inspired him to become a lawyer.
Very soon into his decades-long legal career, he realised that the tales were “completely unrealistic”. The sobering realisation did not lead to disenchantment with his profession though, he quickly qualifies.
“The reality is that this doesn’t happen. No lawyer can ever say that he’s never lost a case,” he says. “Also, everything was based on the lawyer’s brilliant cross-examination of the witness, whereas in real life, a cross-examination is very often a slow and steady interrogation to exploit weak points made in evidence and destroy the credibility of witnesses.”
Indeed when Dr Hwang stepped into law, his family expressed scepticism.
“It wasn’t considered a glamorous profession in those days. Everybody wanted to do engineering and medicine … My mother said to me, ‘You know lawyers don’t make a lot of money.’ With respect to my late mother, I don’t think that’s true anymore. Parents would be quite happy for their children to become a lawyer,” he says.
He likens law to the field of medicine, with “many areas you can go into”. Back in the old days, lawyers were expected to be generalists and juggle various areas of the law — capital markets, mergers and acquisitions. But these days, large firms bank on their young hires to be experts in highly specific fields.
“They become very specialised quite quickly. That’s good but what my former senior partner used to say is that you don’t want to be too left-handed, meaning you become too specialised to the extent that you know virtually nothing about other branches of law,” he says.
Starting out as a lawyer with Allen & Gledhill, Dr Hwang has risen through the ranks, notching accomplishments along the way including heading his fraternity as president of the Law Society and being a member of the Supreme Court Bench.
He has carved a niche in the fields of international arbitration and mediation, currently sitting as Chief Justice of the Dubai International Financial Centre’s Courts, presiding over a panel of 10 justices from other countries.
His string of accolades includes being the honorary vice-president and governing board member of the International Council for Commercial Arbitration (ICCA).
Despite his success , Dr Hwang says he has not finished learning about the work of a lawyer.
“Even at this late stage, I’m always learning something new because you cannot know it all. Almost every day, there’ll be some new legal knowledge that I acquire. Of course, the juniors will be learning five to 10 new things a day, while I’m learning one or two. It’s a lifetime job, which makes it more interesting and worthwhile,” he says.
MENTORSHIP A TWO-WAY STREET
When he first started out as a lawyer, Mr Amolat Singh would wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweat, and run through the details of a particular case in his mind.
“You ask yourself, ‘Is there something else I can do that I’ve forgotten?’” he says. “Behind my work, there are real lives at stake. In commercial, civil and corporate cases, everything boils down to dollars and cents. But when you’re doing criminal and family law, you know it’s not just dollars and cents. These people have to pick up the pieces.”
For newer practitioners, this emotional burden is very real; with each negative verdict comes devastation. But the senior lawyer learnt from his mentor and long-time friend, the late criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan, to keep his emotions at bay, and maintain professionalism and objectivity.
Mr Singh was a mid-career lawyer, having left the military at the age of 35. Later, he started volunteering for Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences, and worked on his first capital case with Mr Anandan.
“Subhas had by then so many cases under his belt. Even for the very first case we did, every time we had a coffee break or we went for lunch, I would share my doubts with him. I was very fortunate in the sense that at the start of my career, I had somebody like that to shadow,” says the 59-year-old.
Mentorship is important for younger lawyers, Mr Singh stresses. “It helps them find some bearing in life, then they will stay the course.”
Current mentorship programmes in law firms tend to be more technical, and less focused on dealing with emotions, he feels. For mentorship to reap rewards, young lawyers must learn to voice their concerns, he said, and senior lawyers have to make time to address these worries.
Today, Mr Singh runs his own practice with two other partners, one of whom is his wife. But some things remain unchanged for the veteran.
“Even when you drive the car, you stop at the traffic light, and your mind goes back to this case,” he says. “Sometimes you do get a spark. So I quickly drive to the side of the road and write down in my small pocketbook, so that it remains there while it’s still fresh.”
PUTTING IN YOUR BEST FOR EVERY CASE
Decades after defending former footballer Abbas Saad in a match-fixing scandal, defence lawyer Edmond Pereira continues to feel “deeply aggrieved” over the case.
In the 1990s, the Lebanese-born Australian was a star in local football, turning out for Singapore in the Malaysian League and Malaysia Cup. But his footballing dreams went up in smoke in 1995, after he was found guilty of fixing matches, fined S$50,000 and banned from football-related activities here. The lifetime ban was only lifted in 2009.
Recounting the day the verdict was handed down by the court, Mr Pereira said many supporters were elated with the sentence and erupted into cheers in the courtroom “as if the team won the game”.
Two decades on, the lawyer still wonders if the outcome could have been different.
“(This) is one case which I feel deeply aggrieved about. Abbas happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, he made some admissions in his statement,” he says.
During the trial, Mr Pereira challenged the admissibility of the statement as evidence — arguing that Abbas had been threatened and coerced into signing it — but to no avail.
“Looking back, could I have done it differently? Perhaps I could have. Would the outcome be the same? It’s hard to say. I could see at that time that (the authorities) wanted to make an example of somebody and Abbas was the right target,” he says.
The veteran lawyer, 66, started his career as a legal officer in the Defence Ministry, before becoming a Deputy Public Prosecutor and State Counsel in the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and serving as a District Judge in the then-Subordinate Courts. In 1988, he moved into private practice, and became one of the stalwarts in criminal law.
Even today, Mr Pereira remains passionate about the cases he takes on, despite the fact that it is less financially rewarding than other areas of legal practice.
“(Criminal law) involves the person’s rights and liberty. There’s an accusation, there’s a lot more cut and thrust, and there’s excitement,” he says.
Over the years, Mr Pereira has carved a niche in corruption cases. However, he shuns drug trafficking cases because drugs “ruin people’s lives”.
Asked about his portfolio of work, Mr Pereira is contemplative. “Sometimes when we look back on some of the trials we did, (we wonder) whether our challenge to the prosecution witness should have been in a particular way. Would it have been better? It’s very hard. You’ve got to make that judgment at that time.”