Unmasking the Champion in Pro Bono Legal Work


25 February 2021

10 questions answered in the interview

1. Pro Bono Ambassador Award 2020

In conjunction with the Eugene Thuraisingam LLP’s 9th anniversary and in partnership with the Pro Bono Services Office of the Law Society of Singapore, we will be organising a month-long virtual fundraising run in April. For every kilometre covered, the firm and its fundraising partners will donate money to the PBSO, which will go towards supporting its free legal assistance programmes. More details will be released.

The firm will also be holding a joint seminar with psychiatrists and mental health practitioners, focusing on imparting insights to lawyers who do pro bono capital cases how to protect their mental well-being and prevent burnout.

2. Eugene quoted in The Straits Times

In a twice-monthly legal series by The Straits Times, Eugene Thuraisingam was quoted in an article, “Unmasked marvel in pro bono legal work”. He was quoted from the interview with the President of the Law Society Mr Gregory Vijayendran SC (“SC Vijayendran”).

Eugene shared in the interview:

#1 How he can devote so much time and commitment to pro bono work?

Throughout my practice, I have always been passionate about access to justice. Justice means little if your man in the street, the ordinary person, cannot get representation from good lawyers who are passionate about their cases and want to do the best for them. That is something which has always been with me since a young age. As lawyers we are privileged to have particular a particular set of tools particular knowledge that would assist, not just the litigant, but the court and the prosecution, will assist all parties, to get the best possible and fair outcome of the proceedings.

#2 What does passion mean to Eugene?

Passion is when you feel for something. When you are talking about work, at the end of the day, law is a profession, we do this for a living. This is work. It must be something that you really enjoy. You enjoy the process, you enjoy the outcome, you enjoy the interactions with people. It’s the enjoyment which goes with what you do, and that’s how perhaps, and strong feelings that you have towards it, that’s how i would describe what i mean my passion.

#3 What does Eugene find most satisfying about pro bono?

What is most satisfying is that there’s several things. First, you get to meet a lot of people, a wide variety of people, and interact with them. I value the interactions. Even though it’s sometimes in a difficult situation; client has got problems. Because I do a lot of my pro bono work, in the criminal field, so i often see clients in remand. They are in prison being remanded pending the trial. Even even under those circumstances you can see that, for some they have not lost hope, they still want to know how they can get past this predicament that they are in, get a fair and just, a good outcome for what they have done wrong and become better people. And when you play, even if it’s a small part in that process. For that person, it impacts on that person’s life, and not just that person’s life, but your own life as well. It is the process that which I think a lot of us lawyers are passionate about and compassionate to the predicament that some people well either through their fault or otherwise end up in.

#4 Were there moments he felt a tinge of self-doubt, or even fear? If he did, how did he overcome it?

We generally do not believe in picking our cases. We will take on whatever if somebody writes to us from prison and expresses the need for a lawyer, where of course, it must be something within our expertise, and where we are confident in acting in, we generally do not say no.

We have ended up sometimes taking on cases, where I must say even as a as a fairly experienced criminal lawyer, or someone who is also experienced in life, some of the facts can be shocking and it is difficult to come to court to know that this is the person you are defending, because the facts can be quite atrocious. I remember one, in particular, where we acted for a couple who, unfortunately did certain things which ended up in the death of a four four-year-old, who was their son. It is difficult to stand up and defend such a person. But you come to a stage where you realize that for the whole process to work, for that to be a fair outcome, regardless of what he has done, he deserves a fair process. A process which is available to everybody under the law and you are there to put forward his case in a cogent manner such that the judge and the prosecution understand the full facts and then can come to a just decision, whatever it may be. That is one kind of case and of course other cases where you feel that particularly, sometimes if you deal with drug cases sometimes you feel because there is always a debate; on the one hand, these people cause a lot of harm to society, but on the other hand, some of these people are merely doing the bidding of others, and others who are making the big profit, but yet the drug mules. And so yes and yet they face the death penalty and sometimes if you lose a case like that, it is difficult.

You start to second-guess yourself you perhaps if i took another approach, maybe I should not have done certain things in this way, maybe the outcome would have been different. That is something which I think troubles most lawyers. If you care about the case, there will always be that doubt at the end, if the decision does not go your way; could you have done something else? It can affect you but i you just have to learn to move on to the next case.

#5 How does Eugene juggle, from being a managing partner, top criminal practitioner, pro bono counsel, and a father of three?

It is a question of being able to organise your day, organize your time, organize the seasons. Because school holidays and thankfully in December we do have court vacation as well. And the weekend, so you try to make the best use of the weekends, try not if where possible, try not to do too much work, over the weekends, where i spend because the kids are also more free during the weekends. These days you know during the week kids themselves sometimes their schedule is more packed than mine. It is making the best use of weekends, making the best use of holidays. Unfortunately, we cannot travel anymore, but i suppose a lot of us have made up for that by having staycations, yes so it is a matter of getting organised and knowing when to do what.

#6 When the going gets tough the tough get going – How does Eugene motivate himself?

There are moments in practice, I think we all go through that, where something bad happens, something happens that makes you feel down, problems seem insurmountable. Sometimes you feel like I just do not want to get out of bed, I do not want to leave the house today, I do not want to do anything today, because I just reach a point in something where i feel nothing is going right, looks insurmountable.

With experience, what helps is you look back at other times in your life where you felt this way and at least for me, I have come to realise that bad things happen for a reason. Or you are down for a while for a reason; case not going as you had planned for. There is always a reason and when you look back in your life and you consider some of the low points in your life and then you consider what happens after that you realise, sometimes to get to a good place, you need to have gone through that journey including the downs including the problems; it matures you; it makes you a better person, it equips you with what you have to do next. It is always good to look back at other times when you have been down and then you realize: ‘Okay, I’ve done it before. I’ve overcome the problem overcome the odds’. And you try, you may not succeed all the time; part of life is failing and accepting that this time, you failed do not do it again or try not to. But we all know, it will happen again, pick yourself up and move on.

#7 How does Eugene sustain this culture of pro bono in a firm? Tips for managing partners out there of law firms on how to imbue the pro bono culture and effort

An analogy to bring up at this point would be, is chicken and egg. In the sense that which came first the lawyers that want to do pro bono work in this firm, or is it the firm culture that makes them want to do?

Inevitably if the senior lawyers or all of the other lawyers in the firm are passionate about pro bono work, passionate about defending fundamental liberties, you will attract a certain kind of lawyer who wants to join your firm. You will attract the young lawyers who feel the same way about these things as you do, and so there does not need to be when we interview people we do not ask like  ‘How do you feel about pro bono work?‘ because we see in the CV. It will already all be there that they are passionate about this passion, about that. And that is the kind of applicants we tend to get and what we hope to do is to train these lawyers give them a good environment where they are able to do well both in paying work as well as pro bono work. Because i think it is very important that if you want to do pro bono work well, you need to first take care of yourself. If you cannot feed yourself, cannot feed your family, it is difficult to help others. It is with that with that, it is important to have a good balance between paid work where you can, where lawyers, staff are provided for, in circumstances or in a situation where they are happy and motivated, and at that point you can do the pro bono work because the electricity is on it has been paid for.

#8 How does Eugene deal with recruitment and the interview phase where young lawyers pro bono work?

It would be in their CVs when they come for interviews. They have a lot of questions. They tend to ask a lot about the pro bono culture. They also ask why we do it and they test it against their reasons for wanting to get involved in defending fundamental liberties, pro bono work. That’s basically how the interview goes.

What we try to instill in them is that it is not just about pro bono work. It is also about building a practice for yourself, that is where we come in to help you train you as a lawyer, to build you up for you to be able to recognize what cases to take on, how to go about these cases, and how to build a paid practice, as well as having the time to contribute back to society.

#9 What more can the legal industry do to promote pro bono if Eugene was to turn the clock back on his own journey as a pro bono lawyer. What would have helped from his point of view of stimulating that journey?

There is only so much that organisations or institutions can do. Ultimately, it must come from the lawyers themselves. Lawyers must have the passion, the compassion and they must have the dedication. They must want to do it. If lawyers do not feel for society, they do not want to do it. There is nothing institutions can do. The start would be, the lawyers must want to do this. A lot of us do and it is very heartening to see that. There are already many schemes in place, The Law Society has got a legal assistance scheme, the Criminal Legal Aid scheme. The courts have got classes. Of course, supported by the government. The courts have got the LASCO scheme for capital offenses. The institutions have put in place a framework which makes it easy for lawyers to tap into and to get the cases and be supported by them.

Perhaps one thing we may want to look at is, emotional support for lawyers. Sometimes we think in terms of really the hardware providing the systems, providing the channels. But especially for young lawyers, i mean if certain types of cases have an effect on people and be good to have some guidance some mentorship, and also some resources which lawyers can lean on for the emotional side of things.

#10 What does “Compassion”, “Family”, and “Time” mean to Eugene?

Compassion:

In life, I have seen many lawyers extend so much compassion to their clients. As a young lawyer, there was one particular senior lawyer; I saw Mr Peter Fernando in court when i was a young lawyer. He was acting for a family member, for the head of the family, the husband. The whole family were living in a lorry. They did not have a home. The husband used the lorry for his business. I heard him deliver the mitigation plea. As always, he spoke about it very passionately. At the end, what the compassion I saw is, I saw him slowly slip some money to the family because I think he knew that they would need something to get through the next few days because the father was now going to go to prison. I felt that it is nice to see a senior lawyer leading by example, something that you can learn from and learn to show compassion to people who may not have had the same luck, may not have had the same opportunities, that some of us may have and just be there for them.

Family:

I will give a bit of a more unconventional answer, not just speak about my family, but in terms of society.

I would see us as an extended family, where we can do so much for one another if we put our minds to it. As a society, we should, especially, because the way economics goes in the way because of f technology, a greater part of the pie is being shared by fewer people, which means, you will get like, even COVID has shown us that white-collar workers work at home quite seamlessly. If you do not have a white-collar job, more often than not, you will have to show up physically at your workplace.

And it is not possible, and for a lot of people, jobs were lost because the businesses just could not function. In that sense, it affected certain members of society disproportionately. We have to realise that and come back to the earlier word compassion, empathy because i mean we are all one family and no one should be left behind.

Time:

It is something we all wish that we had more of, something we all wish we can turn back. Sometimes, we want to see whether we can see forward. Time is important, a minute lost cannot be won back. We need to treasure time with people that we care about. Our time to prepare our work, we both know that litigation is really 99% preparation you have to know the documents, you have to know your case, you have to know your facts, you have to know your witness, you have to know your client. These are the things that we have to invest time in, to get some fulfilment out of what we do. You are not prepared to do the time; you won’t feel satisfied with your work. That is what I have to say about time.

3. Conclusion

The interview concluded with SC Vijayendran congratulating Eugene,

We hope that you will continue to inspire, by example, by word, by deed, the generations that will come that will look upon you as the role model in the same way that you looked upon others as a role model in your younger days.

LAWYERS WITH A HEART

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