PM recounts legal legacy of the founders of Lee & Lee

As a young lawyer at Laycock & Ong, Mr Lee Kuan Yew spent a lot of time representing trade unions in wage negotiations and disputes, often pro bono.

It displeased his British boss, resulting in Mr Lee playing a major role in the formation of law firm Lee & Lee, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the firm's 60th anniversary dinner.

Faced with pressure to stop taking on such cases, which his superiors called "all the vogue" but not "purely legal", Mr Lee left in 1955 and started Lee & Lee with his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, and brother Dennis Lee Kim Yew.

PM Lee's recounting of the firm's origins was made at the celebratory dinner at Raffles Town Club on Thursday, when he also reminisced about his childhood moments at its modest premises above some shophouses in Malacca Street. His speech was posted online yesterday.

In the firm's early days, Mr Lee Kuan Yew took on all sorts of cases to make a living, including "divorces, chap jee kee runners, routine debt collection", said PM Lee.

He remained active in the unions and politics, and after he became Prime Minister, he tapped the firm's partners for political talent. Mr Eddie Barker became Minister for Law and drafted the Separation documents, including the Proclamation of Independence; later on, Mr Chua Sian Chin, who joined Lee & Lee in 1959, became Health Minister at the age of 34, making him the youngest Cabinet minister in independent Singapore's history.

Lee & Lee's chief clerk, Mr S. Ramasamy, was an MP for Redhill, while its current ranks include MP Christopher de Souza, noted PM Lee. With Mr Lee Kuan Yew focused on politics, the growth of the law firm was steered by Madam Kwa and Mr Dennis Lee.

Madam Kwa, who PM Lee said regarded her husband and children as her first priority, did mostly solicitors' work, developing the firm's conveyancing practice and the trust and probate practice.

She retired from the partnership in 1987 and died in 2010.

PM Lee noted that she had been known to advise younger women lawyers not to do litigation work "because that would make them argumentative and (it would be) more difficult to find husbands".

"I am reporting this to you as hearsay evidence, but on good authority, but of course I would never venture to offer any such advice to anybody," PM Lee quipped.

Mr Dennis Lee, an active litigator known for travelling to court by trishaw, made it a point to groom younger lawyers, said PM Lee. His pupils would be made to sit in his room for the entire period of their tutelage - an imposition on him, but an exceptional learning opportunity for them, PM Lee added.

Mr Dennis Lee retired as senior partner in 1995 and died in 2003.

"My parents and Dennis Lee would have been very proud to see what Lee & Lee has become today," said PM Lee.

"The firm was an important part of their lives and represents their legacies as lawyers in different ways - helping the unions and underdogs, nurturing young lawyers, developing capabilities in the firm from scratch and growing it into a leading law firm."

Lee & Lee is today a full-service law firm with more than 200 staff and over 100 lawyers.

Yesterday on his Facebook page, PM Lee gave a shout-out to another set of Lees: Lee & Lee shared its first office at 10B Malacca Street with businessman Lee Kip Lee, father of local composer Dick Lee. Mr Lee Kip Lee, now 93, attended the dinner with his three sons, Dick, Peter and John.

Said PM Lee: "I have also known Dick Lee and knew that we were both Lees together, but I did not know that we had the Lee & Lee connection.''

This article was first published on October 17, 2015.
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