I was just reading Cour Marly’s post about her having had the experience of working for a non-profit organization, and how, despite it having been an ‘eyeopener’, she didn’t stray from the tried and true corporate path.
Not that I am on a tried and true corporate path lah. But lately, I’ve had to revisit those tracks I’ve beaten myself, thanks to some people who’ve for some misguided reason asked me for advice on work, career and life in general. I seldom know how to advise someone constructively, and only know how to tell a story and hope it makes some sense or holds some meaning for the person I’m telling it to. If nothing else, it’s usually a funny story, and they’ll laugh enough to forget what they were after in the first place. This is one of those stories.
I once was a lowly clerk/student-at-law assisting a solicitor assisting a barrister at a community legal centre (i.e. pro-bono legal work for poor people). Because of my scatterbrained ways, I was always primed to do something dangerously stupid.
On my second day at work, I messed up my schedule and only realised I was supposed to be in court that afternoon. Rushing from lunch at McDonald’s to the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission in the city, I only realised I wasn’t dressed appropriately just as I pushed open the courtroom door. I was in t-shirt and jeans and I was late. Then came the shrinking realisation that while I knew I was assisting the plaintiffs, I had no idea what they and their counsel looked like, as I had never met them before. I made a quick decision to go to the right side of the court, sat down, smiled at the barrister, who glared at me and my clothes. I thought he was just pissed because of my dressing, and thought I was going to be fired at day’s end because of that. Turned out worse than that.
The team at the other side of the court tried to get my attention with a few frantic whispered psssssts from this guy (who turned out to be my solicitor-supervisor) who held up a sheet of paper with my name followed by a question mark.
Late, inappropriate attire, and sitting on the wrong side of the court. Powers of invisibility would have come in handy.
I dragged my sorry arse to the bride’s side (as my solicitor-supervisor put it), thinking it was the most ignominious start to a legal career anyone could imagine. Though it felt like an eternity, only a minute had passed, and I composed myself enough to peer ahead at the bench. While the rest of the court were frowning and glaring, the judge (the Human Rights Commissioner) had not batted an eyelid throughout the episode. OK, I thought, he was not discriminating against me because of my attire and/or stupidity and/or carelessness because this is the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission after all.
Then I saw he was typing into this funky chunky keyboard thing, and mostly staring into space. Oh, what providence. I wasn’t going to be fired. The judge was a blind man. Did not see me coming in late. Did not see my t-shirt and jeans. Did not see me do the cross court shuffle. How cool was that? I could even have put my feet on the table. But I didn’t of course.
My supervisor thought it was the funniest thing involving an intern, but the client wasn’t as chuffed, and must have lost a lot of confidence in his chances of winning his case. The facts of the case, incidentally, turned out just as bizarre: The client had worked for more than a decade at a funeral home, carrying caskets and preparing bodies for funerals. He had been fired from his job when his boss discovered he was an amputee, citing incompetence as a reason for dismissal. A clear-cut, sure-win case for the bride’s side.
But it didn’t mean the preparations for the case before the Commission were easy. My team of interns (yes, I was retained) had to do quite a bit, including the following:
Borrow a coffin from another funeral home, fill it up with sandbags, weigh the whole thing so it approximated the weight of an average occupied coffin;
Act as pallbearers and stretcher bearers carrying the coffin from various types of dwellings – bungalows, multi-storeyed flats etc.;
Compare the plaintiff’s execution of the above task with our own and with professional funeral home workers;
Videotape and annotate all of the above.
The videotapes were then presented at the following week’s session before the Commission to show that the plaintiff had no problems with carrying out his duties at his job. Only thing was, the Commissioner was a blind man, remember? Our Keystone Cops legal team could not believe none of us thought of that. Such non-discriminating people we were.
The problem was later solved at the next session with a Counsel Assisting the Commissioner narrating all the videotapes much like a sports commentator. And they’re carrying the coffin down the stairs now… and there’s no discernible wobble…. it is a clean pick up, carry and put down…. I give it a 9.5.
I grew to love my work at the centre, so I extended it, and I still rate it as one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve had. I’ve had the honour and privilege to work on cases [exempli gratia: the Joy Williams case which we ultimately lost] which I later realised (clueless, lah) to be very high profile, and which, while working on them, you just know it was the right thing to do. I was also lucky to work with a bunch of the most selfless lawyers I’ve ever met.
My supervisor, for one, was a tireless, unflappable character whose laconic manner belied his determination to always ‘set things right’. Apart from courtroom attire, he’d always be in a crinkled short sleeved shirt with some floral pattern and jeans, and he’d walk around the office barefoot, which is why I suppose he excused my sloppiness. As for courtroom appearances and their requisite propriety, he was once so addled with the wrong flu medicine he forgot his own name, the client’s name, and the number of children the client had during a Family Court hearing. He was composed enough to calmly turn to me to whisper the answers – …say ‘Registrar, my name is John Smith and I represent Janet Nguyen’…. I reckon we made a good team, and was sad to see him leave for the UK to take up another non-profit post.
Then things changed for good forever (yes, I shall remain this cryptic). I returned to Singapore soon after and became a business development manager for a talent agency. But, as I always say, that’s several other stories.