Mass Call 2008 - Speech by Justice Andrew Phang Boon Leong




  1. I would like to congratulate all of you on your admission to the roll of advocates and solicitors this morning.

  2. I would also like to extend a warm welcome to your families and loved ones as they share in this joyous occasion with you. Indeed, I am sure that your achievements would not have been possible without their love and support.

  3. I would like, today, to touch on two very basic topics: first, what are the attributes of a good lawyer and, secondly, the importance of work-life balance.  I turn, first, to the attributes which you should all pursue.

    The Attributes of a Good Lawyer

  4. The discipline of law is described as a noble profession and calling because its proper administration not only results in order (as opposed to chaos) but also (and most importantly) ensures that justice and fairness are achieved – or, put in simple terms, that the right result is achieved in each case.

  5. This morning, I would like to focus on four attributes which, if pursued diligently, will help you to achieve that end.  Indeed, I view all these attributes as parts of an integrated process.

  6. The first is what most of your training has focused upon thus far – the legal skills that help you to navigate in a sea of facts and controversy. These include the skills of legal analysis, legal synthesis and legal argumentation.  This particular attribute focuses, in the main, on the present.

  7. However, the law is ever-changing and, hence, you need to constantly keep abreast of the latest developments through seminars and textbooks, amongst others.  Indeed, many seminars have been – and will be – conducted by both foreign as well as local experts in their respective fields.  Many are, in fact, leading professors who will not only help you to update your legal knowledge but who will also introduce you to cutting-edge ideas that may be relevant to legal practice and (more importantly) will hone your powers of general legal analysis.  All these seminars have been specially planned precisely for your benefit.  Some are even multi-disciplinary in nature because law can no longer be practiced effectively in isolation from other fields of endeavour such as business and finance.  I would therefore very strongly encourage you to attend these seminars (and I am not saying this simply because I currently oversee the Continuing Legal Education Programme of the Singapore Academy of Law!).

  8. You will also need to broaden the horizons of your legal knowledge.  In an increasingly interconnected world, you should have some knowledge of topics such as comparative legal systems, conflict of laws, public international law and information technology law.  Even where you have studied these topics in law school, you should constantly update your knowledge.  This is where the law schools can play an important role, for example, by conducting regular seminars.

  9. The second attribute is what many of you will not have focused on explicitly in law school – and that is a sense of history and context.  Often, in the courts, knowing the precise historical origins of a particular legal rule helps us to understand and apply it to the facts before us.  Indeed, the entire methodology of the common law itself is historical (or, put in simple terms, is backward-looking).

  10. The third attribute is what many of you studied in your first year of legal studies and which, in a paradoxical sense, is both in contrast with (as well as complementary to) the second attribute.  This is the ability to think as well as analyse conceptually, and this (unlike the first two attributes) transcends both space and time. Many of you may find this difficult to believe, but the methodology inherent in legal theory has helped the courts on many occasions in making connections which arid legal reasoning would never have permitted − for example, in seeing the connections between what appear to be disparate legal rules.  And, in making such connections, we have managed to develop the law and (more importantly) achieve justice in the case at hand.

  11. However, the fourth attribute is the most important.  It comprises the integration of character and ideals.  When you have both character and ideals, you will want to do the right thing – and will always find ways of doing the right thing.

  12. Character is a given.  It is (no pun intended) characterized by honesty and integrity.  If you lose money, you can always earn it again.  However, if you lose your reputation through bad character, it is very difficult – even impossible – to regain that reputation again.  William Shakespeare aptly put it in these words (the truth of which still holds true, notwithstanding the fact that the bard (ironically) had the villain of the play utter them):

    ’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
    But he that filches from me my good name
    Robs me of that which not enriches him
    And makes me poor indeed.

  13. Turning to ideals, in an era of increased (and increasing) materialism, ideals have often been dissolved in the acid of cynicism and greed.  Many have, unfortunately, managed (through self-rationalization) to equate materialism and greed with ideals.  Looked at in its most literal sense, it is possible to possess materialism as one’s ideal.  But the deeper question for all of us today is this: If so, where does it take us and, more importantly, will it ultimately give meaning and sense to our lives?

  14. As I pursued excellence in my legal career, I was reminded (on more than one occasion) of a very sobering (and, in many ways, a heart-rending yet inspiring) story.  It is the story of a pre-university classmate.  He was then still relatively young and had his whole life ahead of him.  He was a young working professional and was doing voluntary work in the United States at the time.  He went to the rescue of a young girl who had been swept up by strong currents in a river and who was being carried towards a large whirlpool.  This entailed struggling against the currents to get to her.  The girl managed to escape and get back to shore but, sadly, my friend did not make it.  In the space of just a few moments, he achieved, in my view, through his heroic act, what many of us (myself included) will not be able to achieve in a lifetime.

  15. I am not saying that all of us have to undergo such an ultimate sacrifice in order to find meaning in our lives.  Not in the least.  But what I am saying is that we need, in the pursuit of our legal careers, to look beyond ourselves and to locate (within our respective spheres) that element of sacrifice which brings both justice to those whom we serve as well as encouragement to those with whom we serve.  Significantly, achieving this will, in fact, require us to pursue excellence in our legal careers.  Such excellence will also earn you a salary – for some of you, rather large salaries.  Indeed, some of you are destined to become leaders of the legal profession. Ultimately, however, at the end of your legal career, the greatest satisfaction will come from a life well lived for others.  At the end of it all, you need to ask yourself whether your legal career has impacted the lives of other people in a positive way. In this regard, your attitude on a day-to-day basis is all-important.  Conscious and significant acts that directly assist clients as well as others are, of course, highly commendable. But let us not forget that little acts of kindness may also go a long way.  If you make the doing of such acts a natural and integral part of your lives, you will, in fact, achieve much without stress or self-consciousness.

  16. I spent almost a quarter of a century in legal academia before I joined the Bench.  During those years, I had taught literally thousands of students and had written many books and articles.  But when it came time to leave, the only meaningful − and lasting − reminders of my stint in the university could be found in a small box.  It was a box of cards and letters received from students over the decades.  Not many, to be sure, given my many years as a lecturer.  Many of those cards and letters were, in fact, from those who were by no means the strongest students.  I found, however, that little acts of kindness (which I must confess did not mean much to me at the time) often meant a lot to them.  I take no pride in relating this.  On the contrary, it is humbling – because it is a stark reminder that it is in the so-called small things that we do that our greatest (and most lasting) achievements are often (and unbeknownst to us) to be found.

    The Necessity for Work-Life Balance

  17. I want now to turn to an important practical topic – the necessity for work-life balance.  We constantly talk about it, but it is clear that, in this particular sphere at least, actions speak louder than words.

  18. The achievement of work-life balance will, I believe, do much to stem the tide of attrition at the Bar.  More importantly, it will lead to happier lawyers and I have always believed that happy employees in any walk of life are always more productive.

  19. This topic is, in fact, not new.  The former Chief Justice spoke about it during the Mass Call in 2003.  In that speech, he focused on the central principle of flexibility (including flexible work hours as well as alternative work locations).  It must be acknowledged that it is not always possible to achieve this.  However, where it can be achieved, law firms should provide the necessary accommodation as this prevents, amongst other things, trained and talented professionals from dropping out of the legal workforce altogether.  This would be a terrible waste – from both economic as well as human points of view.

  20. From what little anecdotal evidence I have managed to garner, many law firms are already actively assisting their lawyers to achieve a work-life balance.  However, whilst the law firms do their part, so must the lawyers.  Flexible work hours and work locations, for example, must not be utilized by lawyers as an excuse to be slack in their work.  Excellence in work must still be the ultimate goal.  Indeed, the amount of time spent on a piece of work is not necessarily reflective of its quality.  A clear mind accompanied by sharp analysis often results in an excellent piece of work that is produced in a far quicker time than that which is produced as a result of a muddled mind that is (in turn) the result of having spent long and unfruitful hours at the workplace.

  21. I should add − and not merely as an aside −that working women cannot be expected to shoulder both their responsibilities at the workplace as well as the full load of parenthood.  Husbands must also shoulder their fair share of the duties of parenthood as well.


  22. Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all success in all your future endeavours as you become fully-fledged members of the Bar today.

  23. Thank you.