The Straits Times says

Drumming up a pro bono spirit

An initiative of the National University of Singapore (NUS) law school to spur public service among undergraduates - by examining students via their contributions to a migrant worker legal clinic - should induce broader reflection on the volunteer work of professionals. One might cite two contemporary reasons for more of them to heed a call by the father of medicine, Hippocrates (fifth century BC), to not neglect service pro bono publico (for the public good). The social threats posed by widening income gaps in current times require more professionals to embrace their responsibility to give back to society by, for example, offering services to benefit those of limited means.

It is a professional duty and ethical obligation that arises not just from the monopoly on professional services that is granted by the state, but also the high status accorded to professionals by society. Another reason for them to act is to stem an erosion of trust in the relations between professionals and their clients. This can arise because of the impersonal, time-conscious and technological character of services, as well as the lay public's improved education and their need to be part of the decision-making. Without an ethic of trust, what might emerge is a "minimalistic and legalistic ethic which is no ethic at all but merely a relationship of mutual self-defence" (expressed in the fine print of client contracts), as cited by philosopher Trudy Govier.

Commendably, Singapore Management University requires students to complete a minimum of 80 hours of community service before they graduate (but on average, the graduating class of 2014 did 140 hours each). NUS law students have long been involved in pro bono work, thanks to the example set by their legal brethren. Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School has a corporate social responsibility programme and Nanyang Technological University's business school has a corporate social responsibility club. More in tertiary institutions ought to be part of this effort. Among American law schools, over 40 of them make public service a graduation requirement. That might reflect the needs of a society which has more lawyers per capita (apart from Greece) than 29 countries that were studied in 2006, and yet was ranked 65th (alongside Pakistan) for the accessibility and affordability of its civil justice in last year's Rule of Law Index covering 102 countries.

There is no gainsaying that everywhere and in all fields, there is a crying need for greater professional participation in pro bono work to help those in need. Thus, institutions of higher learning ought to foster this ethos of care at an early stage, by dictate or suasion, as no professional can afford to live in an ivory tower. Pro bono work offers the means of "reintegrating a privileged profession in the reality of one's society", as a senior American lawyer and social advocate noted.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline Drumming up a pro bono spirit. Subscribe