Pro Bono Publico

With great power comes great responsibility
- Ben Parker's (Spiderman's Uncle) Dying Words

  Interview with Mr N.  Sreenivasan, the Law Society Pro Bono Ambassador 2010/2011
Big smiles greet you along your way to Straits Law Practice LLC on the 12th floor of City House, Robinson Road. Mr N. Sreenivasan or Sreeni, as everyone calls him, sits in a room that appears to be the same size as every other, containing no visible labels that indicate his role as the firm’s Managing Director. Fresh off a plane from Mumbai, his speech is effervescent and sharp, filled with charming humour and philosophy. A passionate litigator, Sreeni is a former Council Member and Treasurer of the Law Society, the current Chairman of the Advocacy Committee, Member of the Pro Bono and Learning Services Management Committee and Member of the Funds Coordination Committee, as well as a Criminal Legal Aid Scheme Volunteer of 19 years. This month, he shares his thoughts and experiences on pro bonowork with the  Law Gazette.
Congratulations on becoming the Law Society’s Pro BonoAmbassador 2010/2011. How did you get involved in pro bonowork?
When Straits Law moved into Chinatown Point, I would often see George (Mr George Lim SC) around. He accosted me one day and spoke to me about joining the first Law Awareness Committee in 1993. I have always held George in high regard because he walked the talk when it came to pro bonowork. His partner, Wee Pan Lee and he were amongst the founders of the CLAS Scheme in 1985.  In 1987, George’s firm represented a group of lawyers who had run into trouble with the government and needed their legal representation. George was one of those lawyers that understood well the responsibility that comes along with being a lawyer and his firm acted, in what was obviously a tough position to be in. I have always strived to walk the talk in my own way. It’s nothing unique – I know there are tons of lawyers with the same instinct and commitment to pro bonowork. I guess that my profile has been higher than many who have done more.
If you had the opportunity to create a pro bonoinitiative, what would it be?
Paid Criminal Legal Aid. Not fully paid but subsidised; where there is co-payment by the client and the lawyers work at reduced rates. The balance has to be struck between access to justice and making sure that lawyers who provide the services can earn a decent living. The sandwich class – too rich for legal aid and too poor for full fees – is a difficult group to assist. Salaried Criminal Legal Aid barristers who can fully devote their expertise and time will substantially increase the pool of resources available to the needy community and ensure that the risk of a miscarriage of justice is reduced. The Chief Justice has said –  if you cannot give time, give money. The money can not only be used for management and administration of programmes but also to help semi-subsidise legal assistance. The arguments raised against this have been that everyone should actually do pro bonowork as some sort of chicken soup for the soul or that people should not be encouraged to buy their way out of responsibility. I have three answers. Firstly, in practical terms we need the money and it would be nice to compensate, at least partially, those who are now slogging it out for free.
Secondly, there is no match between the needs of the public and skills of a large component of the profession. Monetary contribution is the medium for matching – ie, spend the time earning big bucks and then contribute it to deliver legal services to the poor. Finally, the current position is that many lawyers give neither time nor money. If we cannot get their time, let’s encourage them to give money.   
What are your plans for 2011 as the Pro Bono Ambassador?
In 2011, the Pro Bono Services Office will launch the Research Support Group Initiative through which students can volunteer to do research for the various free legal assistance programmes. Students will be given practical experience on the ground and the gathered research will ease the burden of lawyers who volunteer but still need to put time into paying work that puts bread on the table. We are also looking to work with international pro bonoorganisations to facilitate opportunities for cross border regional pro bonowork. We want to continuously strengthen the support for the programmes that are already in place as well as create more avenues for volunteers to engage and experience.
Do you volunteer outside of the legal sector? How have you been able to contribute?
Yes, I do. I sit on the Council of the Singapore Red Cross and in various committees there. I was the secretary of the Action Committee on Lidian Education and was the first Secretary of SINDA after it was revamped. I have also sat on the board of the Singapore Heart Foundation. I am not a very good hands-on volunteer and I believe I contribute most effectively in organisational and operational aspects of volunteer programmes and initiatives. When the Law Awareness Committee held its first Law Awareness Weekend exhibition at Raffles City, I was the project chairman, and have, over the years, helped various programmes such as Law Help and the legal clinics at Family Service Centres get off the ground. I still very much enjoy volunteering on the ground with the Law Society Community Legal Clinics and have been a Criminal Legal Aid volunteer ever since I entered private practice. You have to interact and understand the daily legal issues that people face and the issues that volunteers have to handle, in order to even begin to try and put programmes together to help them.
How do you balance managing a law firm and volunteering your time? What do you do to de-stress?
My pro bonocommitments take no more time than grabbing a drink with friends once a week. It has been built into my weekly routine, so it is really not that difficult to balance. I enjoy meeting up with other lawyers. We trade war stories, I obtain advice and insights (and occasionally give them) or just crack jokes, over a whiskey or a bottle of wine. Foot reflexology is one thing I will always make time for, despite work commitments. Weekends are strictly for the wife and kids, though other things do sometimes inevitably impinge.
How do you encourage pro bonoparticipation in your firm? 
At the firm, all our lawyers participate regularly in the Community Legal Clinics. Every one of those with criminal practice experience is a CLAS volunteer. Pro bonois part of our firm’s culture. There is really no need to encourage it. I think the involvement of the seniors in Law Society committees and in community work at all levels has been leadership by example. We try to be supportive. When the firm mans the Community Legal clinic, we conduct tutorials on the cases assigned to the lawyers before they are due to attend. Pro bonowork is a fantastic platform for young lawyers to gain exposure, if they are properly prepared and supervised. For corporate lawyers that deal with mostly contracts and commercial matters, going to the Community Legal Clinics and having a man on the brink of divorce break down in tears before you can be a grounding experience.
Joanna Lee
Pro Bono Services Office
The Law Society of Singapore