Being a lawyer may seem glamorous and prestigious, but the life of a lawyer is not all sunshine and rainbows. In this article, Michael Loh, a partner at Clifford Law, shares with us the little known truths and pains of being a lawyer.
Michael has been in practice since 1992. Although he primarily handles family and divorce matters, he is also experienced with criminal matters and other general litigation matters. Additionally, Michael is an accredited mediator with both the Singapore Mediation Centre and the Singapore International Mediation Institute.
You have been practising for almost three decades. What made you choose to be a lawyer, and what continues to drive you as a lawyer?
To be brutal and frank, I did not have the greatest grades at ‘A’ levels to be a doctor, so I became a lawyer instead. I did not enter this profession with a higher purpose, or of a calling. Having said that, it turned out for the best because lawyering was the best fit for me and I do not think I would have been a good doctor. (“Nurse, shouldn’t there be 12 syringes? I can only find 11?”)
As to why I continued this profession, the practical reason is that I have to earn a living and pay the salaries of my people. This is the practical, plain and ugly truth.
There are two types of lawyers – the first type is the lawyer by calling, and they are driven to do what they do, and the second type is the lawyer that wants to earn a living. I belong to the latter category.
If a lawyer was hit crossing the street and the last thought was about an application that he would fail to file in time, the first type of lawyer would have no regrets that these were his last thoughts. As for the second type like myself, we would curse and swear as this indeed would be a miserable life, to have these as our last thoughts.
That being said, I have to say that satisfaction does come into play, especially in family law cases. When I managed to get a decision which is what the client had hoped for or that is best for the children, there is some satisfaction in achieving the objectives.
It is often said that a family lawyer needs to build an emotional connection with the client while a criminal lawyer needs to be emotionally detached from the matter. Since you practice both areas of law, what are your views on this?
I would agree to some extent that emotional detachment in criminal matters might be useful because it keeps you rational, so you can realise that maybe certain lines of exploration for the particular defence is really beating a dead horse. However, it might be difficult to be emotionally detached entirely.
Let me illustrate by way of a story. There was this senior criminal lawyer that I knew, and one Friday, I saw him sitting quietly in the corner. We talked for a while and he told me that his client was hanged that morning. So was he too emotionally involved in the matter?
That lawyer was with the client from the day he was first remanded, through various mentions and hearings, all the way up to the High Court. He also met the family members, including the mother who very likely cried in front of him on various occasions. So in such circumstances, how could he be emotionally detached entirely?
In a similar vein, in a family matter, you need to understand that the matter does not end when the divorce ends.
Other than in the rare circumstances where the marriage was short-lived and no children were involved (such that the parties can just go on to be a free-swinging bachelor and bachelorette again), the lives of the people involved, especially the children of the marriage, would never be the same again.
How their lives are impacted depends on what happens under your watch in the divorce. The emotional connection you have with your client could possibly motivate you to battle harder for what is the best possible outcome for him/her.
I do feel for my clients.
I have had many female clients, and I have given them my time to listen to their problems and emotions during the matter.
That said, I also know my limits and I am upfront with them as to what I can help with. If the situation demands proper medical/professional attention, I would inform them that I am not a trained professional and advise them to seek professional help.
However, you will also need to be sufficiently detached so that you can properly advise your client what can and cannot be done.
Where your client is raising unreasonable requests that are against the case law or blatantly contravening the court order (e.g. not letting the child meet the other parent), you need to be the level-headed person to advise your client on the correct actions to take.
Sadly, and this is a personal feeling, I often feel that my being reasonable, and my advising my client to be reasonable, is often never reciprocated. My client and I often feel being pushed against the wall when faced with hostile litigants, if not hostile legal representation.
And still, I am grateful to many of my peers who often just pick up the phone and speak with me to actually try and seek a workable compromise.
What are some noteworthy cases you have worked on that have made significant impact to you, either in your practice or your personal life?
There are quite a few.
There was this divorce matter that I handled when I first started my career. My client, she left the family, including her two young children, because she could not take it anymore. Before the divorce proceedings, there was an access arrangement made for her to see her children over the weekend.
One day, she called me and told me that her daughter refused to go back home to the father, and she asked for my advice.
Back in the day, I was less fearful, so I did not advise against it since the child was brave enough to stand against her father. I was aware though, of all the possible troubles that the other side would raise.
For some odd reason, the other side did not take up an application to compel the return of the daughter. By the time the divorce was heard, which was months later, the High Court Judge maintained the status quo and allowed the siblings to be separated.
Subsequently, my client got remarried and migrated with her daughter and the new husband. The daughter was given the best opportunities to go to the best schools in the country; she went to a top-notch world-class university.
Every now and then, I catch myself thinking, what if I had been afraid, and advised my client to bring the daughter home.
Such is the impact a lawyer has on the lives of his clients, particularly in a divorce.
Then there is another divorce matter, where my client just upped and left the family, literally, with the clothes on her back.
When we went for the ancillary proceedings for division of assets, because all the relevant documents were back at home, we only had a file of barely one cm thick to work with. On the other hand, the husband’s solicitors had an affidavit of evidence that was about 2 to 3 inches thick with all sorts of financial documents, including from the very first receipt of the first month of the first child’s kindergarten.
I knew that I was going into a fight with both arms tied behind my back.
I remember vividly, the judge closed the files and awarded one-third of the matrimonial property to my client for the 13 years of marriage.
Back in the day, the judges had more leeway to come to what they felt ought to be a fair and reasonable decision on division. Had it been a case of the present time, I would not be sure if the client could get that much.
There was a probate matter that was quite interesting as well.
My client was the boyfriend of a former SIA air stewardess and they had a joint bank account together. The girlfriend passed away and her nephew, on behalf of her estate, wanted to claim the monies in the joint bank account my client had with the deceased, and he disputed the nature of the relationship.
In that case, we convinced the judge that the parties were truly in a genuine and romantic relationship and my client got to keep the monies. Without going too much into the legal principles, I think that, had it been any other situation, it would have been more difficult to get this outcome.
The final case was a coroner’s inquiry matter.
I was involved for a while before I was discharged, but it will always be something in my mind. I still keep the obituary.
The deceased was a 19-year-old boy who was remanded for drug offences and he hanged himself just before he was slated to plead guilty.
I was hired to represent the parents to find out what went wrong, and we even visited the cell where the incident occurred. My personal view was that the prisons had actually done a pretty good job to try and avoid a situation such as this. But if a person is bent on doing something, short of a padded cell, they will find a way.
However, the family could not get over the fact that their son had killed himself and kept insisting that the prison authorities were negligent in not observing their child’s emotional needs.
What was particularly memorable was that I could tell that there was a broken relationship between the father and son, which I personally felt may have contributed to the outcome. The father could not accept that he may have been part of the problem, understandably so, and I could see him aching and in pain in front of me.
That is something hard to forget.
You are also a mediator with the Singapore Mediation Centre and the Singapore International Mediation Institute. What are the more common types of cases that successfully conclude at mediation and what are the distinguishing elements of such cases that made them suitable for mediation?
Firstly, the lawyers themselves must be on board.
Some lawyers go into mediation believing that their position is irreconcilable with yours and that may be an initial stumbling block. You will require a skilled mediator to bring the parties to the common ground.
Another reason is the issue of time and costs.
Either the mediator or the lawyer needs to bring up the common sense of the situation, by explaining to the client to the costs involved and whether the outcome is worth that money.
Most of the time, if the proposed outcome and the intended outcome is not too far apart, the client would realise that there is no point paying more to pursue that slight difference.
As a mediator, in my limited experience, I think that we must not go into mediation with expectations to resolve the matter. We need to give the parties the time and build this atmosphere of comfort for the parties to communicate with each other.
If the mediator is impatient and seems to be pressuring for a resolution, he might be seen as biased and the parties lose faith in the mediator as a neutral party.
What are your views on the current and possible future developments of mediation as an alternative dispute resolution? Specifically, how would mediation affect litigation practice?
I think ADR should be a useful parallel avenue to seek a resolution of the disputes that are not complicated in the legal aspects. The courts are now swamped with litigation, and some of these cases could be easily resolved with the ADR route, either because the quantum is not significant or the law is clear-cut.
The ADR route would help to free up the court to deal with the matters of larger quantum and also matters involving contentious issues of law.
What is the number 1 common misconception about lawyers that you would like to address to the aspiring lawyers?
That we are liars.
This is one of my greatest beefs. We go all out to protect my client’s interests and we may think of various ways to defend our client’s position, but we do not lie.
I have encountered personal attacks from the opposing party, claiming that I instigated my client and created the mess that they were in.
If at all, it is the reverse. The client would do certain things that we, as lawyers, have to scratch out heads to defend the position.
Could you share with us three fun facts about yourself?
I am in love with the Korean language. I am taking Korean lessons and I quite enjoy Korean culture. My most recent Korean drama is Hotel de Luna. I do not enjoy Korean food though, apart from fried chicken and Ramyeon, which are not really Korean.
I love collecting notes with interesting serial numbers, eg. a serial number that is a palindrome (numbers that is the same reading forward and backward). I also stack my coins in boxes, and I have been doing this for 3 years now. I just randomly got a 2 dollar note with the numbers 121121 the other day!
I build Star Wars related plastic models, but I paint them in different themes. For example, I have a Samurai Stormtrooper, a Millennium Falcon as a parallel ship to the USS Enterprise, and an X-wing fighter with US Air Force Thunderbirds design and colours, and Blue Angels of the US Navy. My latest project is a Star Wars Rebel F35 with y-wing colours.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.