May 20, 2014

    Lawyer 101: Read guide before use

    CONGRATULATIONS on acquiring your lawyer. You are well on the way to obtaining full legal protection and representation. Please read this user's guide before operating your lawyer.

    A lawyer is a human being (in a broad sense) qualified to provide legal services to you. Although there is a wide range of models available, every lawyer has three essential features:

    Your lawyer explains legal things to you.

    Your lawyer helps you make decisions on legal things.

    Your lawyer communicates legal things to other people on your behalf.

    Do not use your lawyer to carry out tasks that are outside the range of these features. For example:

    Your lawyer does not evaluate business decisions for you. Use a "business consultant" instead.

    Your lawyer does not care about your emotional health. Use a "therapist" instead.

    Your lawyer is not a dinner companion or a receptacle for conversation. Use a "friend" instead.


    Before putting your lawyer to work, please check that you have the right model of lawyer for the job.

    Singapore litigation: If you are thinking of suing someone in Singapore, or if you are being sued, you need a type of lawyer known as an "Advocate and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Singapore".

    This type of lawyer can be used in Singapore courts, and will come with its own official documentation known as a "Practising Certificate". Beware of taking litigation advice from persons who are not Singapore-qualified lawyers. Always make sure that the lawyer you have is genuine. Beware of counterfeits.

    All other types of legal work: If you are involved in arbitration, mediation, or if you are looking for advice on non-contentious work, then you are free to choose from the wide range of local or imported models that are available on our island.

    Whether for litigation or otherwise, users should choose lawyers with whom they are comfortable.

    Some users prefer large established brands who have a wide range of capabilities. Others look for specialists.

    The important thing to remember is that it is not a "one size fits all" situation. Each time you are faced with a legal situation, look at the situation afresh and make sure that you know what your choices are.

    Some users feel that choosing a lawyer is as important as choosing a spouse. Of course, that is ridiculous. It is far more important to choose the right lawyer. After all, your spouse will not save you from bankruptcy or a death sentence.


    Before starting to use your lawyer, always remember to have an Engagement Letter in place. That is a document setting out the things that you want your lawyer to do for you. It should also tell you what your lawyer will cost.

    There are two types of costing: time-based and project-based. In a time-based situation, the Engagement Letter will tell you the lawyer's and the lawyer's team's hourly rates.

    For project-based work, the Engagement Letter sets out an estimate of how much you should expect to pay at the end of the job.

    In either case, you can ask for a "fee cap", which is a limit on how much the lawyer can charge you. You may dispense with that if you have experience working with a lawyer that you trust. But, remember, if it is a strange new lawyer, always use a cap.


    To use your lawyer, you need to be familiar with a special type of interface tool: writing.

    Lawyers are purpose-built creatures. They work best when they have a clear idea of what is expected of them. To tell them what you expect, use written communication, such as e-mail.

    Users sometimes encounter problems if they try to operate their lawyers by using methods such as "meetings" or "telephone calls".

    Such methods may be suitable for other types of human beings. However, they are unsuitable for lawyers for two reasons.

    Meetings are costly, especially when you are paying on time-charges. Anything that needs to be said in a two-hour meeting can be said in an e-mail message that takes only 15 minutes to read and understand.

    Telephone calls have a flaw: they depend on the lawyer picking up your call, or returning it. Such behaviour by a lawyer is rare.

    If you are fortunate enough to have a face-to-face meeting with your lawyer, or speak to your lawyer on the phone, remember these tips:

    Avoid speaking to your lawyer about non-legal matters, such as the weather. This will create confusion in your lawyer.

    Be on time.

    Do not expect your lawyer to be on time.

    Finish on time.

    Most of the time, you will derive maximum benefit from your lawyer when you write. Your lawyer will respond in similar fashion. Your relationship will then be smooth and untroubled.


    In this section, we list common problems that users encounter with their lawyers, and their likely solutions.

    My lawyer is not working. There is no picture or sound.

    Check the following:

    Is it a weekend or public holiday?

    Is your lawyer in court?

    Have you signed an engagement letter?

    Have you paid all invoices?

    Is your lawyer dead? Check for heartbeat (heart required - not available in all models).

    My lawyer is speaking gibberish.

    This may appear to be a problem, but it is not the lawyer's problem. Lawyers occasionally default to their native language ("legalese"). To resolve this issue, do the following:

    Step one: Tell your lawyer, "I do not understand what you said, as I am a normal human being and not a lawyer."

    Step two: Listen for the response.

    Step three: Repeat step one.

    My lawyer is not very smart.

    This is not possible. Perhaps you are not smart enough to realise how smart your lawyer is.

    If you are truly dissatisfied with your lawyer's performance, you are entitled to exchange your lawyer for another. Unfortunately, no refunds are entertained.

    My lawyer will not network.

    It is important to understand that each lawyer is a piece of standalone hardware, and cannot easily connect with others, even other lawyers. You may have an excellent capital-markets lawyer whom you may wish to interface with your banking lawyer.

    Although it may appear to work on paper, in practice such networking may lead to compatibility issues. Lawyers take great care in building up enormous firewalls, and will not readily share information.

    My lawyer wants to quit.

    Lawyers have very limited operational capabilities. If you require a lawyer to do any of the following tasks, it will result in a system crash:

    Advise on anything illegal.

    Lie to a judge.

    Disclose any confidential information obtained from another client.

    Offer a discount.


    Do not discard a lawyer if it ceases to practise. Used lawyers may be recycled for usage in a limited range of circumstances, such as:

    operating F&B outlets

    producing theatre

    entering politics (arguably same as the above)

    If used for the purpose for which they were manufactured, lawyers are relatively maintenance-free.

    They often last for many years. They do not require feeding (although drinking is a separate matter entirely). They require only the occasional bone to pick or ambulance to chase.

    With that in mind, we wish you years of satisfaction with your lawyer.


    The writer is a partner with Stamford Law, a humourist and writer. This article first appeared in The Business Times.