NB: This article was first published in the August 2008 issue of The Law Gazette. It is a personal account of Ong Tay & Partners’ involvement in Project Law Help, an initiative started by the Law Society of Singapore where law firms provide pro bono services to approved Voluntary Welfare Organisations (“VWO”). For more information on Project Law Help, please access The Law Society of Singapore’s website at http://www.lawsociety.org.sg/Default.aspx
Ong Tay & Partners
I have been in practice since 1989. I have always known (since I was 12, according to my mum) that I will run my own business by the time I turn 26. So, after 2 years of being an LA, I joined Ong Ying Ping (Ong & Associates) and so began Ong Tay & Partners. Lim Seng Siew joined us in 1995 and “filled the space for “Partners”. In many unexpected ways, this turned out to be a durable partnership.
All the partners share some fundamental values where practice is concerned- some of them from our personality, many through each other’s influence. Such as the belief that a well rounded lawyer must have some experience in litigation, best acquired when we 1st started out – when our skins are still thick, (hopefully) less egotistic and more idealistic. All the partners therefore have some court experience and then we branched out to something else. In any event, all 3 of us have experience in corporate, conveyancing matter and litigation work.
Both Seng Siew and Ying Ping have been doing community service work since early on in their practice. They were members/chairperson etc of Law Society’s various committees from time to time. Ying Ping even served in the council for 2 years.
It is probably no coincidence that our office has always been just a stone’s throw from Law Society. In Colombo Court, we were practically neighbours and remain so even now, good fences notwithstanding. My 2 partners have influenced me greatly on it comes to pro bono work.
Sometime in the year 2000, the 3 of us with some friends started a legal portal. Although that venture (wwlegal.com) did not succeed, that experience forms the foundation for many of the new visions of OTP, including our philosophy on pro bono work.
Lawyers and Pro Bono Work
I was one of those who thought I could not do pro bono work, not because of lack of interest but because I was too busy, busy, busy. How do you fit in your family, your work and our friends into a 24 hour day and still have time?? This was till I joined Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (“SAWL”) (at a friend’s introduction) sometime in the early 1990s when I met women lawyers with children, their own practice and who made time to do free counselling work at least once a fortnight, compile material to help the public understand the law and give free talks at seminars on divorce, wills etc.
Nonetheless, I was young then and felt the need for more active involvement in other areas, such as publishing more articles and pamphlets. I left SAWL after 1 term.
What I failed to realise until later, was that sometime, what the public needs is not just words and voices, but time. Time from a lawyer who will sit down and give them some guidance as to what the next step should be. Back then in 1994, the internet was still not widely used and many people do not know who to turn to. Even today, many people still do not know where to go. Lawyers who make the time (the ultimate priceless commodity) so that these people have someone to turn to, will always have my greatest admiration. Where I am concerned, of these small group of lawyers, those who counsel individuals rank 1st in terms of “Admirability” because not only are they giving up precious time but they demonstrate true patience and compassion.
When we started wwlegal.com, it was also our vision toward making legal information free for the public. The website had articles on legal issues written by lawyers, free for the public. We believe that a lawyer’s role should involve the value-added service of analysing the client’s problem and providing a solution and not just to inform their client what the law is.
I think pro bono work must be a necessary aspect of each and every lawyer’s job scope, even if it to provide legal information for free. With the advent of the internet, most of us can now do this.
Ong Tay & Partners and Project Law Help (“PLH”)
We volunteered as one of 4 pioneer law firms in May 2004.
I am a big fan of the concept of PLH because
a) Law Society does the screening for who is deserving of free legal advice
b) VWOs are the recipients and this is a new focus as there are already many avenues for individuals to receive legal aid
We were paired with All Saint’s Home, a hospice for the aged. When we were 1st introduced, my partners and I paid a visit to the hospice and met with the CEO and their staff who hosted an informal lunch at their canteen. We were brought around the place and we learnt of how they run their organisation. It was good to actually see what goes on with your VWO, meet everyone and learn what are their needs and concern.
We learnt that our VWO is like most non profit organisations in Singapore. Funding is limited and they still have to worry about generating enough income to cover certain overheads. Issues like children who left their parents at the home without paying (even when they can afford to) etc is prevalent.
The 1st thing we tried to do together was not “legal” at all. We introduced All Saints Home to one of our clients who was holding a special event and wish to nominate a charity to donate some of their proceeds. It went very well. We also introduce them to work with the Rotary Club that Ping was a member of and some canned food was donated to the hospice.
Then we started giving legal advice. In the past three years, we have worked with them on improving the organisation’s T&Cs when patients are admitted and their indemnity forms. We also gave advice like when their patients or their family have problems with managing the estates of these patients and how to apply for committee of estates and persons etc. In many ways, the ability to help the hospice’s patients is also helping the hospice because the family members are then able to utilise some of the patient’s savings to pay the hospice.
Ms Surin Lee, who is the social service officer will email me or call me whenever she needs some legal advice. Almost always she will email me 1st and as far as I can, I will respond within three days. Surin is very understanding and knows that my work will have to come first and there are days when I am involved in hearing/ trials and I cannot get back to her. I will email her to let her know my schedule and when I can get back to her by and it has worked quite nicely for me.
How Can We Improve?
There are still limitations to how much we can do. For instance, law firms face concerns as to possible conflicts of interests in acting for the VWOs and the patients’ or care recipient’s family. It sometimes seems as if we are unable to follow through with our advice and provide the solutions. In the beginning, we tried referring them to other lawyers but often, it does not work out for a variety of reasons.
In the course of our experience with Project Law Help, we realise the following:
a) Different VWOs will have different needs
b) These needs change with time
c) Although we are working with VWOs sometimes their legal needs are very personal
I guess at the end of the day, if PLH provides an effective channel for communication between VWO, Law Society and their assigned lawyers so that we are able to hear their needs and are able to respond with what to do, we have helped them.
Surin told me that they would only come to me when they have very tricky and more complex cases. If there is a place they can go to, without having to “trouble” us for legal information relating to their work, this will be helpful. So I guess we are back to the free information, pro bono aspects of a lawyer’s role.
The issue of providing some basic information on the website were already implemented by Law Society e.g. some FAQs on PLH etc and their Know Your Law section.
The next step may be to provide even more detailed articles on the website specific issues relating to VWO.
Our partnering with All Saints Home has been good and an eye opener for me. We now have more queries from other organisations like social workers handling AIDs patients’ matters. It is satisfying when I am able to help the family members. Caregivers are tasked with such stressful demands.
It is corny but I do feel that practice only means something when you can help someone. To be able to make someone happy is a great gift and we must cherish our opportunities. PLH may not be able to make our VWOs happy but we definitely can help make them less unhappy.