The second recipient of the Joseph Grimberg Outstanding Young Advocate Award on being a fresh face in criminal practice and why representation matters.
It’s been nearly a year since 21 law firms pledged to increase opportunities for young lawyers to represent their clients in court. The initiative — spearheaded by the Young Members Chapter of the Singapore Academy of Law’s Professional Affairs Committee — encourages senior lawyers to identify and give younger ones a chance to advocate at all stages of a proceeding as lead counsel.
While its success has yet to be determined, Mr Sui Yi Siong believes it’s a symbolic step that should be welcomed, given the value it offers younger lawyers like himself. “The only way you learn good advocacy is by doing it yourself,” shares the 30-year-old, a Senior Associate at Eversheds Harry Elias. “There’s only so much you can learn as second chair. It’s a whole different ballgame being on your feet and making judgment calls in the heat of the moment.”
Despite his relative youth, Mr Sui is familiar with this feeling, having already argued cases in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. He advocated in the latter at the tender age of 26, as a second-year associate arguing a pro-bono criminal case. “It was intense and exhilarating, and of course, something I will always remember.” Although the appeal was dismissed, Mr Sui believes he did the right thing for his client, as it was a way of showing her that there was still at least one person in her corner.
“Partners and senior lawyers do have to take a leap of faith and trust their juniors’ training — and believe that this trust is not ill-placed. Similarly, junior lawyers should also have a little more confidence in their abilities. They should take some initiative and discuss with their bosses which cases or applications they can lead by themselves.”
That fondness for the human aspect of the law was what drew Mr Sui to criminal practice in the first place. Rejecting the so-called glamour of corporate law, he decided to practise criminal law at a mid-sized firm that allowed him to help both the man-on-the-street as well as the well-heeled. “I found a bit more meaning in criminal litigation — civil litigation always felt a bit more impersonal and centred on dollars and cents,” he explains. “You also run the risk of representing people without meritorious claims and who are acting out of vindictiveness.”
He is candid about earnings as a criminal lawyer, explaining that the average criminal practitioner usually earns less than the average civil lawyer practicing commercial litigation. “So as a matter of practicality, it’s not surprising that criminal practice may not be the top choice for many fresh graduates,” he shares. “But there are some young ones who are motivated by the ‘people’ aspect and who enter criminal practice for that.”
Mr Sui is eager to raise the profile of these practitioners, as he hopes to dispel the notion that the practice is ruled by old-timers with little room for fresh faces. To this end, he consistently contributes his time and service to the Law Society of Singapore and currently serves as a member of its Criminal Practice Committee. In this role, he acts as an interface between lawyers and stakeholders, among them the judiciary and the Ministry of Law. “We represent the interests of criminal lawyers, such as facilitating dialogue over new legislation and providing feedback,” he shares. “I hope to show senior lawyers that young lawyers have ideas and are willing to stand up and be counted.”
These efforts — coupled with his contributions as a moot coach at his alma mater, the Singapore Management University — were recognised earlier this year, when Mr Sui was presented the Joseph Grimberg Outstanding Young Advocate Award. An initiative by the Singapore Academy of Law, the award honours the memory of Mr Joseph Grimberg SC and his contributions to the legal sector. It is presented to young lawyers who demonstrate professional excellence and high ethical standards.
Mr Sui recalls telling Mr Harry Elias SC about winning the award — a win that pleased Mr Elias to no end, since he had been close to Mr Grimberg during their time at Drew & Napier. In fact, Mr Elias had been hired by Mr Grimberg many years ago. “I went into his office to tell him, but he knew already,” he recalls. “In a way, this link really proves the adage, ‘if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’. Winning this award would not have been possible without all the opportunities given to me, and I will do my best to continue to pay it forward.”
The Joseph Grimberg Young Advocate Award is sponsored by Drew & Napier, given Mr Grimberg’s longstanding association with the firm.