Address by Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong at the Admission of Advocates & Solicitors




President of the Law Society, Mr Wong Meng Meng,
Advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court,
Parents, siblings, relatives and friends,

  1. I have just performed the pleasant task of admitting each and every one of 363 of you as advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court. My immediate, and equally pleasant, task is to congratulate you and your parents on your success. This is only the first milestone in your professional career. With your legal education, you can make substantial contributions to the life of the community in many ways because the law has a special role in preserving and stabilising the fabric of society. At the same time, you will also have a fulfilling and meaningful life as a lawyer. But, this is only possible if you live up to the values and ideals of the profession.

  2. Mr Wong, the President of the Law Society has just outlined to you the realities of being a young lawyer today and in the future. You should not be discouraged by the challenges ahead. You can overcome them, with grit, perseverance and honesty. It is not difficult to lead a meaningful life as a lawyer. There are hundreds of others who would like to be in your position today. But you must learn what the abiding principles, practices and values of the legal profession are in order to succeed at the Bar. In this connection, I would draw your attention to the insightful articles in the July issue of the Law Gazette and in the Special Supplement which, from their contents, were published with you in mind. The article entitled “Learning the Practice of Law” warns you that learning the law is not the same as learning the practice of the law, and how to avoid the pitfalls of practice and early burn out and the need to have a balanced worklife.

  3. Your breadth and depth of legal knowledge cannot be compensated by lack of common sense, prudential judgment and hasty decision making. Much of law practice requires meticulous attention to details and timelines. If your client’s claim become time barred because you failed to file it within the limitation period, you could be sued. If you fail to make timely payment for your client in a property transaction, you may cause him to lose the property. Monetary compensation sometimes may not fully compensate for the psychological blow to your clients. Simple mistakes can unmake you as a competent lawyer, and also bring disrepute to the profession. There is, simply put, no substitute for conscientious attention to your work. Furthermore, lawyers deal with words and provide solutions to problems for clients. Therefore, be careful with the words you use to solve your clients’ problems.

  4. Another article in the Law Gazette under the title “Amicus Agony”, ie, a friend who agonises for you, advises you to write to the Young Lawyers Committee for help if you have difficulty in coping with the pressures of practice. I would advise you to take advantage of this invitation as much as possible, as advice from lawyers normally does not come free. A third article on the joys of diving in the sea, can be read as a metaphorical piece about the perils of diving to new depths as a lawyer. As lawyers, you must always remember to keep your heads above water, or come up for air. If you want to remain relevant as a lawyer, you must remain alive to what is happening not just in the legal field here and elsewhere, but in all other areas that impact on your work.

  5. As Mr Wong has told you, the Special Supplement is a collection of pro bono stories and articles written by lawyers who have found great personal satisfaction in pro bono work. It carries the bold title “The Power of One”, a title reminiscent of the battle cry of the Three Musketeers – “One for all, and all for one!”, not for the profession, but for the disadvantaged among us. Pro bono service is a good and satisfying way of repaying the community for your success. The Law Society has been performing a good service to the community. To complete its mission, it will have to institutionalise pro bono service as part of our legal culture to ensure access to justice.

  6. The prospective tough environment in the legal services market mentioned by Mr Wong is real. The challenge, however, is not peculiar to the legal profession. All sectors of the Singapore economy have to face global competition. There will be greater competition for jobs in the legal industry because the market is now practically open to all comers with talent, and this may mean a longer lead time for professional advancement for you. Many of you can expect to face daunting professional challenges and experience setbacks in your journey. Some of you may give up halfway because your particular experience did not match your aspirations or because of the exacting demands of law as a profession and also as a business.
  7. Some of you may become brilliant stars in the legal firmament and ascend to the Bench. Others may equally excel elsewhere in public service and in other careers. Yet others make unnoticed contributions to the law and to the community. Wherever you excel, you make meaningful contributions to Singapore. Excellence does not come naturally. It takes intellectual effort, professional savvy, practical sense, hard work, perseverance, and also ambition, to achieve. But, make no mistake – it takes a long time and great efforts to become a successful lawyer, even longer to achieve professional eminence. But, every one of you has a place in the legal services sector and in the community. I want to say a bit more about this.

  8. Singapore remains a society of opportunity in which one can achieve success through effort and merit. This has always been so, even though we have a wealth divide. Meritocracy is a high value-principle of Singapore life, but it is coupled with the natural expectation that those who benefit from the system must match it by paying back to the community which provided and nurtured them in their success.

  9. The legal profession is par excellence a meritocratic profession. As a lawyer, you start your professional life with many advantages over many other professions simply because of market forces. Lady Luck is with you because a modern market economy is geared to require legal services to make it work efficiently and to operate it.  Hence, you are able to start your working life with relatively high financial reward, and also with greater prospects of becoming important members of the community. Your legal background will provide you with a sound foundation to reach the commanding heights of society and to contribute to the community in many other areas. Lawyers are showered with privileges by our economic system which they can use or abuse. You can live your life as a mere lawyer, but you can be more than a lawyer in the service of society, if you wish. You can help to build a just society for all. So, I ask: how do you see yourself as a privileged member of society?

  10. Singapore is a rule-based society, the cornerstone of which is the rule of law. Everyone is subject to the rule of law, and therefore it is the rule of law that binds the people together as one community and one nation. In contrast, in a society that is ruled by law, those in power are cut off from the people. History tells us that a society that respects and adheres to the rule of law is a better and more just society than one that is ruled by law, for no better reason than that it is more difficult to perpetuate bad laws and injustices in the former than in the latter.

  11. I would remind you that your primary calling as a lawyer is not the singular pursuit of wealth but to be guardians and ministers of the law in the service of society. It is not the role of the lawyer to advance the interests of their clients at all costs, but in accordance with law. You have just made a declaration on oath or affirmation that you “will truly and honestly conduct [yourself] in the practice of an advocate and solicitor according to the best of [your] knowledge and ability and according to law”. The critical injunction in the declaration is the words “according to law”. For a lawyer, law should include justice. You can read more about this in the article entitled “Reflections: Recapturing the Rule of Law in the Practice of Law” in the July issue of the Law Gazette. Whatever you do for your client must be done according to law and if you follow this principle you will go far as a lawyer and as a citizen. You will have a successful career and a fulfilling life. For anything less than that, the practice of law is not worth the lifetime you devote to it.

  12. So, I conclude with this message which President Kennedy, if he were alive, will surely approve: Ask not what the law can do for you, but what you can do for the law. Congratulations once again!  Good luck and Godspeed!

    The court will now adjourn.