Mass Call 2007
The Honourable Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong


1. Let me begin by congratulating all of you on your admission to the roll of advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court this morning.  I also wish to extend a warm welcome to the family members who are here today to witness the ceremony and to share in the jubilation of your success.

2. You are now the youngest members of the Bar but the opportunities available to you in the legal services sector today are vast. Moreover, you are joining the profession at a time when it is suffering from a shortage of lawyers. There are, I believe, more vacancies for young lawyers than can be filled by the number being admitted today. Your services will be in great demand, and I believe that the profession truly needs you. I therefore urge you to take advantage of these opportunities and make the best of them. It is now the best of times for lawyers to contribute to your own welfare, to the profession, to the community and to the nation.

What does it take to be a good lawyer?

3. However, as you are young and inexperienced, you have to start from the beginning in a very arduous and competitive profession where the hours are long and your efforts will not be well rewarded for many years to come. For some, it may be too long and so they give up and do something else. This is a waste of resources and I hope that all of you will try to be long distance runners rather than Formula 1 drivers in your desire to achieve professional success. It is not in the nature of the legal profession that a lawyer is able to achieve instant stardom or success. All the successful lawyers you see around you today have gone through many trials and tribulations before reaching where they are today. So, do not give up your career at the slightest setback and do not give in to the temptation to leave the profession, if you feel that you truly love the law as a profession or a vocation. 

4. The challenges for young lawyers today are much bigger and more formidable than those in my time, even though my own entry into the Bar was not quite as smooth-sailing as yours has been this morning.  After completing my pupillage in a law firm in Kuala Lumpur, I could not be called at first because the necessary legislation to recognise the law degree had yet to be enacted. As soon as the law was enacted, I immediately filed a petition to abridge the statutory period of pupillage which I had already served. However, the Chairman of the Bar Council, who was then one of the most prominent lawyers in Malaya, decided to appear personally to object to my application on the ground that the relevant provision in the Ordinance required that “reasons” be provided for abridgment of time, but I had only provided one reason. Fortunately, the Judge who heard my petition was the very wise Justice H T Ong, who later became the Chief Justice, and he ruled that the provision should be interpreted to include only one reason.  It was my first lesson in real-life statutory interpretation, that the law that is set out in the law books is not all the law there is in the courts.   

5. Fifty years on, having seen the law at work, first as a young lawyer full of enthusiasm, then as an experienced lawyer, jaded with experience, and then later as an energised Judicial Commissioner, Judge, Attorney-General and, finally, Chief Justice, I would like to share with you what I feel are the three essential qualities that every good lawyer should possess. 

6. They are: (i) a strong understanding of legal doctrine and principles; (ii) a good sense of historical and social context; and (iii) most importantly, a firm set of ethics.

(i)  Strong understanding of legal doctrine and principles

7. Today, lawyers are not just expected to give legal advice, but to also act as business advisers, economists and sometimes, even peacemakers or counsellors! Any of you who have already had a chance to deal with difficult clients will know what I am talking about.  But even as you adapt yourselves to the practical realities of contemporary law practice where you have to compete with global law firms, you should never forget that the mainstay of your legal career will always be your mastery and understanding of the law and how it works in Singapore.  Seventy years ago, SP Simpson wrote in the Harvard Law Review that:

“Competence in the practical pursuits of the law is promoted far more by understanding of the law’s underlying purposes and theories than by acquaintances with the tricks of the trade.”

He was, of course, referring to competence in the long term. The same message still holds good today. 

8. When I first graduated from Law School, I tried to read everything I could on the law.  Those were the days when you could actually go through all the cases and notes in the entire Malayan Law Journal.  Today, the amount of legal information available to you is staggering, and I would not expect any of you to even attempt to read through the entire corpus of law in the Singapore Law Reports. Today there are more efficient ways to keep up with the law.

9. What I do expect you to have is a firm grasp of the fundamental principles of law in the core subjects, such as contract, tort, equity and property, as much of the body of Singapore law is but specific applications of the principles in these areas.  You will be surprised at how mastery of the basic principles can transform you into a lawyer of creativity and expertise in tackling the most difficult of legal issues and problems. 

(ii)   A good sense of historical and social context

10. A strong technical understanding of legal principles is essential, but not sufficient.  Laws have to be applied within society as a whole.  Therefore, perhaps more than any other profession, the law requires its practitioners to have a deep understanding of the history of our people, our society and our values.  Lord Wright once said, “Law covers the whole range of human activity; there is no side of life it does not touch… [A] good lawyer must know the course of national history under which he developed; he must appreciate the affinity of his ideas with the social, moral, and economic ideas alongside of which it developed.”

11. Even with the increasing globalisation of legal practice, laws will never be uniform across nations, for each country’s laws are a unique reflection of each society’s culture, values and aspirations.  It is only when we know who we are and where we come from that we can hope to apply and develop the law in a way that is consonant with the values of our society. In short, we as lawyers must have attitudes and perspectives that are “global, yet local”.

(iii)  A firm set of ethics

12. Finally, and most importantly, every good lawyer must be committed to a firm set of ethics.  The years in law school and late nights during pupillage should have provided you with a good grounding in both substantive and procedural law, but I feel that there is one area that has not received sufficient emphasis, and that is an education in legal ethics.

13. As lawyers, your clients will entrust their problems, their reputations, their properties and, on occasion, even their lives, to you.  They expect you to fight for justice on their behalf.  While you cannot promise them that the case will turn out the way they want, the one promise that you must deliver on is to live up to the trust and confidence that they place in you. 

14. When addressing new entrants to the Connecticut Bar in the United States, Supreme Court Justice Zarella noted that “the successful practice of law requires the continual exercise of good judgment and a willingness to make a conscious commitment to fairness and integrity in all that you do … [Y]ou should strive always to be a person of your word, and if you succeed in this endeavor, your opponents and the judges you appear before will trust what you say as being truthful.” I cannot agree more.  If you are imbued with a deep sense of morality and have ingrained in you an abiding sense of ethical standards in your daily work as a lawyer, you will win the trust of your clients and the respect of your peers and the court. True success as a professional is the respect your peers have for you, and not the amount of money that you make from your practice.

15. The law is not just an ordinary occupation.  It is a vocation committed to justice.  Having worked so hard for the privilege to be a part of this noble profession, every one of you should strive to epitomise the very best that the law stands for. 

16. To help you navigate the common ethical issues that have plagued the legal profession in the past and will continue to do so in the future,  I have arranged for a copy of Professor Jeffrey Pinsler’s new book, entitled Ethics and Professional Responsibility: A Code for the Advocate and Solicitor, to be distributed to each of you today. This book was specially commissioned for young lawyers like you to help you to avoid the pitfalls of a profession at a time when you may be tempted to cut corners in order to achieve what you consider professional success. So, I would urge you to keep this book by the bedside and read it from cover to cover and ponder over all the disasters and misfortunes that have befallen your erstwhile colleague who strayed from the straight and narrow path. 

17. For present purposes, I would like to highlight, in particular, some of the more important  principles in the Code that you must follow if you wish to succeed at the Bar:

(i) Firstly, every one of you should keep in mind that your overriding duty is to uphold the integrity of the legal system, protect its interests and promote its objectives.  Never forget that you are now a member of and part of the legal system, and as such, you have an obligation to maintain its integrity.

(ii) Secondly, you must all strive to be honest, competent and diligent, and give your undivided loyalty to your clients.

(iii) Thirdly, in your dealings with your professional colleagues, you must always accord each of them the proper respect and courtesy due to them as fellow members of the Bar.

(iv) Fourthly, you must be honest, fair and courteous towards every person you come across in the course of your work, whether the person is a party to a case or a member of the public.  Remember that your actions, large or small, will be a direct reflection of the standing of the Bar.

(v) Fifth, you must exercise every effort to keep abreast of the latest legal developments in your chosen area of practice.

(vi) Finally, as officers of the Court, each of you must ensure that your conduct in the course of litigation meets the aims of justice and upholds the integrity of the judicial system.

18. It will not always be easy to follow these hallowed principles amidst the day-to-day pressures that you will face as a practising lawyer.  But you must put in the extra effort to live by these principles, for the consequences of not doing so can be very serious.  When members of the Bar breach the ethical rules of the profession, they tarnish not only their own reputations, but the integrity of the profession as a whole.        

19. The nature of law practice has changed since I started practice about five decades ago. The pace of change in the last 20 years has been dramatic. The growth of financial law practice in Singapore has created new and great wealth for a large number of Singapore lawyers. Our economic growth has made lawyers more valuable to the business community than ever before. But at the same time both these developments which have accelerated the pace of rising income among a group of business-oriented lawyers have also created an underclass of lawyers who find it difficult to achieve the standard of living they aspire to have. But they perform a valuable social service as the rich, the not so rich and the poor need legal services too. So, when you venture into the real world of law practice, I urge you to remember: no matter how much you earn, be honest and truthful. In other words, be trustworthy. These are the virtues that will ensure that you will not lose your reputation and your public standing as an advocate and solicitor. 


20. Before I draw these proceedings to a close, I would like to leave you with one final thought.  With the increasing globalisation of legal practice, a substantial number of you may not even be working in Singapore in the next five to ten years.  The fact that the Singapore lawyer is recognised and sought after in the developed legal centres of the world is a testament to the quality of our legal education and its products.

21. Wherever you may choose to practice, whether it is in Singapore, London, New York, Hong Kong or any other city in the world, I hope that you will remember you are an ambassador of Singapore. Let your foreign clients say of you: he is a good lawyer and can be trusted: he is from Singapore. Let them not say of you: We didn’t know that he is a bad lawyer and couldn’t be trusted. We thought he was from Singapore. 

22. Finally, I hope that you will each find your own fulfilment in the practice of law.  Having devoted more than four decades of my life to the practice of law and the pursuit of justice, I can assure you that while the journey ahead will not always be easy, it will provide you with some of the most rewarding and uplifting experiences of your lives.

23. Thank you.