Today we continue with our short interview series of writers who each took a gigantic leap of faith by founding their own firms. Our interviews are published as part of a series on the third Tuesday of the month, every month. Each series centers around writers who have had their legal journeys shaped by some common experience.
This week, we talk to June, who graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2008. She founded low bono law firm Eden Law Corporation in 2014 on the belief that doing good and a successful legal practice are not mutually exclusive concepts. June is currently the Managing Director of the firm.
Letters of the Law (LOTL): Tell us a bit about your journey after law school.
June (J): Let me start with some context. I applied for law school with the clear aim of serving the underprivileged. I had some interest in women's rights and migrant worker rights, and I thought that I would either join the UNDP or the ILO.
Most of my childhood was spent in developing countries and in Year 2, I interned with a firm in Kenya that brought me to the criminal courts situated deep in the heart of Kibera, the largest slum in the world. The court rooms were so small and there were so many accused persons that they spilled out of the dock and into the public gallery. I sat through criminal mentions hearings and watched in horror as the unrepresented accused persons were sentenced to the maximum 7 years’ imprisonment for stealing necessities such as loaves of bread, batteries, cooking oil, etc. (Kenya shares the same Indian Penal Code as Singapore, and accused persons in Singapore are usually sentenced to a few months’ imprisonment for a theft-in-dwelling offence.) With the poor prison facilities, I knew that these people would likely die in prison - just for stealing a loaf of bread to feed their children.
My experience in Kibera was a Les Misérables moment for me and after that experience, I abandoned my dreams of joining the UN. I decided instead to devote my time and legal skills to pro bono and community law work in Singapore. I was interested in matrimonial and criminal cases, and I wanted to make a difference in my clients' lives through my work.
After law school, I looked for a firm where I felt that I would receive the best litigation training. I aimed to set up my own practice by my 7th year of practice, so I knew that I needed to be competent enough to handle all aspects of community law practice in the shortest amount of time. Throughout my (relatively short) career, I have been privileged to be trained by eminent senior practitioners who have broadened my horizons and challenged my idealism.
LOTL: Where were you when you came up with the idea for Eden Law?
J: Under the covers in bed, at home. Stayed there for two whole days until I decided to exercise my mustard seed of faith and actually take the plunge. I was afraid that I would not have enough work to even pay rent for my office!
LOTL: Tell us more about the idea behind Eden Law.
J: We aspire to be the premier Low Bono law firm in Singapore by providing competent and affordable legal representation to clients of modest means and underprivileged communities in Singapore.
Low Bono is a concept that has gained much traction in the US, UK and Australia, especially when governments are trimming their legal aid budgets. The underlying principle behind the Low Bono movement is access to justice - providing a real means for the ordinary man-on-the-street to obtain legal representation and access the legal system.
While Low Bono has found expression in other jurisdictions through contingency fee arrangements, hourly rates that are substantially lower than the average federal/ state hourly rate, etc., Low Bono at Eden Law is primarily expressed through fixed fee arrangements. The current regulations in Singapore prevent us from entering into contingency fee arrangements with our clients, although we hope that there may be some reform in this area in future.
As we are more concerned with ensuring that our clients get the legal help that they need, we do not compromise on the quality of our legal representation. We will take your case to trial if we need to, or we will help you resolve your case through negotiations and mediation if that is the way forward. We believe that our clients’ financial means should not be an obstacle to justice.
We also believe in empowering litigants with the legal know-how to handle their own cases. To this end, we conduct numerous training workshops and seminars throughout the year.
LOTL: What is a piece of advice you’re glad you ignored?
J: A lawyer whom I interned with during Year 3 told me that the realities of practice would reduce my idealism to 1 CLAS case per year.
I refused to believe him at the time, and I still refuse to believe that that must be the case. As long as you are willing to work hard, the recommended 25 pro bono hours per year is completely achievable. In fact, the lawyers at Eden Law average about 25 pro bono hours per month and we have not had to suffer financially for our commitment to access to justice.
LOTL: Name your greatest success since starting Eden Law.
J: Seeing our clients' lives changed because of our work - that is our greatest success and joy.
LOTL: How do you deal with moments of self-doubt or difficulty?
J: What I have learnt through the entire process is to trust God in all things. My husband, parents and other senior practitioners are also great sources of wisdom. Shout out to Abraham Vergis who believed in Eden Law from day one, and to Lim Ker Sheon and Greg Vijayendran for being such pillars of support!
LOTL: What is one thing law school didn’t teach you, that you wish it did?
J: If LLB/ BBA double degrees were available at NUS Law at the time, I would have loved to have gained a better of understanding of marketing and accounting.
LOTL: What resources would you recommend to someone starting their own law firm?
J: Be focused and read widely. After law school, knowledge of the law is assumed.
LOTL: Name one lawyer, past or present, whom you admire.
J: Hannah Yeoh (Speaker of the Selangor Parliament), for having the courage to stand up and be counted.
For more in this series on founding your own law firm, click here.