By Office Parrots

On 31 December 2015, BON, Advocates tweeted:

“Everything else remains the same” – point-blank yet elusive – and yet we knew there was more to this understated, inconspicuously timed announcement of two high profile power-houses coming together to, well, play house. 

Getting together

Long-time lawyers Edmund Bon Tai Soon and Amer Hamzah bin Arshad never really felt like they fit in the corporate world of medium-sized commercial firms, with their penchant for eschewing the typical lawyer dress code and passion for pro bono legal work being frowned upon by certain elders. Sometimes branded by others as somewhat “dysfunctional”, in Edmund’s own words, they have found in each other a shared sense of justice, ideas, and complementary value systems and work ethics.

In a move to expand and further their ability to serve those in need of quality legal services, BON, Advocates and Amer Hamzah & Sharizad merged with effect from January 2016 to form AmerBON, Advocates.

“I guess the merger was a natural progression of our professional relationship cultivated since the early years of our practice circa 2000 and maintained to date,” says Amer, formerly of Amer Hamzah & Sharizad. “Although we were from different firms, we worked together on numerous public interest cases such as challenging arbitrary detentions under the Internal Security Act [ISA] and acting for asylum-seekers facing deportations. He was with Chooi & Co., and left in 2014 to set up his chambers. I was with Zain & Co. and branched out earlier. This merger could only have happened after Edmund and I left our firms.”

Edmund, who founded BON, Advocates, a one-of-a-kind, new-law commune known for their advocacy of human rights and interest in non-commissioned social and public interest work – forged a strong professional relationship with Amer while working together on various high-profile, public interest cases surrounding human rights in Malaysia.

“It was during Malaysia’s first prosecution under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 [SOSMA] that got us talking about the merger. Amer and I were part of the defence team… [The BON, Advocates team and I] were spending so much time with Amer that I jokingly said that we might as well merge and be one firm! I was really joking when I said that,” Edmund recalls, “I guess we see our careers as coming full circle after some 15-odd years.”

But the definition of being on the same team extended beyond acting as co-counsel for defence, and covering each other in times of need as well. 

“He would act for me whenever I got into trouble such as during the sedition investigation on me in 2014”, shares Edmund, “[while] I would similarly act for him when called on. I got him damages against the police over his arrest in 2007. Ironically, it was this SOSMA case that brought us together. One of the accused persons was Yazid Sufaat. In 2001, he was arrested under the ISA and detained in Kamunting. Amer and I acted for him. In 2013, Yazid was charged under SOSMA and we were on board again. I think it was destined. Call it ‘fate’.”

Both cite complementary values and the ability to work together while having each other’s backs as important aspects of their decade-long professional relationship.  Their shared passion and values were also important to the merger, which, they maintain, would allow the scaling-up and expansion of their work without compromising their independence.

“We know each other well,” Amer says, “I know his strengths and weaknesses, and he knows mine. It is like the yin and the yang. We believe both of us can bring balance to the force in the profession.”

Commune Culture 101

Self-described as “legal mercenaries with a conscience”, AmerBON, Advocates will specialise in advocacy in all areas of the law, while tackling issues surrounding human rights and access to justice.

Regarding the culture, philosophy, and mission both firms have stood for, Edmund assures that with the merger, “… nothing has changed or will so, including how positively ‘dysfunctional’ we are. The energy and vibe – we are at one.”

“When Amer and I took time off for a heart-to-heart on the merger, it was wrapped up in an hour or so. It amazed me because the things we do and speak about – human rights and pro bono work, establishing a chambers-styled practice, supporting the work of NGOs and the Bar Council, improving access to justice, bridging the income gap of lawyers and training law graduates – were instantly agreed on without the need for a lengthy discussion. Sometimes I get scared that we agree on everything so easily,” shares Edmund.

“With the merger,” Amer explains, “we have a larger capacity and greater capabilities to reach more people in need of quality legal services.”

Maintaining the pro bono stronghold

Along with offering legal services, AmerBON, Advocates supports and funds the Collective of Applied Law & Legal Realism (CALR), which is to be the firm’s pro bono arm.

“Every month our advocates contribute a certain sum of their income to it. We have a Chief Collective Officer, Jenn Beh Yeong Wei, who runs it with our Case-Engineers, Pang Jo Fan and Michael Cheah Ern Tien. One of CALR’s projects is creating the DIYLaw portal and ‘ecosystem'”, shares Edmund. 

CALR’s initiative DIYLaw, an online platform that offers templates for the public to draft simple legal documents such as wills or tenancy agreement, had already riled up the Malaysian legal world, with Amer having previously had his fair reservations of the initiative. However, acknowledging that “it is common to have reservations when facing a new or an unorthodox idea”, he remains supportive, saying “the [legal] profession must always stay fresh and abreast with changes. Should DIYLaw be beneficial to both lawyers and members of the public as end users of legal services, we should support the initiative.”

Amer also maintains that “as far as [he is] concerned, anything that improves the people’s access to justice and legal services is to be welcomed.”

“People already know how I feel about DIYLaw” shares Edmund, “I do not see AmerBON taking a different position. In fact, we will be stronger for CALR with an expanded base of resources.”

The daily grind

AmerBON, Advocates‘ main office is situated in Solaris Dutamas, and maintains a branch in the Pantai Business Centre. The practice is organised as an advocates’ chamber, similar in style to barristers’ sets found in the UK. “Our aim is to specialise in advocacy on all areas of the law. Thus, you see a range of seniority in the firm and a spectrum of expertise,” says Edmund.

Amer is slated to lead the criminal set, and Edmund to head the civil set, although both will share expertise and take on different roles according to the needs of clients. Such versatility is helpful, as Edmund describes: “I think it is one of our core strengths that we are able to handle the commercial and criminal law aspects of each brief thus giving our clients a well-rounded support base.”

In terms of management, each advocate is independent, self-sustaining and works for their own income, with the commune deploying an “eat what you kill” ecosystem in which only the self-driven and non-complacent will thrive.

However, the entire team is collectively involved in business development. Office overheads are shared, and clients will be served based on their legal needs. “You manage your own time, you pick your team and your clients. If you need someone senior or junior, you are able to get someone from the firm on board,” says Edmund. The independence and management style, Edmund maintains, gives younger practitioners the required freedom to establish their careers and create their professional profile.

In line with their mission for human rights advocacy, each advocate is also contracted to do a number of pro bono or human rights cases per year. This would certainly not be a turn-off for anyone gunning to work with AmerBON. The firm values quality, and looks for strength in character and team-working ability in potential candidates.

Building their army

“On my part,” Amer says, “I always emphasise quality over quantity. Hence, my focus has been whether I have good advocates who can work with me. Having said that, if the need arises and there are outstanding candidates, we would definitely consider expanding the existing team.”

Prospective members of the AmerBON team are rigorously selected, with a “Build-The-Army” (BTA) Committee conducting the first round of interviews with candidates. Perhaps going along with their unorthodox approach, the BTA would sometimes engage candidates with board games in an effort to get to know each individual better.

Should a candidate be particularly outstanding, Amer and Edmund will then conduct an interview with them. A good fit into the structure and culture of AmerBON is crucial. “Many, many applications have come through and we are having a hard time dealing with all of them. We find that not many candidates can take ‘the way’ of our firm.” Edmund laments, “We are quite unique in our structure so strength of character is an extremely important trait. You must also be a team player.”

Admittedly, many would find the firm’s culture a hard fit, but, as the firm maintains, investing your time and effort with them would reward you with a more enriched career. AmerBON, Advocates is always on the lookout for outstanding Pupils-in-Chambers and Case Engineers to, as they put it, “be trained in [the AmerBON] way”.

Click here to find out more about working at AmerBON, Advocates and if you feel you’re cut from the same cloth, do throw your hat in the ring.