In the Chief Justice’s Opening of Legal Year Speech on 7 January 2011, he sounded a clarion call for lawyers to financially support pro bonowork if they are unable to personally carry out pro bonowork. One prominent corporate lawyer who decided on the spot to respond to this call is Mrs Helen Yeo, who within a few days of the Speech, made a personal donation of $100,000 to the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office. In an interview with the Singapore Law Gazette, Mrs Helen Yeo is candid about her personal motivations and thoughts behind her donation.

Noblesse Oblige
With Power and Prestige Comes Responsibility


You have been quoted by the Asia Legal Business(“ALB”) online that “life changes when you reach the summit”. Have certain life experiences affected the way you view life in general and pro bonowork?
Since my 20s, working at building a career in law, I believe that family comes first. Having a strong Catholic upbringing, I also believe in doing good works. I did my best most times to live up to these beliefs as part of a purpose-filled life. At 60, even more so, I believe in these two fundamentals.
One life-long impression imprinted by my Catholic school education is the concept of noblesse oblige, that is, with power and prestige comes responsibility. I have been in law practice for 36 years. During that time, I was trained by my bosses and then I went on to help build Chor Pee & Company and in 1992 I founded and led HelenYeo & Partners. In November 2002,  this 10 year-old firm merged with 141 year-old Rodyk & Davidson, with each legacy firm taking 50 per cent of the equity. Then as full time Managing Partner, I led the transformation of Rodyk & Davidson into the successful contemporary firm that we are today. Through all of these years, I have strived to live up to my responsibilities in the work place, to our clients, employees, and also to my partners.
At 60, looking at life from near the summit, my view is I need to do more good works beyond whatever financial assistance I had given directly to people in need, the occasional time used to help solve the problems of less privileged individuals and past donations made to charities.
I have three daughters. The first two, aged 33 and 27, are married and the youngest aged 22, will graduate this year and marry next January. Two things in later years about my family have changed my outlook. After my daughters became young working adults, my consciousness went beyond just wanting to be a good employer. Since then, whenever I deal with an issue relating to a young employee, the thought crops up in my mind, if that young person is my son or daughter, what decision or advice would I make or give. My two adorable granddaughters, aged three and one, have made me more determined to promote family life with our lawyers and staff. In the last five years or so, more and more, I encourage our young people to make time to find spouses, to get married, to have babies and nurture children. I would encourage young lawyers to view working life as a 40-year saga where there is ample time to do different things at different stages and not a four-year sprint. 
You chose to donate $100,000 to the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (“CLAS”). What inspired this donation? How do you view pro bonowork?
During the first few years of HelenYeo & Partners, as part of my pro bono philosophy, I approved the acceptance of many Court assigned cases for defendants charged with capital punishment offences which paid very low fees. Justice Choo Han Teck was then a partner in HelenYeo & Partners between July 1992 and February 1995. He had good criminal law skills and wanted to undertake this work. He dealt with close to a dozen assigned cases during that two-year period. Several young lawyers in the firm also rendered services in this area. After 1995, as HelenYeo & Partners progressed into a corporate firm with a commercial litigation practice, no partner specialised in criminal work. HelenYeo & Partners rendered pro bono services in the civil law areas but I felt that without a partner specialising in criminal work, we did not have the processes to do pro bono criminal work in an efficient manner. I continued to hold this view during my eight years as Managing Partner of Rodyk.
Whilst I was listening to Chief Justice’s speech at the Opening of Legal Year, I decided to make a donation to CLAS in response to his call to lawyers to do more pro bono work or donate. 
My donation was limited to CLAS only and not extended to the other pro bono services run by Law Society because Rodyk has been supporting Law Society’s free legal clinic services since the programme’s inception. I am glad the Law Society recognised Rodyk’s strong contributions to the free clinics these last few years with the Volunteer of the Year Award 2010 in the Large Law Practices Category.
$100,000 is hard to earn; was it a hard decision to give it away?
It was not a difficult decision at all to give away $100,000 to CLAS. Last year I gave $200,000 to the NUS Law Faculty for a bursary scheme, for $20,000 to be spent on four bursaries each year for the next 10 years. My past donations have mainly been to charities serving the underprivileged and also churches. These two recent donations are also to benefit the less privileged but they are different in that they are connected to the legal profession. It is part of my giving back to the profession that has enriched my life. Similarly, sharing my management concepts and philosophies in our book, RODYK 150 Years was meant as a contribution to our profession. 
If you had the opportunity to start a community-serving organisation, what would it be and why?
I would not start a voluntary organisation because there are already so many. It makes more business sense to pool resources and get better economies of scale. Many aspects of running a charity organisation are no different from running an efficient business organisation. Both need efficient use of limited resources, economies of scale, systems and processes. Hence my approach has always been that we should support the Law Society pro bono schemes. Charity starts at home and in this case, home is the Law Society umbrella.
Now that you have stepped down as Managing Partner of Rodyk & Davidson, what are your plans for the future?
My employment with Rodyk requires me to continue doing several things which I had been doing for many years. Apart from having rebranded Rodyk and in eight years having turned it into an efficient firm with a higher profile, I also increased the merged firm’s network of clients. Though I no longer run the firm, I will continue to look after the relationships with the clients that I have developed and assist the firm to develop more clients and more business. My role is a full time job, but my workplace is anywhere that my clients are and not just my office in UOB Plaza. The current position gives me more flexibility to do more community work.      
Wong Peck Lin
Joanna Lee
Pro Bono Services Office
The Law Society of Singapore