In Profile: Charmaine Yap – From Student Legal Fellow to Pro Bono Lawyer

April 1, 2020
Category: People Profile
Charmaine Yap: 2nd from left, at an NUS Law Faculty talk in 2015 presented by JWB.

Students are at the heart of JWB’s work. Coming from partner universities, they join our Legal Fellowship programme to support our efforts while honing their legal skills. Every year, JWB takes in more than 20 Legal Fellows across its offices in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore.  The attachments typically span 2 – 6 months, amounting to over 3,000 hours in donated student legal support every year. Legal Fellows report to JWB’s Heads of Office and assist professional pro bono lawyers in preparing cases.  The experience gives them valuable exposure to the civil litigation process and first-hand experience of how the rule of law for migrant workers is applied across borders.  

From the start, JWB’s goal has been to contribute to the next generation of young lawyers in each of its countries, exposing them to the issues vulnerable migrant workers face, and to kindle their interest in pro bono work when they become full-fledged lawyers.  Success means that these lawyers hit the ground running, able to support those in need from day one of their professional careers.

Charmaine Yap was among the pioneer batch of JWB’s Legal Fellows in Singapore in 2014, helping to write JWB’s very first practitioner’s manual for migrant workers. She continued across several paid and volunteer roles at JWB in her subsequent years while studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Law. Finally graduating and called to the bar in 2019,  she has since become an associate at one of the big four firms, Drew & Napier LLC. 

Today, Charmaine continues to volunteer her time as a pro bono lawyer, at our legal clinics, taking on her very first migrant worker case, as part of Drew & Napier’s pro bono partnership work with JWB in 2019.  

Charmaine is the first of JWB’s Legal Fellows to subsequently take on pro bono work with the organization. She is a great role model for how professionals in the legal field can undertake this journey of discovery, enquiry, participation and action in migrant worker justice.  JWB is proud to profile Charmaine’s story:

An Early Passion for Migrant Worker Justice

Charmaine Yap was interested in social justice from her early days as a law student at NUS.  The Little India riot in 2013 first exposed her to the everyday exploitation that many migrant workers face; from non-payment of salaries to poor living conditions and, in some of the worst cases, physical abuse. Working as an intern with Transient Workers’ Count Too (TWC2), she was struck by how many migrant workers she met were saddled with significant agency debts and who had illegal deductions taken from their salaries, 

“It was shocking to me that this was happening so often in the migrant worker community, but if any one of these issues that a migrant worker faced were to happen to a Singaporean, we would all be up in arms about it.”

Charmaine’s Journey with JWB

As a Freshman at NUS, Charmaine joined the school’s student-led Pro Bono Group. There, she met with Douglas MacLean, Executive Director of Justice Without Borders, who had just partnered with the Group to embark on their initial work of cross-border access to justice for migrant workers returning home from Singapore. The idea intrigued Charmaine and she decided to volunteer with Justice Without Borders after the semester’s engagement ended. 

Joining as the first batch of Legal Fellows in the summer of 2014, she continued work on JWB’s practitioner’s manual for migrant workers. After the manual’s launch, Charmaine advanced to a Senior Legal Fellowship position, screening cases referred from local NGO partners, conducting interviews with migrant workers, and contributing to  strategic legal research into bait-and-switch contracts that many local NGOs encountered amongst their clients. 

After her third year at law school, Charmaine decided to take a gap year. During this time, she joined JWB as a paid Coordinator, overseeing the summer’s Legal Fellows, as well as setting up the young organization’s internal administrative processes. Charmaine says of her time there, “It was quite a fun process, very much like a start-up environment with a blank slate. It was an opportunity to set up the processes that were necessary to support JWB’s goals.”  She observed how over the years JWB grew its capacity to take on cases whilst also honing its focus to the migrant domestic workers migrating between Indonesia or the Philippines, to Hong Kong or Singapore. 

Returning to her studies, Charmaine’s experience at JWB gave her the confidence to pursue challenges not expected of a student. Most notably, as part of her studies, she assisted in setting up the pro bono legal services programme between NUS Law and the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), formalised in 2019 as the Arts in Clinical Legal Education. 

During this time, Charmaine continued with JWB, joining its operations and fundraising work to learn how a small regional NGO actually runs. Her work with the fundraising team  had her writing some of her very first grant proposals.  

Advancing From Senior Legal Fellow to Pro Bono Lawyer

Charmaine was called to the bar in 2019. Today, she is an Associate with law firm Drew & Napier LLC.  The firm is ranked top-tier in many areas of practice, chief of which is its celebrated Dispute Resolution department. Its lawyers are also very active in pro bono efforts across the board.  

In December 2019, her journey with Justice Without Borders came full circle when she was handed her first pro bono file involving Rina*, an Indonesian migrant domestic worker with potential claims for unpaid salary, and physical as well as verbal abuse.  Charmaine is helping her client with her fellow Associate Brandon Yap, under the management of  experienced senior lawyers Adam Maniam and Mahesh Rai.  

While the case is still in its early stages, Charmaines’ experience with client work at JWB meant she understood how difficult working with lawyers in another country can be for clients, particularly low-wage workers with little exposure to the law. She immediately set out to create a personal connection with Rina, preparing herself and the client for the ups and downs of communicating about legal matters across languages, over sometimes difficult phone connections. 

“Managing these logistical and administrative hurdles is a critical part of running a case,” Charmaine noted.  “It’s not just about looking at evidence and coming up with your legal arguments. A lot of it is getting information from the client directly and obtaining physical evidence that would be very difficult, because of the hurdles of the client being located in a different country and these are all things which would have an impact on the quality of the claims that you can bring. My time at Justice Without Borders had prepared me for this reality” 

Charmaine is very proud to be co-running her first case file with her fellow Associate, Brandon. Together, they are developing the case strategy, evaluating the case, and managing timelines. She says, “I had a lot of support from my colleagues and Directors.  They are all very supportive and have their own history of being involved in pro bono work.” 

Rina’s file being a  JWB case has made the experience even more significant because of JWB’s role in her formative years as a student .  “I was very fortunate that I was able to have this pathway from legal fellow to lawyer and it was fortunate that it matched my own interests. My Justice Without Borders experience was key to me entering private practice,” she says.

Finally, Charmaine shared some words of advice for future Legal Fellows, 

“Be curious about the various aspects of JWB’s work. Justice Without Borders is a unique place –  there is a lot of freedom to explore and to question, and Legal Fellows should make the most of that. The team at JWB are genuinely there to help nurture and develop Fellows and allow them to have a say about the development and work of the organisation. I think that is something that not all internships give you and it is something that makes JWB’s Fellowship special.”

* Not her real name.