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Of Singapore lawyers, manners and honour

Perhaps because of the constant changing landscape of lawyering, virtues such as honour and even basic courtesy are sadly missing. I see and hear this on a regular basis.

Lawyering is meant to be an honourable and noble profession but the conduct of many lawyers is anything but that, says the author.

Lawyering is meant to be an honourable and noble profession but the conduct of many lawyers is anything but that, says the author.

Recently, an old friend's mother died after succumbing to dengue fever at the age of 82.  My wife's aunty passed away peacefully in her sleep a few days later. Wakanda forever will never be the same after the male lead Chadwick Boseman lost his battle to colon cancer at 42.

And lawyer Harry Elias, a lovely congenial gentleman, passed on in August at the age of 83 after an illness.

On Mr Elias, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon was quoted as saying: "He was always genial and always able to bring some cheer into every tense situation. He was scrupulously fair in all his dealings, whether as counsel or as an adjudicator, and in this, he represented some of the best and most important qualities of our profession."

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in a Facebook tribute that Mr Elias was an icon and a “gem of a man” whose death marked "a passing of a generation".

This week, many of Mr Elias’ colleagues, friends and the legal fraternity will honour his life and legacy in a virtual memorial. 

Yet, lawyers these days are sadly a far cry from the generations of Harry et el. 

There are still some of them in practice and those whom I had the pleasure to work with have been in practice much much longer than my 27 years and their conduct in and out of court exemplifies the qualities of a noble profession.

Perhaps because of the constant changing landscape of lawyering, virtues such as honour and even basic courtesy are sadly missing. 

I see and hear this on a regular basis. Letters, emails and even phone calls are peppered with painfully discourteous and rude toxic contents that smack of a complete lack of emotional quotient and empathy. 

But isnt that what lawyers do, especially where winners take all in many of the cases we handle? Maybe, but surely lawyering doesn't have to be like that. Are lawyers not much better than that?

We are meant to be an honourable and noble profession but the conduct of many lawyers is anything but that.

Perhaps the best example I can think of now on how low lawyers have gone is the recent admonishment by a High Court judge of a number of counsel after a hearing had ended. 

Unfortunately lawyers for the various parties had continued trading venomous correspondences and copied the court. In his judgment the judge said, in reference to the correspondence: "They were rude and provocative letters oozing venom at every turn and achieved nothing but the death by poison of all that is gracious and noble in the craft of advocacy."

When I was in active litigation, I had my fair share of encounters with kind souls in the legal circles.

I remember quite fondly about three months into practice, I was in the Subordinate Courts (now State Courts) for my first contested hearing in Chambers before a judge. I went to the bar room, where lawyers chilled out, had coffee and snacks.

I was feeling extremely nervous and Mr A, who was helming the bar room, was alerted by some of the senior members about a particular newbie junior member who needed to be "called to the bar".

Mr A came up to me and gently asked: "You are scared ah? You must have courage! Come pass me your glass". He promptly poured a swig of whiskey into my iced honey lemon drink.

Shortly after, my opponent Mr C came by to say hello and he asked me if I was okay.

We spoke about our case and he showed me his 11 authorities which he intended to use in our Chambers' hearing. 

I was like, oh my, you mean you need authorities for this matter and you have 11? Yes, I didn't know why I had no authorities then. (Authorities are generally previous legal cases, statues, subsidiary legislation and any other material that you rely on to support your case.)    

Mr C sensed my despair and asked me: "Your first time in court eh?" I nodded and he passed me one of his authorities. So now he had 10 and I had one. 

I emerged unscathed and successful in that contested application and am grateful that Mr A and Mr C were kind enough to help calm my nerves and make my first appearance in court a memorable occasion which I shall always cherish. 

They have both since passed on but I will never ever forget how they made me feel that even as lawyers, you can be both kind and nice to everyone and that the legal profession as it was then was quite cool and wonderful to be a part of.

Let me go back to where I started — death, a topic which has been close to my heart from a very young age given the loss of loved ones I have experienced.

Death does not discriminate as we will surely die, one day. 

And the question is, what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? If you don’t care then I humbly suggest that you should avoid staining the profession or be conferred the privilege and responsibility accorded to legal counsel as the often used (and perhaps tacky) quote by Uncle Ben in Spiderman may be quite applicable here. 

"With power comes great responsibility."

Very often we hold that power to make a difference. Many are chosen but few are called.



Nicholas Aw is a partner at Clifford Law. He dedicates this piece to Mrs Yvangel Thio Ying Ying and Mr P E Ashokan, two lawyers he describes as “amazing” and who died this year. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared in The Law Gazette of September 2020 published by the Law Society of Singapore.

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