When Lawyers Need Laymen

When Lawyers Need Laymen

I’m not a lawyer. For that matter, I’m not a paralegal either (not yet anyway, on both counts). I work for a lawyer, though. And as I trudge through my 9 to 6 weekdays running through cases with him, analyzing evidence and pouring through his mess of letters, authorities and court forms, I have slowly come to the realization that the legal profession, as highly regarded as it is, does not age well.

Don’t get me wrong. My boss (Mr Ong Ying Ping) does a fantastic job, winning arguments left right and center, dishing out concrete advice on business agreements, quoting statutes and authorities as if he reads them to his children as bedtime stories. The only thing that bugs me throughout all this is how, whilst discussing a case, he never fails to draw out the largest question marks I have ever seen in my working life across the faces that work in the office.

(To his benefit, it’s a small office of 5, and eventually we’d all get what he’s trying to say. Eventually.)

It is an occupational hazard bar none (save for the Fukushima 50; god bless them); the more years a lawyer puts into lawyering, the more experience and wisdom the lawyer gains, the more the lawyer disconnects with his clients – everyday people – in manner of thinking, and consequently in communication and even language.

So after about a month or so of trying to decipher the Da Ying Ping Code, I started to wonder if most, if not all other lawyers with decades of legal experience have been talking like wizened Himalayan swamis sitting on a stack of Singapore Law Reports. Another couple of months later, I decided to stop wondering and start trying to improve the situation.

It should be said that while I have a smattering of experience doing transcription work in the High Court, I am primarily marketing trained. My days in school were largely spent learning to connect with the masses, specifically learning how my audience thinks, in order to achieve higher viewership ratings, brand retention and consequently a greater ROI. As the previous sentence lays testament, marketers are about as guilty of industry speak as lawyers are, with one notable difference: we get a lot more public exposure.

That notable difference has become a glaring problem in the face of Singapore’s legal industry; the small firms and one-man shows are having trouble communicating the true nature of their jobs to the public (you’ve seen the past-midnight ads, or if you haven’t, don’t). Heck, they are having trouble making their own clients understand them. These are all good lawyers, mind you. The fact that they were able to survive – and subsequently flourish from – an education considered the toughest among all the social sciences offered, coupled with the amount of work experience they would need to put in after to even be considered worthy of advocacy is testimony to their capability. Why the disparity then? More importantly, why does it get worse with age?

Back in his own university days, Mr Ong had a lecturer who opened his first lecture with a grim foreboding: that as his audience embarked on their careers as advocates and solicitors, they will find themselves dedicating 100% of their time dealing with the abnormalities and errant transactions that afflict just 1% of daily life. As the lawyers get more seasoned, the 99% which is the normality of the world drifts further from the consciousness, to a point where their occupation will consume them into a disjointed reality of trouble, strife and conveyancing.

With such fair warning given, these students were given time to assess their options, from which five possibilities emerged in the course of this cohort’s progression:

  1. Quit school, and join TheatreWorks.
  2. Graduate, practice law, and join TheatreWorks.
  3. Graduate, practice law, quit while you’re ahead and join TheatreWorks.
  4. Specialize in conveyancing.
  5. Lose yourself in the job and forever lose the connection with the real world.

Mr Ong took to option 5 for the love of litigation (option 4 as well, as insurance for slow financial months). At the same time, he – like all litigation specialists – was constantly seeking a way to have his 99% vanilla cream cake and eat it too. At the time I was offered this job, we both took a leap of faith; neither he nor I knew that option 5 was quite easily solved with a turning of the tables – hire a layman to bring you back down to earth.

Of course it helps that I’m a marketer. It helps even more that we’ve been friends for years and are not afraid to make our opinions known to each other. But the core of what makes this work for us is that the lawyer-layman relationship is literally turned upside down, with the aim to reconnect communication lines worn down from years of constant legal jargon being thrown back and forth in discourse, dissertation and documentation.

Taken from a different perspective, the marketing angle helps the lawyer sell his client’s case to the Court by achieving a balance between precise, formal legal language and compelling, concise storytelling (backed by evidence). Being honest with the lawyer about layman opinions and keeping an open mind about how the two minds integrate is a must, not only for the sanity of both minds, but for the results that will undoubtedly follow (plus, as my 3 other colleagues can attest, it makes for great entertainment in an open workplace).

And while we’re talking about turning the tables on the lawyer-layman relationship, why not go all the way and say the client (essentially a layman himself) can also make the effort to bring the lawyer to communicate on layman terms?

To this I ask: what is the client paying the lawyer for?

Our job as a law firm has always been (literally) to provide a complete solution to a client’s case, whatever the case may be, to such an extent that the case will cease to bother the client – or at the very least, enable him to eat and sleep well without further worry, short of tucking him into bed personally and whispering “everything will be all right” into his ear. With the relationship established as such, it doesn’t make sense to ask the client to help with the lawyer’s problem, is there?

More important is the issue of objectivity. In an environment where most – if not all – legal disputes involve a claimant and a defense, 50% of the time a lawyer will find himself on the wrong side of the battle lines. In the same vein, while lawyers are held by professional obligation to act in the best interests of their clients, in reality 50% of the time our clients are wrong. Our law firm’s reliance on objectivity allows us to marry this discrepancy with our obligation. We would determine whether a client is on the right track or way off course, and subsequently advise that it is in his best interests to either follow through or not pursue the matter – a process that the client can never perform on his volition (and I expect this to be a problem for some lawyers as well).

Post-script by Mr Ong

The marketing pseudo-paralegal – together with my other bona-fide certified paralegal, finance manager and temp intern – eventually gelled with the lawyer and the following ensued:

  1. They all understood what it meant to fit the evidence with the case theory, and vice versa. They also saw, with their own eyes and ears, what happens when lawyers and clients force (or even twist) the evidence to accommodate their greedy claims.
  2. For the ossified old lawyer, they kindly gave up the long-cherished belief that lawyers love to be misunderstood by lapsing into technical jargon or bombastic lingo; they (reluctantly) heard my explanation that it was just a bad habit, which can be corrected as soon as the paralegals and/or clients simply say, “I don’t understand this; can you explain again (or re-write this portion)?”
  3. For better or worse, the teamwork at OTP improved tremendously and everyone is connected to the cases that we take up as a firm. This can only be good for our clients.
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