An Interview with Susan Tay by Emelia Kwa on Practice, Pupillage and Pro Bono
1 Sep, 2016
Q: You have accumulated over a decade’s worth of experience in matrimonial litigation. What motivated you to delve into such a specialised field of practice, and did you ever consider practicing corporate law instead?
A: I actually started doing matrimonial litigation by chance. My very first litigation case after I became my own boss was a matrimonial case. It started when a friend of a friend approached me for help in her divorce. After that I realised that it was rewarding in a way other cases are not – you’re helping someone in something that’s close to their hearts, and it’s extremely gratifying. I do a bit of corporate law so I know the difference as well.
Although I enjoy embarking on new areas of work because it makes life exciting- you get to chart a new path in unknown waters, I am a firm believer in the 10,000 hour rule. That is how much time you need to put in to become a master in whatever you do. If I diversify my work too much, I will not be as good as I can be.
Q: When looking to recruit young lawyers to join your team, what do you look for in a CV? Essentially, how can an applicant stand out amongst the rest.
A: I’m not exactly the best person to ask since I want to meet and talk to everyone who applied to our firm. I call applicants up for an interview without looking at their CVs 1st. It is only just before the interviews that I look at their CVs. I’m flattered that these applicants are interested in our firm and I want to talk to every one of them. Alas, time does not permit (and I am sadly missing out on an important thing in life like just having a chat with someone and getting to know them).
In general, I tend to look for students from SMU and NUS first. In their CVs, I will like to see their CCA and whether they do community work. Grades are not that important to me (you are already “A” students if you get into law) – I’ll rather look at what you do outside of studies. So far all the CVs we’ve received are mostly the same, and only one or two write about what motivates them. I am of course also curious why they picked our firm.
We have a policy of accepting all interns who apply if the timing suits. The firm takes one at a time at this moment so every month, we have slot only for 1. From these interns, we then determine whether they have a place with us either for a training contract (TC) or for other kinds of collaboration. OTP Law Corporation is part of an affiliation called the PracticeForte Advisory. There are therefore many opportunities for law undergraduates or young lawyers to work with the firm and the group (e.g. research, writing articles etc).
I look for attitudes rather than knowledge – these are things that you can only find out after working with people for some time. I look for persons who are interested, curious, determined, industrious, careful and have strengths that I lack. No need for all in one though.
As for TCs, here is my 2 cents worth on how to get them. At the moment, there are more trainees than TCs. Yet, if you are willing to think out of a box, not only will you get a TC, you may be able to choose who you want to train with. If you know lawyers (note: lawyers, not firms) who are good mentors, approach them and request that they train you. Let them know why. Of course, be prepared to apprentice for free, get your foot in the door. Generally, if your mentors are good and responsible lawyers, and they think you have learnt well and can even help them in their practice, they’ll definitely pay you for your work, even if you were given a TC on the basis of working for free. In this way, you are also likely to eventually work in an environment that suits you. Don’t be afraid of being your own boss either. For people who already have a history with a particular firm, don’t be afraid to go back to the firm if you need help, especially if you’ve done well. I believe that if fresh graduates are willing to think out of the box and persevere, they will find a way to survive.
Q: I note that you are an active member of AWARE pro bono sessions. During a recent coffee chat at SMU, I had the opportunity to ask Mr Derek Kang (president of CLAS) on whether young lawyers were actively taking up pro bono cases. He mentioned that not many of them did as their bosses discouraged them from doing so, or were only permitted to handle a single pro bono case a year. Why did you start doing pro bono and what advice do you have for young lawyers who may wish to pursue such volunteerism?
A: If I may use the parlance of the young, it is a lame excuse to say “bosses don’t encourage”. Pro bono is a must do. I started doing pro bono 10 years after practice – I started by joining committees. My first experience did not meet with my expectations, probably because I was too naïve and had expectations on what it must be like. I quit after a year. Later on the Law Society started Project Law Help and my firm joined. We were paired with a nursing home. I wanted to do more than just give legal advice over the phone. I got my partners to go down to the nursing home and met with the people there. We also organized a can food drive and they gave us a simple but heartwarming lunch in their canteen. I believe that the non-legal aspect of pro bono should also play a part if it is within your capabilities. Pro bono isn’t taxing – the person I liaised with in the nursing home called maybe once in two months to ask for advice. While I can understand that young lawyers will want to give their new job their all since they’re still fresh in the careers, I don’t think pro bono will take up a lot of their time.
In 2012, I started counselling at AWARE. By this time, I was fairly experienced in family law and therefore counselling matrimonial legal issues came easily. Although it is a few hours’ work a day in every month, it is something that I’m familiar with. Moreover, the gratification you get from just spending 20 minutes giving someone who needs legal advice is priceless. For me, pro bono actually gives meaning to the profession. You won’t know this until you do it.
Having said all that, I will have to add that giving legal advice when you are inexperienced is not advisable. I think that you need at least 4-5 years’ experience doing what you’re specialised in before you can start. You can tell the organisations you’re volunteering with, your areas of practice and only dispense with advice in that area. Accumulating life experience also helps – you develop a way of handling “difficult” cases e.g. times when clients are depressed or suicidal. Ultimately, when giving legal advice, you will need to remind your client that you’re there to answer their legal questions and you’re not their marriage counsellor (for matrimonial issues) or doctor.
There are two beneficiaries when pro bono work is done: the recipient and you yourself.
This interview was conducted in connection with a project for SMU.