Vani Sathisan, public international law, international criminal law and human rights lawyer

Vani is the former Burma-based International Legal Adviser to the International Commission of Jurists. She has worked closely with various diplomats, UN Special Rapporteurs and UN Working Groups on issues relating to Public International Law, and was a member of the International Bar Associations Judicial Integrity Expert Working Group. She has previously been a pupil at Drew & Napiers Litigation team; a Senior Research Associate at SMUs Asian Business and Rule of Law initiative; and a Litigation Associate with an international team representing survivors of mass crimes at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia. She has also worked with the Asia-Europe Foundation. After completing her B.A. in Political Science in the United States and before starting her Graduate LLB at NUS Law, Vani deferred law school for a year to travel to 7 countries on a Watson Fellowship to research on political theatre.

This Letter is addressed to her 23-year-old self during that amazing year of travel and it is penned by a slightly wiser 33-year old Vani, who has just completed an LLM in International Law on a Chevening Scholarship in London and is contemplating growing up.

Dear Vani,

Get out of law school. Just have the guts to tell your mum you are not going to do it.

She agreed to let you stay on in America and work if you did not get into the competitive NUS Law. Yes, you lost the bet with her. But you have successfully deferred your admission by a year and it’s not too late to change your mind!

Look at the mind-blowing year you’ve just had. The adventures, the people, and the conversations in Australia, India, South Africa, Argentina and Canada. The luxury of time to read, pick up a new language, and to learn to savour solitude. You also had the great fortune of spending four rewarding years in stunning Vermont at a top American liberal arts college for your undergraduate studies, and before that, two blissful years in an Italian countryside overlooking the Adriatic to complete the International Baccalaureate. You studied well, excelled as a student leader, and have wonderful friends who have become an extension of your family for you. Proceed with law school and you will, unfortunately, endure three pretty dispiriting years. 

In a nutshell:

Except for some in your postgraduate cohort, most of your peers will be at least five years younger than you. Many will greet you with ‘which JC did you go to?’ and you would somewhat gleefully reply to that suggestion of superiority that you had gone to a United World College. You will be constantly exhausted, occasionally make some clever remarks in class, and only ace the courses you were passionate about, like Property Law or a Directed Research paper on international criminal law. You will get used to the frustration of non-stellar grades and feel the need to indignantly declare that you too, once upon a time, were a recipient of three competitive international scholarships and had been on the Dean’s List in college. That, I warn you, will fail to impress many because you had ultimately not mastered a certain “Lord Vikram’s” mugger notes, which will be dutifully memorized and churned out at exams by your classmates. You’ll frequently be Facetiming with your beloved friends across the world, who will bring you both joy and envy, as they celebrate Obama’s historic victory in Grant Park in Chicago or build medical facilities in Senegal as an International Red Cross Committee delegate.

But I know you – and you are not going to pull out of law school. You are stubborn, strong-willed and have taken up the gauntlet. And to be honest, you do want to be a lawyer. You’ve wanted this for a very long time. You know Atticus Finch has been romanticized in your head, but you still yearn to be a litigator.

Fret not. On your 30th birthday, you will realize that dream. You will be hired by the International Commission of Jurists to be their International Legal Adviser. You will move to Burma and work closely with the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary on rule of law issues and ensuring that national laws are aligned with international laws and standards.

But the road ahead will be far from easy.

Work very hard. Keep your chin up.

You are entering the legal profession at a particularly competitive time. Your law school will be voted as one of the world’s top ten, but a new law school will contribute to the glut of lawyers all scrambling for a prized training contract. You worked hard in law school but you should have worked smarter. You will, however, enjoy the Bar Course and the practice of litigation. You will make good friends in law school who will laugh, cry, vent and triumph with you. You will grind away in the best litigation firm where your peers will challenge you, but not necessarily inspire you. Your boss and senior associates will firmly and kindly show you the ropes in commercial and criminal litigation. You will be awed and inspired by the discipline and brilliant oratorical skills of senior litigators. You will also experience unfair treatment by others, masqueraded as training. Do not be disheartened. There are several unhappy lawyers, as there are unhappy people in various other professions. Your intensive training will hone your written skills and analytical abilities and these will serve you brilliantly as you pursue a competitive international law career later.

You will also loathe some of your clients. Yet, for due process and the rule of law to prevail, even the most contemptible must be given a fair and impartial trial. You will believe that your role as a lawyer is to sedulously seek after the truth. Keep that fire in your belly.

It also helps to remember the vedantic philosophy of your ancestors. You can only really learn about yourself by doing work that you don’t necessarily enjoy, because such work requires you to move yourself through without the fire of passion or ease of interest. By the time you gain admission to the Singapore Bar, you would have had the best of both worlds: testing yourself through rough work and ruthless people, but doing it for a goal that you’re passionate about. By forcing yourself to work this hard, you will be more than prepared to work for something that is fulfilling.

Be wise and kind, not just clever.

Justice VK Rajah will echo this sentiment years later in a speech to graduating law students. He will state that many lawyers will “practise ostensibly within the letter of the law without observing its spirit.” In law school and in practice, you will meet characters who will chase success while sacrificing principle and pretending to live up to the image of their digitally projected selves. The young idealist in you will be despondent. Do not be disillusioned. Everyone is fighting their own battles. Work very hard to sharpen your legal mind, but also be humble, wise and compassionate. It makes for a classy person. As you get older, you will find that people will not only like you for getting good work done but they will respect you and root for your success.

Knowing when to walk away is wisdom (applies to relationships too, but that’s for another letter).

When you become an Advocate and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Singapore, you will inform your boss of your decision to leave after pupillage to get your foot in the door of public international law work (several of your colleagues and friends will also follow suit, some years later, so ignore their chatter when you decide to leave private practice). Your boss will understand your decision and kindly encourage you to pursue your passions while you can. You will cherish the sudden lightness. Never forget your freedom of choice and what a privilege it is to have that.

Pro bono work will be deeply satisfying and meaningful.

You will be inspired by some of your professors and colleagues to be actively involved in pro bono work both as a law student and legal practitioner. You will conduct legal research on migrant workers’ rights, Afghan women’s rights, sexual trafficking laws in Asia, and will support an international litigation team representing survivors of mass crimes at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia. You will spend some years researching, analysing extensive evidentiary documents, drafting submissions, and traveling to Cambodia to conduct interviews with civil parties. It will be a momentous day when one of your clients finally testifies in court and vindicates the dignity and desires of his hitherto neglected community and victims of mass crimes through his powerful testimony. After all the hard work and sacrifices, that moment will provide the deep purpose that you’ve been longing for as a legal practitioner.

Learn to say No.

You will, unfortunately, encounter people who will sweet-talk you into getting work done for them and you will find yourself being overworked and underappreciated. If you simply cannot afford an unpaid internship, say no. When you are emotionally blackmailed into working overnight and through weekends for non-urgent work, say no. When someone publishes work that you had significantly contributed to without giving you due credit, or portrays your ideas as their own, call them out on it. Your earnestness to learn and do good work as a young lawyer will be misused. Do not be conned by people who leech off your abilities.

Take charge of your ideas. Be more assertive. Seek advice and guidance from family and mentors whom you trust.

Believe in silver linings and have a sense of humour.

You will reject offers, both overseas and at home, from law firms that deal with multi-million arbitration cases to take up a high-level role that you were promised at home. Within an hour or so of signing the employment contract, you will be notified that the plug had been pulled on the project. You had lost a job before you had even begun! In that dark moment, you will humour yourself that you perhaps held the record for the shortest employment contract in human history. Keep that sense of humour. That, and resilience, will get you through tricky situations in life, like when you train Burmese military officials on international human rights law.

Take bold risks. Don’t chase money but SAVE UP. And create meaning.

At 30, you will move to Burma as the wondrous land wakes up from hibernation. You will have no Internet in your apartment for 2 years, you will endure frequent power cuts and candle-lit evenings, you will discover ‘bucket baths’ for several months, and you will contemplate if death from food poisoning could be possible. You will also have several meetings with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, legislative committees, parliamentarians, and top lawyers, and present them the legal briefs that you had drafted with your ICJ colleagues. You will train prosecutors from the Attorney-General’s Office on Bilateral Investment Treaties and Public Policy, and Supreme Court judges on drafting and implementing a Judicial Code of Conduct in line with the Bangalore Principles. You will travel extensively to some of the most remote and under-developed towns and be humbled by the people you meet. You will brief the diplomatic communities in Rangoon, Bangkok and Geneva on the rule of law developments in Burma and present the ICJ’s work at the United Nations Human Rights Council several times. You will be inspired and challenged by your senior colleagues and ICJ Commissioners, including the ICJ’s President Sir Nigel Rodley, an architect of the process leading to the Convention Against Torture. They are some of the brightest legal minds, Court of Appeal judges, and former Chief Justices; many of them have traded high-flying corporate legal careers to be international human rights lawyers.

Also, you will discover that it is a myth that those who give up lucrative corporate careers and take massive pay cuts will be paupers. The transition will be difficult, but you will live a comfortable, exciting, adventurous and joyful life. Rest assured, you will make enough money to pamper yourself and provide care for your loved ones.

So, hang in there, Vani. You will do just fine. You will have to work very hard, and work smarter. Keep that healthy dose of self-doubt. You will live in times where leaders will launch a New World Order and you’d rather not read the global news headlines. There will be many days when a sense of hopelessness creeps in and you will question the point of your work because it will feel like you and your colleagues are rolling a boulder up the hill only to watch it crashing down. Still, you will read a wonderful book (When Breath Becomes Air) some years later which will teach you that “life isn’t about avoiding suffering; it’s about creating meaning.” It is an inexplicable feeling to truly love, and believe in, the work that you do.

You will learn, unlearn and re-learn. You will understand how much more you will have to learn from the people around you, but in time, you will also discover that you are resilient, adaptable, resourceful, and diligent. You will be thankful for all the love in your life. You will be grateful to your mum who pushed you to pursue your ambitions. She will, after all, be the one providing free hugs and food on many stressful, sleep-deprived nights during law school, legal practice, and even in the years after.

Above all, be glad you lost that bet with her. Some bets in life are worth losing.

Be kinder to yourself, kiddo. Lots of love.


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