The Straits Times
Published on Dec 17, 2012

Pro bono work should come from the heart


I HAVE been doing more than 50 hours of pro bono work a year for the past five years ("Compulsory pro bono work? Some reject idea"; last Tuesday). However, as a matter of principle, I do not believe pro bono work should be made compulsory for all lawyers.

First, it demeans the time and effort put in by those who are doing it of their own free will.

Second, the non-paying client may be short-changed. Any mandatory system may create problems where inexperienced lawyers or those who are not interested in a particular area are asked to advise or represent clients.

Third, if the problems relate to unrepresented criminal offenders, the solution is to set up a dedicated public defenders' office or to make it a part of pupillage or a training programme for aspiring lawyers taking the bar (as both the United States and Britain do).

A blanket pro bono regime is a blunt tool.

Fourth, if the issue is to inculcate volunteerism in young lawyers and to build a sense of community, I believe that many people who are "forced" to do pro bono work are likely to resent it. The key to nurturing true volunteerism is to be inspired by mentors and others who do engage in it and make a difference.

In my first year as a lawyer, I swore off criminal cases because I did not believe I had the stomach for it. I was convinced by a dedicated senior to help him in defending a man accused of rape. In the course of our representation, I noticed the dedication he put into the case.

He helped me change my mind about criminal cases and since then, I have been doing pro bono work.

My mentor went on to, in a pro bono case, acquit a man previously sentenced for drug trafficking. His case was widely published in the news and reminded me why volunteer lawyers do what they do.

These are the personal stories which inspired me to volunteer.

Daniel Chia