GREGORY VIJAYENDRAN SC ON THE WEEKEND OF A LIFETIME
The immediate past President of the Law Society of Singapore on the historic, hectic weekend before Singapore’s circuit-breaker kicked in.
BY ASHUTOSH RAVIKRISHNAN
“We have decided that instead of tightening incrementally over the next few weeks, we should make a decisive move now, to pre-empt escalating infections.” In April 2020, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong briefed the nation on a looming lockdown, Mr Gregory Vijayendran SC found himself staring down the biggest challenge of his five-year stint as the President of the Law Society, which ends this month.
Up until then, Mr Gregory and his team from the Law Society had kept a watchful eye on the fast-spreading coronavirus. “As a profession, we felt a collective responsibility,” he tells SAL. “Many of us are employers and we had a responsibility towards our employees, the courts and our clients. The last thing we wanted was for clusters to emerge within the profession or for there to be an irresponsible individual who became a super-infector.”
But the advent of Singapore’s circuit-breaker required more proactive action. “The day PM announced the circuit-breaker, April 3, is actually my birthday,” he quips. “But there was really no time to celebrate because we had to get down to work.” His team—comprising the Law Society’s COVID-19 taskforce and secretariat—grappled with the question of whether legal services would be recognised as an “essential service” and if work-from-home stipulations would apply to the entire profession.
“That weekend… I don’t think I have ever worked so hard in my office as President of the Law Society. We were racing against time to make a submission to the Government for legal services to be recognised as essential services. And we were also in close, constant contact with the courts and the Ministry of Law,” shares Mr Gregory. To get the profession’s input, he sent out numerous emails and profession-wide blasts that canvassed for feedback. The profession reacted earnestly and efficiently. Within 24 hours, Mr Gregory and his team had prepared a draft letter to the Government.
Practitioners like Mr Amolat Singh welcomed this efficiency and urgency. The sole proprietor recalls that all the WhatsApp chat groups he was in at the time were teeming with confusion. “Collectively, we had lost our bearings when the COVID restrictions were announced,” he recalls. “It was like being on the high seas on a ship and searching for a reference point. Thankfully, Greg and his team quickly stepped up to provide that, clarifying the necessary with the Government and keeping the profession informed of what was going on.
He continues, “We thought we would have had to find our own way. Given how COVID came as such a surprise, we didn’t expect to be guided so ably. But we were. I remember being elated when Greg was elected President five years ago. Why? Because I knew he would be a valuable and humble link between all segments of the profession. His handling of COVID proved that he was that—and so much more."
THE NEXT STEP
Thankfully, Mr Gregory’s efforts were not in vain. Legal services were rightly recognised as essential—but the regulations opened another can of worms. “Now you’re recognised as an essential service and can operate from your office to some degree. And then, of course, we had to get into the second-order question for law firm proprietors and partners: do you get a general exemption, or do you get a time-limited exemption? Working from home was the default rule but people needed to go in to their offices for very specific reasons. We had to help law firms that were having problems, some were jammed waiting for approval. They had to go in the next day and still no approvals. So, I recall sending out text after text after text to practitioners/law firms as we interfaced with the Government. It was a time for us to take on the role of leadership by example.”
Small firms were more likely to approach the Law Society for this, highlighting a longstanding disparity within the profession. “Effectively once you send your application, you’re just waiting. And you get no answer. And then what do you do? But behind the scenes we were backchannelling and liaising with the Ministry of Law to process and expedite the processing of these applications and trouble shoot specific issues.”
It was a thankless job, one that Mr Gregory took on in addition to his role as a partner in Rajah & Tann’s commercial litigation practice. When asked about the added workload, he strikes a compassionate tone. “We needed to give the profession hope at a time when the future looked bleak. To assure them that we are looking into this and try to come alongside to help them solve their practical problems of surviving and thriving. Because there was a lot of anxiety… after all, this was existential for law firms. Without the work, bills would not be paid and revenues would not be generated. So yes, it took up time, you know, I make no bones about it. It took up a lot of time. But I was willing to do it if it meant that even a few lawyers could sleep a little easier.”
This commitment to service has been widely appreciated across the profession. In a letter of appreciation to Mr Gregory for his services as SAL's Vice-President, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon commended him for tirelessly steering the Bar though one of the most challenging periods of our legal history. He wrote, “Your energy and devotion to your work as President of the Law Society will set a worthy standard for future holders of the office to aspire to.”
These sentiments are shared by Mr Gregory’s peers in the Bar. Mr Jerry Koh, the Managing Partner of Allen & Gledhill, sums up Mr Gregory’s contributions this way: “I have known Greg since the first year of law school in 1988, that is, 34 years ago. In my view, Greg has done a lot and made a difference for the legal fraternity in Singapore during his term as President, being an effective representative and a coherent voice for all of us from the Singapore Bar. He was proactive in looking at the issues we faced as lawyers and he also had a heart of compassion as he championed the cause for our lawyers to give back to the community through the Law Society’s comprehensive pro bono efforts.”
REFLECTING ON A CHALLENGING YEAR
2020 was rife with life lessons for many and as we end the interview, Mr Gregory is eager to share his: “After the pandemic, I want to be even more sensitised to people, to spend time with them and understand them and care for them on a personal level. Professionally, the last nine months have taught me how much you can do through tech and how much of a difference it has made in practice. And as Law Society President…I thought I could only do so much. But events like these can actually draw out from you even greater resources and capacity and catalysing collaborative teamwork to do good and to make a difference. And for that, I’m grateful.”
“I think most presidents would not have wanted to have been president at this moment! There are smoother moments in history. But I was blessed with an invaluable opportunity to lead at a time of great trials and challenges.”
This interview was part of Trials and Responses to Covid-19—The Legal Profession Remembers, a joint oral history project by SAL’s Legal Heritage Committee and the Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore. Listen to it here.
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