Divorce Lawyer: My Journey Through the Past, the Present andPreparing for the Future of JinHuang Legal LLC
1. On 3 December 2021, I was granted in-principle approval for my law practice (JinHuang Legal LLC) application. While I take steps to incorporate and start operations from my own firm, I thought it useful to take stock of how I got here, and set my sights on the journey ahead.
A.The Early Days
2. Sometime into my 1st year of NUS Law School, I started questioning my direction. I liked the study of law, but I wondered whether I would like working in the law. Naturally, I explored the different types of laws that are typically practiced in Singapore. Family Law piqued my interest because itinvolved dealing with more than just the law, and I could see how my practice would directly impact my future clients as well as their loved ones. At this stage, everything I thought was just “theory” and I needed a reality check.
3. My friend’s tutor for Torts was none other than our current Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts, then known as Prof. Ong. During a pre-exam consultation with her tutorial group, my friend agreed to sneak me into Prof. Ong’s office. What a brilliant plan. I stood out like an elephant in the room.Like is usually done to elephants in the room, I was ignored for the whole meeting which lasted a good 30 mins or so. Also, like an elephant, I had really thick skin. But it was all worthwhile. After, the consultation, I stayed back and mustered the courage to speak to Prof. Ong. She spoke to me for another 20+ mins, not so much about the law but rather about the values and mindset that I would require to be a good Family lawyer. This talk has been ingrained as part of my DNA ever since.I am grateful Prof. Ong did not hesitate to speak to me.
4. The rest of my time in law school was spent mostly being clueless about the future. When asked in interviews for a Pupilage place, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?”, I answered, “I can’t even see past 2 weeks, so I’ll just take things as they come!” Along the way, during an internship, I passed the Family Court and saw a few Family lawyers walking out with thin files and thought “Great! Family lawyers do not lug around huge bundles of documents”.
5. Against my interests, I joined a shipping firm as I did not want to regret not having a crack at the “corporate world”. The training was great, and I enjoyed my time there as a Pupil and 1st year lawyer, but I decided that shipping was not my cup of tea. So, I set sail on my current journey. I joined several firms, during which I constantly maintained my family law practice. It sure was not smooth sailing but it turned outalright I guess.
B.Baptism of Fire
6. Very early on in the journey, I went through a baptism of fire. On the personal front, I faced an acrimonious breakdown of a short marriage. For several years, I felt like juggling many heavy dumbbells at once – solely bearing the financial burden from the ended marriage, the long hours and pressures as a junior lawyer, and handlingFamily Court proceedings. This was also when I learnt about the other intangible challenges faced by persons undergoing a breakdown of marriage. Social stigma and stereotypes are very real. What is even more real is how people act on these social stigmas and stereotypes. Perhaps 1 day I will muster the courage to openly write about these, but an example of which is a vivid memory I have of calling 999 when my ex threatened me with 2 knives. One of the first police officers arriving on the scene (a nice senior male Sergeant) asked me “Son, are you sure she used knives or not?”. Still in shock from the actual incident, I showed the police officer photos I snapped from a distance. It was then that he took me seriously.
7. I also had the unfortunate experience of having my fair share of run-ins with my lawyer(s). From this, I understood the importance of getting proper support from one’s lawyer, and this is something that I strive for while acting for my clients. Not to say that a lawyer should be anything other than your lawyer (e.g. counsellor, friend, drinking buddy), but the least I can and should do is to do all that I can to protect your legal rights and interests. This is basic.
8. Me being a Family lawyer was in some ways a “disadvantage”. After all, although I was still junior, the Family Court Judges knew who I was, and I knew who they were. In fact, I continued to appear (for other matters in a professional capacity) before the very same Judges who were judging my personal matter. Overall, and after a while, I realized that perhaps they felt more awkward than me. Especially when I showed up in Court next to one of my lawyers as an assisting lawyer (at Case Conferences, a trial and the final hearing). By that time, I was so desensitized that I had managed to separate my role as a “client” and a “lawyer” very distinctly.
9. Obviously I have left out many details as they are not my focus here. This was certainly an undesirable experience, but I earned many battle scars and learned many important life lessons in the process. In a make-or-break situation, I refused to break. Most importantly, Ilearnt that life must go on even through crisis. Keep moving! This is something I encourage my clients to do while facing their own crisis – do not put your life and future happiness on hold.During this period, I also gained many real friends including my wife and best friend. My situation acted as a natural filter to filter-out the less genuine acquaintances, and support networks which were supposed to be there but were not. With the power of choice, coupled with hard-earned wisdom, I made several good decisions and life feels so much lighter now.
10. It is with this personal understanding that I go about my duties. Of course, every person’s journey is entirely different. I aim to guide my clients to steady their course in the right direction of moving on with life and seeking future happiness. An insight on the cocktail of emotions and concurrent challenges possibly faced by each client, certainly helps.
11. While all the above was happening, over the past decade or so the Family Justice landscape has seen many positive developments beyond just substantive law. Visible focus has been given to the way Family law is practiced. From processes to the available support programs, the Family Justice landscape has been increasingly and rightfully seen as a whole eco-system rather than a standalone trade. Efforts are being made to support families “upstream” and “downstream”.
12. Calls are being made for Family lawyers to equip themselves with more soft skills. In a recent conference, I recall Family lawyers being described as “first aiders” as we are one of the first touchpoints of help when a person faces family issues. Personally, I am extremely glad that Family lawyers are being re-designed. Feels like how fire brigades transformed from just fighting fires, to undertakingall sorts of rescues.
13. But I fear that the system could become “overburdened” if done too-fast-too-soon, and without the proper infrastructure to thrive in. After all, concurrent to these calls for lawyers to become more sophisticated, are also contradicting pressures for fees to be cheaper. I just wonder whether there will be a big enough market for this new-age-sophisticated-well-trained-Family-lawyer, or will market forces once again stack the odds in favour of the “cheapest” lawyer. We all know what happens in the race to the bottom. Quality is compromised, and while 1 problem (costs) is solved, other problems will emerge.I have already been seeing a trend where parties attempt 1 or more proceedings on their own only to makeirreversible errors due to their misunderstandings of the law, or being stuck in a “legal quagmire” because of poor strategy largely due to legal advice from non-lawyers.
14. Alas things like “collaborative law” crashed before it could even take off. I have my views on this but again this is not my focus. I am just afraid that the current drive towards “therapeutic justice” risks becoming just another buzzword if not executed properly. This would be tragic.
D.New Firm Resolution
15.At this crossroads, with the past reflected in my rearview mirror, and my feet moving with the current flow, I have the opportunity to set my firm’s mission statement.I could easily concoct a fruit salad with meaningless words like “To serve with heart, to fight with soul” or something tacky like that. I could also just quote some random saying from a famous person. But I want this mission statement to reflect my true aspirations for “JinHuang Legal LLC”. More importantly, it is going to serve as a compass during trying times.
16. Drawing from my own experiences, as well as the shared experiences of others, I hope to be able to do these above all else – To Guide& To Empower. And so I shall be guided. But first, let me set up my firm.