What makes a successful civil litigator? For Mr Chooi Jing Yen, the newly promoted partner of Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, it is about enjoying the intellectual challenges that civil litigation bring to the table.
Mr Chooi is a career litigator who has worked on civil and criminal cases at all Court levels. He is often lauded by his clients and peers for his keen eye for detail and ability to juggle competing perspectives.
Mr Chooi also plays an active role in the pro bono scene, taking on cases from the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences (LASCO) and the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) to make an impact on access to justice.
Thank you for joining us on this interview. Could you share with our readers, what made you choose to be a lawyer, and what drives you today?
This is a question that we get asked quite a lot. Personally, I enjoy challenges and I think the practice of law is intellectually challenging.
I come from a family of scientists; my parents and my brother are in the scientific field, so I am the outlier of the family. I did not always want to be a lawyer, but that changed some time when I was in junior college. I found interest in philosophy, arguments and logic. When it came time to choose what to study for my degree, law was obvious and also a practical choice for me.
As for now, what keeps me going every day in practice is that there is a new challenge every day. No two days are the same. To be fair, this was more true in my first year when the learning curve was steeper. With experience, I am now better able to predict how things would come.
If I were to make a loose analogy, civil litigation and dispute is like a real-life strategy game (although of course with different consequences). I used to play a lot of strategy games growing up. It is about knowing the law; both the substantive and procedural law, then knowing how your opponent is going to react; both the lawyer and the client, to whatever you do.
For example, if you were to file an application, you need to be able to anticipate how the opponent is going to respond and whether that response is going to fit into the general strategy for your client’s case, be it trying to move towards settlement or taking the fight all the way. There has to be a global strategy involved in every step of the process and that is why practice is really interesting for me.
Criminal practice is different because the opponent is the state, and the state always (we like to believe) starts with the premise that they do not charge someone unless they have sufficient evidence that the accused is guilty of the charge. In that sense, we are playing a different game. At times, our client fails to tell the full story so we are disadvantaged in setting our strategy. Although we do not always get what we want in court as often as the prosecutors do, the sense of satisfaction is much greater when we do.
We know that you are involved in quite a fair bit of pro bono work, could you share with us some aspects of pro bono work that you enjoy the most?
Generally, the pro bono work I do comes from two main organisations, LASCO which is for an accused who faces a capital charge and CLAS which is all other types of offences, and the clients are quite different.
Criminal work is a huge part of the firm’s practice and also a huge part of why Eugene started the firm. The firm expanded as civil matters came along but our dedication to giving accused persons fair representation remains a huge part of our work. This is also one of the main reasons why I joined this firm back in 2016.
Most capital offences are drug-related. In my view, the drug laws are quite harsh in Singapore. The way that the Misuse of Drugs Act is structured and the way that the Parliament has allowed the state to conduct the prosecution of these individuals is not seen anywhere else in the world.
Here’s an example. For someone who, in truth, is just a courier who is paid some money to bring drugs into Singapore, it may be shocking for the person to realise that he/she is facing the capital charge. Such people have no previous exposure to the workings of the world, and they are not aware of the dire consequences when they first accepted the job. From the perspective of the accused, it is tough and they have no access to any help in a foreign country, so I feel that these are the people who truly need help.
From a jurisprudential standpoint, I think it is not really fair and so we should help these people as much as we can. There are many roles we can play in the society, and as a criminal defence lawyer, I am not going to have much power to change the law. The point I want to make is, everyone has a role to play in this process and if we want to find someone guilty of drug trafficking and sentence him to death, the least we can do is to make sure that we have given him the most robust defence we can.
Could you share about your experience taking on CLAS cases as well?
For the CLAS assignments, we get all sorts of cases and the cases I have taken on from there are really the most interesting ones. We have the option to choose which cases we want to take up after reviewing the case brief. There are times when I do not take up the case for various reasons, and there are times when I feel that the offence was committed in such unfortunate circumstances and it sounds like the accused most certainly needs help. One case was particularly difficult because the offender was clearly labouring under a mental disorder, but the prosecution refused to accept this and sought to put him away for a long time. It went all the way to the High Court and I am glad to say we got the result we wanted.
CLAS itself also has certain filters to determine the eligibility of legal aid, either because the case has no merits or because the applicant actually has the financial means to engage their own lawyer.
It is often understood that family law cases come with strong emotions, do you find it similar when you handle LASCO cases?
I have to first say that I do not have much personal experience with family law cases. I have done some, but not on the contentious part of the divorce where the parties argue about whether there should be a divorce and what the grounds should be. The firm, if we are involved, is usually at the division of assets stage.
In my personal opinion, I think that it is quite different managing family law cases and LASCO cases. When you practise family law, I think you need to connect with the client and understand their needs and emotions. Sometimes a legal solution is not the best one they need.
However, in criminal practice, it is very different because it may be important to disconnect from the client. The reason being, there are clients who did it and some who did not. There are occasions where the client is honest with you and admit to the mistakes, so what we do is to mitigate and try and get a fair sentence for the client.
At other times, the client contests the charge all the way. It may be true that he/she did not do it, it may not be, but it is not for me to judge. Where the client tells us his version and there is no/little evidence to the contrary (or clear reason to doubt him), it is our job to carry on with the instructions and leave it to the judge to make that finding of fact. The only caveat is that as part of our professional conduct rules, we cannot advance a case we know to be false. In such situations I would say that getting emotional with the client does more harm than good.
It is known that civil litigation is your strength, could you share with us why is that so? And what is the most challenging aspect of civil litigation?
I think the answer comes very much from why I do this every day. I think civil litigation is a challenge, and it is not boring. The one main difference between civil litigation and criminal litigation is that, at least from this side of the fence in civil litigation, we get to win sometimes.
The most challenging aspect of civil litigation is your own clients. It is never the opponent. No matter what the other side throws at you, if you manage your client properly, then everything is under control.
I think that it is all about setting the expectations right at the first meeting. At the first client meeting, you need to be able to assess the case, assess the merits and figure out the contours of the case. You also need to advise on the possibility of settlement, and if it needs to go to trial, what are the points of evidence we need to get in order and what are the weak points to anticipate.
As the trial progresses, because civil litigation can take up to 1 to 2 years to conclude, you must always have your eye on the changes and whether that is aligned to your strategy. There has to be a global, coherent and cohesive strategy right from the beginning, and if your client is on board with you from day one, that makes the job easier.
When the client wishes to deviate from the strategy, I try to draw them back to what we discussed earlier. In situations where it was truly not anticipated, I would discuss with the client on how we can adjust the strategy to counter the problem.
Most logical clients are reasonable that way. As a broad generalisation, most people are actually litigation-adverse, because of the costs and uncertainty, and would not engage in litigation unless the sum is really big.
Who are some of the best lawyers you have worked with or look up to?
I previously trained at De Souza Lim and Goh LLP, a firm similar to Eugene Thuraisingam LLP in size. I had two key mentors there who are Lim and Goh in the name.
Mr Goh Kok Yeow is regarded as an expert in probate, and I did a lot of will drafting in the day-to-day practice. We also had contentious probate matters and those are quite interesting cases we did in the family courts. I also worked on some corporate advisory work.
As for Mr Jason Lim, he is the civil litigator in the firm. He taught me my foundation in civil litigation. We also did some fairly interesting criminal matters. One case I recall is a road accident case, and we got a forensic expert to review the evidence and advise on whether the client’s version could match up.
Then there is Eugene. What always amazes me about Eugene is how little time (it seems to me) he needs to prepare for the hearings. People imagine that lawyers spend a lot of time going through reams of documents if there is a big hearing coming up. This is something that I did not realise when I first started, but then I caught onto now, that is you do not need to do that if you have been following the case from day one. You would know what has fallen into place, what your arguments are going to be, what point your case is going to turn on. Right before the hearing, all you need to do is to refresh your memory and you are good to go. I think that that is a huge reason why he can do so many things but is never short on time. I am not quite at his standards yet, so I am still trying to match that.
Could you share with us three things you believe that have led your success to make partner?
The first thing is luck and a lot of that. It is about being in the right place at the right time. How I came to this firm was by word-of-mouth. I was leaving my previous firm because I wanted a bit more exposure to criminal work as well as more exposure to civil litigation practice, and less on non-contentious work. Then someone told me that a new senior lawyer had joined the firm, and he might need help, so I came here.
The second thing is the people around you. When I first joined, we were less than half of the current size. Being in a small firm, I think your colleagues are very important, especially being able to ask and get help when you need and to get support when you cannot be in two places at the same time.
The third thing, I believe is the effort you put in in law school. I always refused to use my seniors’ notes or friend’s notes for classes. I would just read the cases myself while others would be out enjoying their weekends. I think that having a really good foundation in the substantive side of the law carries forward and supports your competency to do everything else.
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