Pro Bono Publico

Allen & Gledhill LLP’s Pro Bono Programme

The Law Gazette interviews Mr Chan Hian Young, Allen & Gledhill LLP’s full-time pro bono partner who is in charge of overseeing the firm’s extensive and involved pro bono progamme in the community.

1. Tell us more about Allen & Gledhill’s  (“A&G”) pro bono programme.

The focus of our pro bono programme is charities. Most of the pro bono initiatives in Singapore are targeted at helping individuals. We believe that there is a need for pro bono assistance and support for charities and that one way to help individuals is to help charities that help them. It is an area in which our firm has the expertise to advise and assist.

In recent years, some charities have come under the limelight and it is now more timely than ever that we advise charities on governance, fund-raising regulations and other matters. We also help international charities to set up a presence in Singapore in response to the Singapore government’s plans to make Singapore a philanthropic hub.

In addition to helping charities, we also help individuals through existing pro bono initiatives: our lawyers volunteer at the Law Society’s Community Legal Clinics (advising individuals who may not otherwise be able to afford legal advice) and the Subordinate Courts’ HELP Centre (helping litigants in persons); we also take on criminal cases through the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme and civil cases involving points of law or complex facts from the Legal Aid Bureau, charging only disbursements.

We have one equity partner (myself) and one associate working full-time on our firm’s pro bono programme and we are supported by volunteers whenever needed.

2.    Why was there a need to institutionalise a pro bono programme within the practice?

We believe it is important to give back to society.  As Singapore’s largest law firm, we are conscious that we have a social responsibility to our community and our environment. 

Lawyers are very privileged in terms of both legal knowledge and standing and we have a moral obligation to do something for the less privileged. It is in this spirit that A&G’s pro bono programme was launched as an initiative of the partners of our firm. Previously, our lawyers took on pro bono work in an ad hoc fashion. By institutionalising a pro bono programme in January 2008, our firm pledged our commitment to pro bono work and corporate social responsibility with the objective of fostering a culture among our lawyers to give back to society.

3.    How do you select the charities you work with?

We try to help as many charities as we can but we will give priority to the ones that promote the causes which we identify with.

4.    When did the programme start and how have the lawyers in the firm reacted to it?

Since our programme started in January 2008, the lawyers in our firm have been supportive. Everyone agrees that we are doing the right thing and the programme resonates with our lawyers.

5.    Could you describe your role as the A&G pro bono partner?

The idea of having a full-time pro bono partner is to provide continuity and depth while the volunteers will provide breadth of participation. As our firm’s pro bono partner, I do legal work and handle all aspects of administration and encourage lawyers to volunteer.   

6.    What led you to focus on pro bono at this juncture of your law career?

I feel I have the knowledge and experience to make a small contribution. The areas of law which need to be dealt with as part of A&G’s pro bono programme such as charities, trust and governance would probably have overwhelmed me in my early years of practice. So, it is good for me to have undertaken this task when I have chalked up a bit of experience in practice. That said, it is never too early or late to do pro bono work. 

7.    What would be your most rewarding experience in this role? And what challenges do you face?

The expression of gratitude by the pro bono clients whom we help is probably the most rewarding experience I can ever get. Many of the charities we help have been snowed under by the hail of regulations in the charity landscape. Many of the people setting up and running charities are not legally trained – they are people with the passion to do good – and they are grateful for the legal assistance we provide. It is very satisfying to guide them through the law and help them realise their hopes and dreams to do good. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to explain to some clients that certain parts of their plans – usually involving fund-raising – may not be feasible because of certain regulations, especially since these plans stem from clients’ deep-seated convictions and a genuine desire to help others.

8.    Do you see any trends regarding legal pro bono work for charities or non-profit organisations?

With certain charities in the limelight in recent years, the charity sector in Singapore is under greater scrutiny. Charities have had to deal with a multitude of regulations. They will need help to navigate through these regulations and to comply with them. I expect pro bono work for charities and non-profit organisations to increase.

9.    How do you think a law practice can balance the twin aims of a profit and social bottom-line?

I think it is important to remember that this is not a zero sum game and that a social bottom-line is not necessarily achieved at the expense of profit. In fact, a good pro bono programme attracts both employees and clients, for a lot of whom a social conscience is very important. Good people want to associate with good people.

10.   How many organisations has A&G helped since the pro bono programme started? Could you highlight a memorable project?

At last count, we have helped over 50 charities. Every piece of pro bono work has been memorable in its own way. I would highlight two. One project involved helping a charity to set up a scheme to provide aid for needy patients. I felt that I was making a difference to the lives of the people who would be the beneficiaries of the scheme. Another memorable piece of work involved a legally aided person whom I represented on a pro bono basis. He was a 93-year-old man said to have committed bigamy in Singapore by reason of a marriage about 60 years ago in Hainan Island which he apparently did not bring to an end due to the social turmoil prevailing in China at the time before coming to Singapore. I did extensive research on the common law presumption of the validity of a subsequent marriage in an attempt to salvage the marriage in Singapore. It was an unusual and interesting case.