How can Bar exam cheats redeem themselves? Actions speak louder than words
Lawyers aim to find solutions for their clients, not provide responses to binary legal questions — for that, we now have Google and Wikipedia.
Lawyers aim to find solutions for their clients, not provide responses to binary legal questions — for those, we now have Google and Wikipedia.
To do this well, trust must exist in the lawyer-client relationship.
Clients are entitled to trust that their lawyers will act in their best interests.
Because of this, lawyers must hold themselves to the highest standard of ethics to maintain the integrity of this profession that was once assumed, without question, to be honourable.
This is why I — together with most of Singapore — was upset to hear that several trainee lawyers were caught cheating at their Bar exams.
Not only did these trainees share answers with each other over WhatsApp in their online exams, but ironically, Ethics and Professional Responsibility was one of the affected subjects — perfect icing on an already tantalising story.
JUST A SLAP ON THE WRIST?
An adjournment in legal proceedings means no decision is yet made.
At the next hearing, the presiding judge will decide whether the applicants should be allowed to be called to the Bar, their applications further adjourned, or even dismissed.
So those who believe the judge who ordered the adjournment — Justice Choo Han Teck — did not sufficiently “punish” the cheating applicants are putting the cart before the horse.
Perhaps the confusion arose because one of the applicants, who had initially feigned innocence, received a longer adjournment of 12 months instead of six, causing the public to think that the relatively short delay was a penalty.
However, the delay was proposed by the Attorney-General as a time for the law graduates to “reflect on the error of their ways”.
Initially, Justice Choo redacted the applicant’s names “in the hope that they will not be prejudiced in the long run”.
However, in a surprise decision, on Wednesday (April 27), he decided that “redemption cannot be claimed behind the mask of anonymity” and their names were to be made public.
Now that the offenders are unmasked and open to “cancellation”, it no longer is just a slap on the wrist.
QUALITIES OF A LAWYER
Integrity is of paramount importance for lawyers, not just because our purpose in society is to help maintain the rule of law and facilitate access to justice, but because of the inevitable trust that a client must have that their lawyer will act in their best interests.
A dishonest lawyer can potentially do tremendous damage which may not be adequately compensated by money.
For example, all clients should be entitled to rely on the competence of their lawyer.
Contrary to popular belief, graduating from law school does not automatically qualify a lawyer to render sound legal advice. It takes at least 10,000 hours of practice (five to six years at eight hours a day) to hone the craft.
Rule 5(2)(d) of the Legal Professional Conduct Rules states that a legal practitioner must “ensure that [he/she] has the relevant knowledge, skills and attributes in a manner appropriate to the matter”.
Dishonest lawyers could easily hoodwink unsuspecting lay clients that they are an expert in a particular area, when they are not.
There are no mandatory examinations for lawyers to take before one is allowed to perform specialised legal services. It is about trust.
Personally, I have dedicated a good part of the last decade to commercial and intellectual property law. That said, there is no way for clients to know what I’ve really been through, apart from what I tell them.
Honesty is assumed.
ROAD TO REDEMPTION
In a world that relishes placing prominent figures under the microscope of political correctness, perhaps the more fascinating question is how the offenders plan to redeem themselves during this court-mandated time of reflection?
The trainees have already retaken the exam and passed, but how can the Government, legal community and court be satisfied that they can be trusted to uphold the reputation of the profession?
The immediate ideas that come to mind would be for the guilty parties to craft a sincere public apology seeking forgiveness from all interested parties and/or to spend time serving the community through pro-bono initiatives.
But to ask the question of how one who has been caught cheating can be trusted again is almost rhetorical.
While no one, save the presiding judge to hear their Bar admission application, is in a rightful position to pass judgement, I believe “actions speak louder than words”.
These cheating trainee lawyers are not the first to have fallen from grace.
In 2010, veteran lawyer Choy Chee Yean was struck off the rolls, following a criminal conviction in Hong Kong for burglary. He had voluntarily stopped practising in 2008, and was reinstated in 2019.
The Court of Three Judges found that Choy had been fully rehabilitated, 11 years after his voluntary cessation from active legal practice.
During this time, Choy had “kept himself in gainful employment while demonstrating a willingness to continuously engage with the law”, and had taken on various roles “as an author, a paralegal, an in-house counsel, and a consultant and trainer” in the interim.
The court agreed that there is a “public interest in … rehabilitation and redemption”, and that “a second chance ought to be offered to those who are genuine in their contrition”.
It is not just time that heals, but what we do in this life.
Perhaps, if the trainees sacrificed their paying jobs as legal executives in big or international firms and served the community for the duration of the adjournment, they could be in a better position to demonstrate remorse.
Regardless of what the trainees choose to do, Justice Choo has now given them the chance to learn from their mistakes.
For the worthy few who have the cut of mind to see opportunities in the face of adversity, they will pick themselves up, and change for the better.
Dishonesty and cheating are serious issues — especially for those who wish to be in a position of maintaining the law and to be seated in a position of trust.
This includes trainees who have aspirations to be called to the Bar.
After all, do you not believe you deserve a lawyer you can trust?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mark Teng is executive director of law firm That.Legal.