THE PRO-BONO PRO

Pro-bono lawyers can look forward to a new space to work from when CLICKS @ State Courts, the Singapore Academy of Law’s new co-working space, opens next year. Pro-bono veteran Rajan Chettiar reflects on a career of legal work for the community and shares the challenges young lawyers may face on their pro-bono journey.

By Rajan Chettiar

Cover image from Dropbox Design

“I looked at the woman across from me — in her mid-30s, she had trouble supporting herself and her children. In fact, she looked like any other woman on the street. I wondered if I should take her case, which related to a personal protection court order against her husband. I knew I should — her counsellor at the Family Service Centre was a strong advocate of the woman’s need for pro-bono help. But I looked at my own piling caseload and wondered if I had the time, or the energy.

Decisions like this aren’t new to me — in fact, I have had to make them repeatedly, ever since I started pro-bono work more than 15 years ago. In case you’re wondering, I did eventually take the woman’s case. Helping her file the order took close to four months but seeing her relief at the knowledge of being safe from abuse was priceless.

The author, Mr Rajan Chettiar

My associates and I see cases like these three to four times a month, as part of my firm’s commitment to pro-bono work. Since we deal with family law, the cases we see are largely related to divorce and probates. It’s an area of law that the average Singaporean deals with very regularly — which explains why pro-bono work is necessary in this field.

Pro-bono work has always been a staple of my career. I saw it — and still see it — as a way of helping people, which is what attracted me to the law in the first place. So it’s no surprise that I’ve deliberately fostered a pro-bono culture at Rajan Chettiar LLC, which I started in 2003. The culture may have started with a top-down approach back then, but things have changed over the years. Nowadays, young lawyers ask me during their interviews if there’s a culture of pro-bono work in my firm.

I think the change was sparked by an evolving legal landscape. Pro-bono work became formalised with the Community Justice Centre and Law Society’s Pro Bono Services office. They gradually began distributing cases to lawyers, but there are still those who come straight to the law firms, sometimes desperate for assistance.

While the growing number of pro-bono lawyers is heartening, they should also understand the challenges of pro-bono work. As much as we want to help people, we also have to consider the needs of the firm and our paying clients. Balancing the two can be tricky — what helps is being aware of your billing targets and being open about your caseloads, both to your boss and to yourself.”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Singapore Academy of Law.

The Singapore Academy of Law will hold an information session on CLICKS @ State Courts on 4 April. Click here to register.