Genuine interest needed to last in community practice

Ms Charlotte Lee, who hopes to practise family law, knows what it is like to need a lawyer and not be able to afford one. A pro bono lawyer helped her through her divorce nine years ago.
Ms Charlotte Lee, who hopes to practise family law, knows what it is like to need a lawyer and not be able to afford one. A pro bono lawyer helped her through her divorce nine years ago.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Ms Charlotte Lee knows first-hand what it is like to go through a divorce and not be able to afford a lawyer, after her own experience about nine years ago.

The 42-year-old, who had been married for eight years, said: "It was a challenging time for me. I had just left my job at the navy, and was having financial difficulties.

"So I understand the challenges that people face in divorce."

She eventually engaged a pro bono lawyer, and she is grateful.

She hopes to be a family lawyer and is starting the Juris Doctor law course at SIM University next year. She now manages and trains volunteers at the Lions Befrienders Service Association.

Her psychology degree from Edith Cowan University, a private institution, also spurred her interest in the social service sector. "It made me interested in the mindset of humans. I also like watching television documentaries about crime and psychology," said Ms Lee.

"I don't see lawyers as glamorous. My impression is that law is hard work and stressful," she said. "But I don't feel daunted by this maybe because of the experience I have."

Ms Faith Tan, 27, a paralegal starting the Bachelor of Laws course next year, said: "I know family law is not as glamorous - you can't say you close $50-million deals.

"But there are other parts of a job that make it meaningful, like being able to help people during the hardest parts of their lives." Ms Tan has a law and management diploma from Temasek Polytechnic.

The shortage of community law practitioners means that there is enough work for aspiring lawyers like Ms Lee and Ms Tan, said Mr Tan Chong Huat, managing partner of RHTLaw Taylor Wessing.

Mr Koh Tien Hua, co-head of the matrimonial and family law practice at Harry Elias Partnership LLP, added that more marriages are breaking down, and crime still exists in Singapore.

Yet the reasons for the lower pay - fresh family lawyers could earn $1,000 to $2,000 less than their corporate counterparts - in these fields are fairly obvious, said legal practitioners like Mr Lim Chong Boon and Mr Rajan Chettiar.

Companies have deeper pockets than those needing criminal help, while firms which specialise in community law tend to be the smaller ones, and cannot afford the pay given by the bigger firms.

Veteran criminal lawyer Amolat Singh said community lawyers "must be in it for the passion" as "the monetary rewards are comparatively not as attractive or even commensurate with the long hours and the hard work".

Mr Chettiar added that young lawyers must manage their expectations: "There is no glamour in law practice, just grit."

Amelia Teng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2016, with the headline 'Genuine interest needed to last in community practice'. Print Edition | Subscribe