Conversations with Josephus Tan

By Gracia Chua

Josephus Tan is a criminal defence lawyer at Invictus Law Corporation who is actively involved in pro bono work. He is a recipient of the 2015 Singapore Youth Award, given by the National Youth Council, for his notable contributions to society. Here, Advisory finds out more about his work and motivations.

The official office hours are 10am – 6pm. We mostly have lunch in the office as we do not have time to eat out. We start earlier if there are court hearings at 9am.

However, there is still preparatory work to be done beforehand. So, if a 9am hearing is scheduled for the day, I will usually reach my office at 7.45am, then walk over to court at 8.30am. 

A typical workday entails court hearing, meetings, prison interviews, meet-ups with clients, and other events such as this interview. Though a typical workday officially ends at 6pm, it usually ends much later than that.

I was 25 years old when I applied to a British university to read law. As a mature student then, I realised that law is a very powerful knowledge with very powerful applications that permeate every day and everything in this modern world. I then thought to myself if I can possess a powerful knowledge like this, I can use it to save the world and help people around me. I’m an idealist, and I still believe in
that till now.

First and foremost, we need to differentiate between reading law and practising law. They are two different things. I think it is exciting (albeit highly stressful) to read law to understand the legal concepts and analyse the case precedents which ultimately leads to a graded examination.

However, when it comes to law in practice, it is more than just a graded examination as there are serious life-changing consequences. This is especially so in the area of criminal defence litigation, which is also my specialisation.

Diligence is really the least to expect from myself because I think it requires a lot more than that. It takes a combination of conviction, courage and compassion to do what I do because I am trusted by my clients to defend their liberty and (literally) their lives in capital cases in the court of law.

If you truly understand the rigours of the entire process, you’ll lead a rather stressful life. Be that as it may, you will get used to it with the passage of time. It becomes a part of your professional DNA. Lawyers who tell you it doesn’t change them at all – they are not telling you the full story. Many people have the misconception that only the accused persons would face the music alone but they have families too right? So, there will be a lot of emotions involved but of course with time, we learn to cope with it better.

My personal values do impact heavily on my practice. To me, my practice of law is encapsulated by the treaties of conviction, courage and compassion. These are my personal values and formed the bedrock of this firm which I founded 3 years ago.

There are lawyers who treat their cases very clinically and may be able to detach themselves completely. They see it as another day at work, and as a job that brings food to the table.

After being in practice for 12 years, I tend to view my work as a “mission in progress”. There is no stop-line and there is no ending. It is almost like an Avengers movie franchise!

I think for prospective students who have an interest in reading law, they have to be honest with themselves and ask themselves: Do I like reading? I think law requires a great deal of reading compared to other tertiary disciplines.

So, if you are not into reading and you’re a more practical, hands-on person, law would not be something you’d fancy. You need to love to read, and learn to be analytical, and intellectually curious to excel in it.

Apart from reading the various legal concepts – most of which are highly complex but you also need to understand its application in real life scenarios. If reading doesn’t excite you, then law will be a very challenging discipline. We always use this phrase in the industry: you don’t study law, you read law. Now you know why!

As the saying goes – you can bring the horse to the riverbank but you cannot force it to drink! If you do not enjoy reading and the mental gymnastics that come with it then every step forward would be a struggle.

But yes, it is something which can be trained to “get by” law school but what truly separates the good ones and the average ones will show eventually in practice. You will rarely find a lawyer who is weak in law school but strong in practice but rather, it’s the other way round!

The biggest misconception about the reading and practice of law is that you need to be eloquent and have a flair for public speaking. I can’t speak for the rest of the world but in Singapore’s context, this is not necessarily the case.

Because of the prevalence of technology, modern day litigation takes the form of written legal submissions, instead of the past when a lot of legal submissions were made orally.

I suppose this may be where the whole concept of public speaking and eloquence stemmed from – today, however, a greater emphasis is placed on written legal submissions over what is orally submitted.

I think we also have to differentiate between making a point and making an eloquent speech. If you can be very concise as compared to somebody who speaks eloquently and use flowery language, then I think the former is better preferred by our courts.

So even if you are a student who has never been trained in public speaking or debate, I do not think that you should give up on your lawyering dream. You must understand that there are also many different areas of law which do not require much public speaking such as corporate legal work or conveyancing where they do not go to court to litigate.

But a definite skillset that every lawyer should possess is the habit of reading and analyzing. In my humble view, the golden rule to success in law, be in it law school or in practice, is mastering the ability to digest complex legal problems and come up with solutions that are simple enough for the lay person to understand.

With the prevalence of technology, a lot of information are easily found online. Instead of visiting the law libraries, you search for case precedents using online databases. At times, you even correspond with your opponents or the courts online. This saves a lot of time compared to the past. Technology gives you a wider reach into the things you search for and helps to improve the quality of your written legal submissions.

I think as cliché as it sounds, we are looking for the right fit rather than the best fit. As to what is the right fit, I think it is really about the person blending in with our culture – I believe strongly in taking your work seriously but not to take yourself too seriously. We believe in working hard and playing equally hard.

We also do not have a top-down hierarchy, where there may be the apprehension or fear to speak to seniors or your bosses in their rooms. As the managing director of the firm, I share the same table as my colleagues and everything is open for discussion. Transparency is paramount.

We definitely want people who are very self-driven, but at the same time they must know how to have a sense of humour and fun. We want people with maturity. There is really a lot of free play here, but it is the ability to fit in with the rest of the team that is the most important.

I think there are a myriad of reasons, most of which may stem from a lack of work-life balance. The first 3-5 years is when attrition rate is the highest, due to long working hours in highly stressful office environments.

Many young lawyers come into the profession working from morning to night. You will work even on weekends and public holidays because deadlines are looming around the corner. It is a steep learning curve.

I went through it and knew what it felt like. That is why when I started Invictus Law Corporation, I told myself it would be different. Instead of working beyond office hours, the key would be maturity and self-motivation. When it hits 6pm, I would tell my colleagues to go home to their families or pursue whatever passions or hobbies they have. Crunch only when necessary. Absorb and control your work and not the other way.

It is also about finding a purpose in the practice. Here, I always encourage everyone to first find a purpose before the work. We have an informal model: “We are humans first, lawyers second”. So everybody is encouraged to participate in pro bono endeavours.

It’s a mixture of coincidence and my chequered past. It is an area I felt a lot for because I came from a lower strata in society and had my own brushes with the law in the past.

Coincidentally, I interned with the late Mr. Subhas Anandan who subsequently became my pupil master. During my training phase, I was predominantly exposed to the area of criminal litigation.

So one thing led to another, and I would say I’m one of the lucky ones in the industry and in Singapore to say that I have found my passion. It is something I enjoy doing, and also brings bread to the table. Though it is not a lot but over the years, I have learned to survive with less!

I think many of the “highlights” would be after you complete a case. Life goes on for the next couple of months or years and you do not really hear from your clients for a long time.

But some years down the road, they dropped you a message telling you about a successful business, to invite you to a wedding, or the christening of their firstborn.  These were the “special moments” because it showed how much you matter to them and how you were there when they needed help the most.

Firstly, I understand what it feels like to be at that stage of life where you are truly down and out. Secondly, it is my belief in second chances. It can’t rain all the time and I was once given a second chance too by my loved ones. Thirdly, it is about an honest understanding (and acceptance) of my personal needs and wants in life – I do not yearn for a luxurious life but rather, a purposeful one coupled with 3 meals a
day of course!