RECEIVING THE JOSEPH GRIMBERG OUTSTANDING YOUNG ADVOCATE AWARD
For Mahesh Rai, it’s like coming full circle.
BY ASHUTOSH RAVIKRISHNAN
Awestruck—that word neatly captures how Mahesh Rai felt as a newly-called lawyer joining Drew & Napier in 2008. “I mean, the firm had seven Senior Counsel!” he explains. One of those was Joe, as Joseph Grimberg was known to everyone. Already a doyen of the Bar, he was, as Mahesh puts it, “a superhero figure”.
Despite this stature, Mahesh found Joe to be approachable to everybody, including a fresh-faced lawyer like himself. There were no airs about him and he gamely accepted an invitation to lunch with Mahesh and other young associates on two separate occasions. Over meals at the Singapore Cricket Club, the group was treated to colourful stories from Joe about life in the Bar back in the day. These lunches were more than just a distraction from the bustle of practice; they gave the juniors a chance to see the best of the profession. Says Mahesh, “He had a powerful, yet relatable presence. He shared wonderful stories with a candid sense of humour. As you sat across him at the table, you got a strong feeling that you just wanted to be like him when you grew up.”
It appears that Mahesh is well on his way: a few weeks ago, a panel chaired by JA Steven Chong decided that he was the worthiest choice for this year’s Joseph Grimberg Outstanding Young Advocate Award. Besides professional excellence, the award also recognises practitioners who are making a mark in the community, while also upholding the values long associated with Joe: humility, class and grace.
LESSONS FROM HIS PARENTS
These are lessons Mahesh learnt from his parents, who could not provide too much in terms of material goods. “I grew up in the heartlands, went to a neighbourhood school and my parents worked all sorts of odd shifts. It wasn’t until I went to Victoria Junior College that I first met people who were from affluent backgrounds. Despite our lack of luxuries, or perhaps because of it, my parents took a lot of pains to teach me the importance of hard work and kindness to others, especially those in difficult situations.”
Those lessons have stuck and Mahesh believes that they have made him a better lawyer. “I’ve grown up with people from all walks of life. As a lawyer, that helps me relate to a wider group of people. It’s especially helpful when you’re doing criminal work and you meet people with really unfortunate circumstances: children of incarcerated parents or stepchildren who have been driven out of their homes.”
One wouldn’t expect a commercial lawyer to meet such people in the course of work, I point out. “That’s precisely what I hope winning the prize will do: to show young lawyers that you can be a commercial litigator and at the same time, juggle service to the community. This can be through pro bono work or even representing disadvantaged parties in tribunals (Mahesh notably represented victims before the UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan).
Opportunities like these help young lawyers, especially those in large firms, feel like they matter and that they aren’t just cogs in a wheel. “Sometimes, juniors come to me because they want to find a bit more meaning in the work that they do, beyond the commercial cases. Even if they are strapped for time, as most of us are… I tell them to go to the legal clinics run by community centres or put in a mitigation plea for a CLAS client. Stand up, deliver a good mitigation plea and help an accused person reduce their sentence. Everyone deserves someone on their side. The accused walks away feeling better and you feel good knowing that your skills have helped someone in need.”
KEEPING THE DOOR OPEN
Seniors in the profession would also recall how fervently Joe advocated to give younger lawyers a chance to shine—something that Mahesh tries to emulate as a team leader of Drew & Napier’s dispute resolution arm. “It’s not just something that Joe did; my own mentors, Jimmy Yim SC and Abraham Vergis SC had the same approach. I benefitted immensely from it: they took the time to explain things to me and walk me through their thought processes and plans," shares Mahesh, who is an Accredited Specialist in Building and Construction Law.
He adds that his relationship with his seven juniors follows that blueprint. “Sometimes I ask them to argue an application and they hesitate, but I push them to do it anyway. As a team leader, my role is to help others become a better version of themselves. I want them to have the same advocacy opportunities that I received. Those experiences got me in a good enough place by my mid-30s to argue cases as lead counsel.”
The pandemic, however, has thrown a spanner in the works. “During this time, we all need to make an extra effort to reach out to one another … video conferencing is great when you have an agenda, but accessibility and mentoring opportunities are much more effective in a face-to-face setting.”
Still, he admits that the profession has little choice but to adapt. “Seniors should remember that it is very hard for the juniors these days because the opportunities for ‘learning by osmosis’ are few and far between. It is incumbent on the seniors to regularly check in with their juniors to see how they're doing and give them a platform to air their views. That being said, the juniors should also be more proactive in reaching out and asking for feedback.”
SAL and Drew & Napier instituted the Joseph Grimberg Outstanding Young Advocate Award to honour his memory and recognise young lawyers who demonstrate the same professional excellence and high ethical standards that he embodied.