Sex, lies and a cross-dresser

SINGAPORE - When she first started out, Miss Wong Kai Yun had to ask clients twice her age how many times they have had sex with their partner and when was the last time they did it.

It did cause some blushes back then.

But some 19 years on, she now does it without batting an eyelid.

Miss Wong, who declines to reveal her age, specialises in matrimonial law. In layman terms, she is a divorce lawyer, who takes on two to three new consultations a week.

She's seen it all, including clients who get so clouded by resentment and anger that they fight over dogs and toasters.

The partner at Chia Wong LLP considers it a privilege that her clients trust her with the keen details of their private lives, no matter how embarrassing.

"It takes a lot for a person of a certain standing or for a public figure - used to having people fear him and listen to him - to come to me and disclose vivid details of his or her life, right down to sexual activities, petty quarrels and SMSes.

"You get to know them as well as their partners because everything is an open book to you.

"It calls for the client to really trust you to be that open."

Such disclosure is necessary, as the information is often used as evidence in court.

Disclosures

She remembers a client who told her that her husband was probably cheating on her after she found racy lingerie in the bag he carried to work.

"Lo and behold, she eventually found out he was into cross-dressing, and the third party was a man. It was very sad because I think it was doubly hard for the woman," Miss Wong says.

Another client who stood out was a man who found out his wife was cheating on him because he chatted her up on an online dating site, using a different name.

"They were both on the website while they were married," she explains, declining to elaborate on how the man eventually realised it was his wife he was chatting with.

Many of her clients are rich, including business owners and heads of legal departments.

"There is a lot more money involved, so of course the pressure is there since there is a lot more at stake," she says, adding that most of the cases she takes on are contested, making them challenging and complex.

"They've got more sophisticated assets, such as trust funds, not just HDB flats or CPF. They also have children who could potentially have dual citizenship, so you've got to be sensitive to these things."

But while she may be adept at helping her clients get a share of that house in Switzerland or a pension fund in the UK, she says that matrimonial disputes are markedly different from commercial disputes.

"It's no longer just about dollars and cents," she says.

"Often, emotions run high, and some lawyers may find it draining because you can't get your client to take your advice until you can sort out their emotions."

Still, Miss Wong avoids playing counsellor.

Empathy and a keen grasp of human psychology are important skills, but she often reminds her clients that her primary role is not to be their friend.

"I'm always mindful that the client might not realise that he or she is not spending chargeable hours wisely. My best is as a lawyer, not a counsellor," she points out.

She never judges or preaches, not even when meeting clients who return for repeated withdrawn divorces and attempts at reconciliation.

"I recognise the probable futility but ultimately, it's their life choice to make. I have also seen couples who, notwithstanding all their misgivings, stayed together to save face. Be it for their companies or their children, I respect it."

Her job as a divorce lawyer also puts her in a prime position to observe societal changes.

She notes that these days, women have their fair share of affairs.

Changing roles

"It is not as unheard of as before. Divorce is not a stigma anymore. People are no longer surprised when they hear 'I'm getting a divorce' or 'This is my second marriage' or 'This is my child from my first marriage'.

"It's no longer so traumatising to break the news to their child because they probably also have friends whose parents are divorced."

And while she may be constantly exposed to feuding couples and their woes, Miss Wong, who is single, does not consider herself cynical about marriage or relationships.

"It would be a lie if I said (the work) didn't impact me. It would certainly craft how you think, but I've also seen good marriages and good relationships," she says.

"What the work does is make me aware, but it's not enough to make me cynical."

She speaks nonchalantly about the times she had to take work home, or the weekends spent poring over files.

When asked about hobbies, she seems to struggle to name them, preferring to call community work relating to law and her role as the executive editor of the Singapore Journal of Legal Studies her extracurricular activities.

The first five years of her career were the most stressful, but the thought of giving up has never crossed her mind.

"I love doing law very much. I have a very high regard for law and this increases the more I practise it, so it's hard for me to imagine not being involved in it," she says, looking pensive.

Her passion has clearly paid off.

Word-of-mouth is the best pat on the back, and she once handled the divorce of three people in one family, as well as their friend's.

"It was the mother, son, cousin and their friend," she says.

"I had a client who went skiing in Switzerland and met a stranger who had spent some time in Singapore. They started chatting and realised they have had the same divorce lawyer," she says with an amused laugh.

Secrets of the trade

1 A client's divorce may be one of many for you, but from their perspective, their life just broke down. Don't dispense your advice lightly.

2 Be open to learning. Keep up with how the law is developing.

3 Be strategic and aggressive. Right from the start, it's important to ask yourself and your client what you ultimately want for the case. It's not enough to just go through the processes.

This article was published on April 13 in The New Paper.

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