In Pursuit of Justice: Tan Jun Yin’s Journey from Criminal Defence Lawyer to Head of Office at JWB

July 7, 2020
Category: People Profile

Moving from the corporate world to charitable service is always a big jump, and it was no exception for Tan Jun Yin, our new Singapore Head of Office. With six months now under her belt, Jun shares her own journey to her latest post, leading the way on migrant workers’ access to justice.

Developing a Passion for Access to Justice

Jun’s journey began during her gap year after law school.  Undecided about becoming a lawyer at the time, she took on a number of odd jobs that brought her in touch with communities on the margins. While working at Far East Flora, a plant nursery in Singapore, she worked alongside migrant workers from Myanmar and the Philippines and learnt about the challenges they faced. Later when volunteering at a small farm, she met fellow workers who were former prisoners and heard their stories.  

“I think these experiences came together and I felt the need to do something. I knew that I had the set of skills to help. So that was when I decided to just do it and become a lawyer,” Jun said. 

Taking the Big Leap From Corporate to the NGO World

After Jun was called to the Bar in 2015, she joined Trident Law Corporation as an Associate, where she specialised in criminal defence.  

Although she worked on pro-bono cases during her time as a lawyer, Jun felt that commercial pressures took away from the time she could potentially spend on each case. Paying clients necessarily came first. Despite her love for criminal defence, she was keen to experience a work environment without the corporate pressure of billing. Jun was drawn to JWB’s mission of making cross-border access to justice the norm, rather than the exception, for migrant workers. Ultimately though, she says that it was her desire to contribute to positive change that pushed her towards JWB. 

“I’m one of those idealistic people who believes in using your skills to make a difference,” Jun remarked.

Embracing the Challenges of Cross-border Casework

Six months into her new job, Jun finds her role as JWB Singapore’s Head of Office significantly different from her previous one.  

Casework at JWB starts with a review of case referrals from JWB’s NGO partners to assess if there is sufficient evidence to move it into development.  Oftentime, it requires a number of calls to the prospective client to clarify points of fact and gain a better context of the situation.  Next would be to prepare a case package and to connect with a law firm who would be willing to take on the case on a pro bono basis.  Finally to be the middle person to liaise between the client back home and the law firm in pursuing the claim and reaching a settlement.  Jun is currently working on 16 cases that are taking place simultaneously along the migration routes of Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Jun’s casework responsibilities also include developing strategic research and potential legal remedies with legal firm partners on new questions of law.  These are important to document and share so that more lawyers and NGO partners can learn how to bring claims on behalf of migrant worker clients.  One of her current research projects that is sponsored by the International Labour Organisation involves law firms in both the Philippines and Hong Kong on ‘Legal Guidance on Overcharging of Foreign Workers Agency Fees Along the HK-PH Corridor’.

In terms of surprising challenges, Jun highlights new logistical hurdles in casework that are unique at an organisation like JWB. For instance, because most of JWB’s clients are not present in Singapore, they often have to call in from rural areas of Indonesia and the Philippines which lack the infrastructure to support video calls and smooth connections. In this regard, Jun no longer meets clients in person most of the time, like she did as an associate lawyer. 

Besides technological hurdles, language barriers also become an important consideration for client calls at JWB. Given that JWB’s clients are foreigners, unlike her previous law firm’s clients, many do not speak English well. So Jun has to be careful of critical information getting lost in translation. 

Despite these challenges, Jun says she greatly enjoys her work with JWB’s clients. 

“I love spending time with my clients and getting to know them.  They take me back to why I’m doing this in the first place – connecting with people and working with them to make a positive difference in their lives.”

Moving Beyond Casework

Jun highlights the numerous responsibilities  that JWB Heads of Office take on as another big change from the law firm world.   These include capacity building to train NGO caseworkers, community volunteers, paralegals and lawyers on understanding migrant worker rights, evidence collection, case intake assessment and legal strategies.  

Other tasks include fundraising that often happen simultaneously with casework.  For an NGO like JWB, these tasks are too important to drop the ball on. As such, Jun often finds herself having to juggle different aspects of the work simultaneously.  

“Things seem more dynamic than before.  Beyond casework, these other activities take me out of my comfort zone and draw on other skills that I seldom had to use in legal practice. ”

Working with the next generation: JWB’s Legal Fellows

Jun also leads the Legal Fellowship programme in her office, putting her in contact with a rotating group of enthusiastic law students from local universities. These Fellows are a critical part of JWB’s success in both helping clients out today, and cultivating pro-bono minded lawyers tomorrow.   

“I have to be wary of blind spots, because if you do something long enough, you forget that some aspects of it may not be immediately obvious to others. Having new Fellows all the time is very grounding.”

Being Part of a Larger Ecosystem Working Towards Access to Justice

Despite the differences and inherent challenges of moving into the nonprofit sector, Jun finds her work at JWB very fulfilling and enjoyable. She credits much of this to the open culture at JWB, which encourages learning and asking questions – something that helped her with her own transition into the role. 

She also appreciates how JWB provides a unique service that connects migrant workers back home with pro bono legal services in Singapore and Hong Hong, and how it complements the work of local NGOs that are also focused on migrant worker issues.  

“I like to think of us as different carriages on the ‘justice’ train and JWB is the last car on the track,” Jun quips.

Jun also enjoys learning about legal norms, policies and different cultures from colleagues across the different jurisdictions, “It feels great to be part of a regional team that brings access to justice to migrant workers. It maximises existing laws across multiple jurisdictions and fills a gap in access to justice that has hardly been done before.” 

“Indeed we need more people like Jun around, and JWB looks forward to more great things with Jun in the months and years to come,” said Douglas MacLean, Executive Director.

JWB would like to thank Allen & Overy for sponsoring  the Singapore Head of Office position in 2019 and 2020.