FINDING YOUR WAY AS A YOUNG LAWYER

The inaugural recipient of the Joseph Grimberg Outstanding Young Advocate Award on the challenges of being a young lawyer — and overcoming them.

The Honourable the Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon presenting Mr Lionel Leo with the inaugural Joseph Grimberg Outstanding Young Advocate Award

It didn’t take long for Mr Lionel Leo to get his hands dirty in pro-bono work: in fact, he started taking on criminal cases pro-bono in his first year of joining WongPartnership LLP, and continues to do so today. “I now do about two to three pro-bono cases a year,” explains the 36-year-old. “It’s passion that drives it. You feel like you’re making a difference.”

Helping society’s disadvantaged have their day in court is not the only way that Lionel is making a difference. He’s also helping groom the next generation of legal professionals, with his work with the Singapore Management University. Here, he not only mentors and coaches its moot teams, but also teaches various classes, among them a course on Pre-Trial Practice in Civil Litigation and the Law of Evidence.

For his varied efforts to develop himself as well as the legal sector, Lionel was presented the inaugural Joseph Grimberg Outstanding Young Advocate Award last year. An initiative by the Singapore Academy of Law, the award honours the memory of Mr Joseph Grimberg and his contributions to the legal sector. It is presented to young lawyers who demonstrate professional excellence and high ethical standards.

As applications for this year’s edition of the award open, the Partner at WongPartnership sits down with SAL to chat about it, its namesake as well as his advice to other young lawyers.

Did you ever meet Mr Joseph Grimberg?
I didn’t have the privilege of meeting or working with him. But he’s always been an awe-inspiring figure. His reputation for excellence, integrity and humility preceded him and was something I had — even as a young law student — heard of. He was an advocate that many of us looked up to, and I will always associate good advocacy with him.

What is good advocacy to you?
One aspect is the ability to persuade, which requires both mastery of the facts and law — which can only come from preparation — as well as clarity of thought and presentation. Another aspect is earning the trust of the court. That is something I believe Mr Grimberg had. From what I’ve heard and read, he embodied integrity. He fought hard but fairly, and he took his status as an officer of the court very seriously. And that naturally works well for both the courts and the advocate, since there’s mutual trust.

Is his style of advocacy something you try to emulate?
It is — I certainly hope to one day be able to emulate his excellence and integrity. Having said that, I think each lawyer will have a style of advocacy that suits him or her, and it’s sometimes a combination or adaptation of the best practices of the various mentors we encounter. The upside of being a young lawyer is that you’re exposed to a range of mentors, each with their own unique traits.

What are some challenges young lawyers face?
The biggest challenge is probably getting clients to trust you to lead a case and to do the oral advocacy. The issue of trust isn’t just important between the courts and advocates. It’s just as important when it comes to clients. As a young lawyer, building a reputation and winning clients’ trust to lead cases is a slow and arduous battle.

I also think that young lawyers have to tread a very fine line when interacting with clients — we need to be confident in our analysis and assessment, but not fall into the trap of being overly bullish or making promises that we fall short of.

“One of the worst thing a young lawyer can do is to make snap judgments without fully appreciating the facts of his or her case. Without being fully prepared — having reviewed documents, authorities and clarifying points with the client — you won’t have the whole picture and you won’t be in any position to give sound advice or persuade anyone.”

How has life changed since winning the award?
It hasn’t changed the work I do insofar as I still focus on work I’m passionate about — advocacy, pro-bono work, teaching and writing. But it’s definitely a tremendous affirmation of what I’ve done, and encourages me to press on with the path I’ve chosen. This award has also enhanced my reputation given that many clients and contemporaries know of the award.

Nominations for the Joseph Grimberg Outstanding Young Advocate Award are now open. SAL nominations from law firms in Singapore, the Singapore Legal Service, as well as self-nominations from individuals. Click here for a full list of application criteria and details.