Putting The “Pro” In Pro Bono
How Adjunct Professor Ruby Lee Yen Kee (Law ’85) helps law students realise the value they can bring to the community.
WHO SHE IS
With almost 40 years of experience in nearly every aspect of the law — from private practice and in-house counsel roles to time in academia — Adjunct Professor Ruby Lee is a familiar face in legal circles. She now focuses on helping law students discover the possibilities of pro bono work.
Adjunct Professor Ruby Lee holds firm to the belief that, at its core, the law is a means to help people. “Legal professionals can sometimes lose aim of this noble intention amid the hustle and bustle of practice,” she explains. But she hopes that through early and meaningful exposure to pro bono work, lawyers will keep sight of their purpose in a service vocation.
Adj Prof Lee knows a thing or two about how busy practice can be. She joined a private practice in the late 1980s, and the late Chief Justice Yong Pung How (Doctor of Laws ’01), was appointed in 1990. He was tasked to speed up the processing of cases in the courts. “I was doing a trial practically every week! It was tough work,” she recalls.
Perhaps it is this exposure to the daily grind that has shaped her approach to pro bono work, which broadly refers to legal service for vulnerable and less-fortunate groups that is provided free of charge. “You have to do it when you are ready,” she advises budding lawyers. “For the first few years, they will be struggling at the law firm and adding that pro bono burden on them can be difficult. So I tell them to keep it at the back of their minds and to do it in bits and pieces. You don’t have to embrace it to the point where it takes away from your daily work. Do a case here, do a case there... it’s a worthy start.”
These are some of the lessons she instils in students at the Singapore Management University’s Pro Bono Centre, where she is currently Deputy Director, and previously at the NUS’ Centre for Pro Bono and Clinical Legal Education, which she co-founded in 2015. Both centres aim to foster a pro bono culture among law students through various programmes.
My students were able to see the very real impact of the laws they study [and] learnt how to communicate these to the layperson.
CHAMPIONING THE COMMUNITY
Recalling the nascent days of the Centre, Adj Prof Lee recounts, “We went out into the community to find projects that would meaningfully engage students.” It was also important for these projects to be formalised, as the Singapore Institute of Legal Education requires all law students to complete 20 hours of pro bono work as part of their graduating requirements.
Among the early projects she initiated were public talks on matters: such as wills, probate matters and divorce. She saw these as valuable learning lessons for both the community and her law students. “My students were able to see the very real impact of the laws they study. They would hear from the public and be quizzed on the laws by them, so they learnt how to communicate these to the layperson.”
During her course of work, Adj Prof Lee also saw an opportunity to help parents and caregivers of children with intellectual disabilities. “These parents can be so consumed with the stress of caregiving that they fail to realise that when their charge turns 21, they can no longer do certain things for them, like access their bank account or sign consent forms on their behalf. That’s because the law recognises their children as being of age and thus, able to make such decisions.” Parents can apply for deputyship of their children to overcome this legal hurdle, but it is a process that can cost up to $10,000.
“Those with the means are able to afford the hefty fee. But there are others who will struggle with the cost. I then saw this as an opportunity for my students to assist,” shares Adj Prof Lee. Under her supervision, law students would help parents navigate the legal process, assisting in areas like filing court documents and attending court hearings with them.
During her time at NUS, Adj Prof Lee and her team of students helped more than 60 families save thousands of dollars in legal fees, while ensuring they could continue caring for their loved ones with intellectual disabilities. Adj Prof Lee ran this project to help various organisations, among them the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS), KK Hospital and the Down Syndrome Association.
THE NEED TO HELP
Improving legal representation and access to justice are key goals of pro bono programmes. It is an important issue in Singapore, where more than 96% of applicants and 99% of respondents for maintenance and personal protection orders are unrepresented.
Source: Criminal Justice Club, an official sub-club under the Law Club of the National University of Singapore, Faculty of Law.
FINDING HER LANE
The pro bono requirements for graduating students were only implemented in 2014 — more than two decades after Adj Prof Lee graduated. “So when we left school and thought about ‘helping the community’, it was restricted to activities like spending time with seniors in a nursing home.” Her work with the Centre for Pro Bono and Clinical Legal Education has inspired her to think about how else she can contribute to the community.
She eventually settled on being a Pro Bono Deputy, to be a proxy decision-maker for those without the mental capacity to do so. “(Singapore is) an ageing population and the government was worried about people who developed conditions like dementia, but who also had assets. This group of people would have trouble accessing their assets because of mental conditions.”
While professional deputies are remunerated for their work, Adj Prof Lee does it for free. It can be a thankless process, she reveals. “There are, for instance, bureaucratic hoops I need to jump through in order to fulfil my responsibilities as a deputy.” She shares about one case she handled for a woman in her 80s. “She had to be put in a nursing home and had no one to make financial decisions for her. Eventually, I decided to liquidate her assets and upgrade her to a top nursing home where she could get quality care.”
The phrase “liquidate assets” can be misleading — it doesn’t bring to mind the kind of heavy lifting that Adj Prof Lee engages in: from going into the flats of those she is caring for, to selling their belongings to karung guni (rag-and-bone) men, and even choosing the clothes they will be laid to rest in. “Someone’s got to do these things, so why not me?”