Portrait of the Old Timer - The Not-So-Private-Nor-Secret Life of a Sole Proprietor of a Singapore Law Practice 1990-2018 (with 2-year hiatus 2005-2007)
Article By: PracticeForte Advisory Affiliate Ong Ying Ping of Ong Ying Ping Esquire
As my late pupil master said, you can complain all you like about how exacting and demanding – even unforgiving – legal practice can be, but litigation practice is never described as “boring”.
I started practice thinking like a lay person – that lawyers rejoice more in finding loopholes than upholding principles. I am surprised to have met more people who champion substantive justice than I expected.
My first experience of substantive justice was a trial in which my client succeeded in showing dishonesty perpetrated by the Defendants– more in spite of, rather than because of me. The odds seemed stacked against us– why would someone pull a stunt such as bringing an impostor to pretend to be a co-owner signing a sale and purchase agreement for a property when a simple check will reveal that the co-owner’s name is different? Further, having gone through this charade, was it plausible that this impostor would pretend to sign the document but in fact leaving the portion for signing blank, hoping the buyers would not notice it?
Suffice to say, a perceptive judge noted that the “proof of the pudding” was that it worked. The normally astute buyers were pre-occupied with ensuring they could move into the property and having moved in immediately, did not take a second look at the partially unsigned agreement.
That is not to say that unblemished souls abound among this flock of “frocksters” in black robes. Far from it.
I remember occasions when I attended a mediation session expecting to reach an amicable settlement, only to be bamboozled by a party bent on being the immoveable object. Mediators being what they are, will “persuade” my client to settle at a much lesser sum than they should rightly be awarded. Expectedly, I am left with a client thinking I am hopeless.
Thus, I have learnt to my chagrin that many a time, when my opposing counsel describes me as “learned friend”, he meant “learn well, friend” or, simply, “fool”.
Another learning journey for the pre-millennial lawyer is the evolution of digital technology and proliferation of case management conferences initiated by the courts in disposing of the thousands of cases brought before the courts. In the past, the common law system was largely considered adversarial – parties are left to conduct their cases as they and their lawyers saw fit subject to rules of ethical behaviour.
The advent of technology and algorithms meant that, like mental calculation, the computers and digital system now predict outcomes of cases just as well, if not better.
It may well be said that in the not-too-distant future, AI rules (and rock) the legal world.
So, will I and my fellow purveyors of legal system have a place in this seemingly dystopian future? Perhaps, as long as my own sense of humour cannot be replicated.
Until then, my response to clients asking me to make a prediction about the outcome of their cases: Sir, if my guesswork is anywhere near the accuracy you want, I am better off picking winning numbers for the lottery and will not practice law for a living.”
I thus come full circle: why do we keep at it? As my old boss said: because it is never boring.
A postscript to people managing small practices: your intern, trainee or junior associate may be your best client, publicist or your successor in the tradition of the independent, knight errant-lawyer of old. It is time to connect with, guide, mentor and befriend them. Even if you do not retain them, nor receive recognition for your efforts, it makes you a better human being, an undertaking many lawyers forget.