This week marks four years since the legal community bade farewell to Joseph Grimberg, who passed away on 17 August 2017. Joe, as he was known to almost everyone, earned the respect and admiration of all who worked with him during his long and illustrious career. He was passionate about developing young talent and had mentored some of the most accomplished lawyers in Singapore.

JA Steven Chong, Minister Indranee Rajah, Deputy AG Hri Kumar and Davinder Singh—four Senior Counsel who shared the privilege of working under Joe—recall the “JG factor” that had left an indelible mark on their careers.


Early years

Joe helmed Drew & Napier for more than 20 years and was the firm’s first local senior partner at the young age of 33. But his relationship with the firm started much earlier. In the early 1950s, just before he left Singapore to study law at Cambridge, Joe worked as a peon at Drew & Napier.  In his oral history interview with SAL, Joe recalled, “I would stick stamps on envelopes and deliver letters, and I remembered doing stuff for the trademark department, sticking trademarks onto the back of index cards, you know, odd jobs.”

At Cambridge, Joe remembered being very driven. “I worked hard because my parents – my mother and father – had scrimped and saved, with the help of an uncle, to give me a decent education.” This strong work ethic continued after he started life in practice.  

Equity partners of Drew & Napier in 1987. Mr Grimberg is seated third from the right, while JA Chong is standing, second from right.

Davinder Singh, who joined Drew & Napier as a pupil in 1982 and worked closely with Joe for more than 30 years, recalled, “You (would) see Joe spending late nights in the office preparing his cases. He could have easily delegated it to others, but he was doing it all by himself. And when preparing for appeals, he would write out everything that he would say to the appellate courts and that required a lot of effort.”

Even when he was a senior partner, Joe said that he would always laboriously take statements from the witnesses himself, writing them in longhand. “I did that even after I acquired pupils because I never trusted pupils to ask the questions that I would ask, or to be as thorough as I was.”

Going the extra mile

Joe taught and inspired many. Shared Davinder, “Joe didn't teach by talking to you. He would teach by example. He was a gentleman in all his dealings, which I don’t think I picked up on. He never compromised on the need to go that extra mile. You just have to make the effort, or you have to go a mile beyond that your opponent is prepared to go. And it will pay off at the end of the day. Win or lose, it will pay off because the judges will know whether you’ve prepared your case, your clients will know how well prepared you are and whether you have done right by them.”

Davinder recalled, “When you go to court with him, you would see that even if he had a difficult case, the judges would listen to him very carefully; they would give him the utmost respect and they would eat out of his hands. And the client would know that even if he lost, he couldn’t have got a better lawyer. In short, because of everything he did and because of the way he did it, he set an example.”

Moulding young talent

In the 1980s, Joe was the doyen of the Bar. JA Steven Chong recalled that when he was in law school, it was his dream to work in Drew and Napier and to learn from role models like Joe Grimberg.  “Joe was a leader who believed in investing in young lawyers and developing their potential to the fullest. He played a pivotal role in my progress and development as a lawyer.”

In his first year at Drew & Napier, Joe arranged for JA Chong to spend six months with a maritime law firm in London. Constant and Constant was then the premier maritime law firm, specialising in salvage and collisions. “Joe had recently acquired a new client, Selco Salvage and decided that the firm should invest in my training so that one day I would be able to service this client.”

As a mentor, Joe always had the best interest of his pupils in mind. JA Chong remembered that mid-way through his pupillage, Joe asked if he would consider a career as a corporate lawyer. “He told me that corporate law practice was then widely regarded as the sunrise industry with a lot of promise. As a compliant pupil, I agreed and was assigned to Lucien Wong who was then a partner in the Corporate Department.”

Tasked to proofread a number of corporate agreements, JA Chong said, “After just one day, I muscled enough courage to inform Joe that my DNA was just not suitable for corporate law practice and that I would like to resume my pupillage in the litigation department focusing on maritime law. He appreciated my candour and accepted my decision without any fuss. That episode only served to enhance my deep respect and admiration for him.”

“Shortly before his appointment as a Judicial Commissioner in 1987, he called me to his office and advised me not to restrict my practice to shipping and maritime law. He encouraged me to go beyond my immediate comfort zone and that I should undertake general litigation briefs. He then gave me an interesting brief arising from the Pan-Electric debacle. I still recall that case.”

Calmness and composure

Despite Joe’s stature and reputation, young lawyers were always able to go to him for advice especially when they were in a difficult situation.

“Quite early into practice, I found myself in a pickle,” recalled Hri Kumar. “I discovered that the Managing Director of a client who was instructing me was cheating his own company.  He discharged me and instructed a new firm to silence me. I was not sure what to do and went to Mr Grimberg for advice. He listened to me and only asked who the new lawyer was.  The issue was resolved in five minutes – I shall not say how.  It was not just what he did, but the time and consideration he gave to me and my problem left an indelible mark on me.”

Indranee Rajah had a similar experience. “I remember a case that he had assigned to me,” she said. “We met the other side to discuss settlement (and they) made various provoking comments which immediately riled me and made me want to get into an argument. I remember Mr Grimberg stepping in and steering the conversation away from the petty provocations and focusing on the broader principle and fundamental objectives of the parties. With that intervention, the case was eventually settled. I learnt a lot that day – about keeping calm, about focusing on what matters and how to handle difficult situations (and difficult people)!”

JA Chong was just as grateful for Joe’s calmness in bailing him out of a crisis situation. “I obtained a Mareva injunction for a Greek shipowner against a local charterer, Mondale Maritime. The owner of Mondale, one Roland Chew came to my office to settle the dispute. Being naïve and inexperienced, I went to court to discharge the injunction and then presented the cheque for payment just before lunch. At about 4pm, I was informed by the bank that the cheque had been dishonoured. By then the court had closed and I was confronting my first crisis as a young lawyer. I did not know what to do.

“I went to see Joe and narrated the situation to him. He was completely calm, did not rebuke me at all. He told me that since it was after the court’s office hours, he would arrange for me to see a judge at his residence to reinstate the injunction. I recall meeting Justice F A Chua in his garden. I explained the situation and he restored the injunction. Armed with a signed copy of the draft order, I returned to the office and faxed the order to the bank. True to form, Roland Chew appeared at the bank the next morning to withdraw the funds.

“What Joe taught me from that episode was not to panic when you are confronted with a crisis and that with calmness and composure, one can usually find a workable solution to address whatever crisis which may come one’s way in the course of practice. So, in a way, he was the harbinger of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ adage long before it became fashionable in the new millennium.”

A trio of Senior Counsel: Mr Grimberg with Mr Singh and Mr Jimmy Yim.

On the Bench

While Joe was well known as a first-class litigator who was formidable in court, he had actually preferred to be on the Bench. Joe served as Judicial Commissioner from 1987 to 1989. In his oral history interview, he said that one of his biggest regrets was to decline the offer to be a High Court judge. His family commitments had made it difficult for him to serve full-time on the Bench.

“My two years as a Judicial Commissioner were probably the most fulfilling in my entire career. I enjoyed writing a good judgment. I always thought that I wanted people who read it to admire it.” As a judge, he worked on the cases with the same meticulous detail as he did when he was a lawyer. “I would sit in chambers the night before or take files home and read them all up and have little notes in each file to remind myself of what the issues were and also to hint at what the decision should be.”

He found his experience in advocacy to be a great help. “I knew where these guys were coming from… I remember a case where the two counsel were Subhas Anandan and Sant Singh - both very experienced counsel. The case involved a murder that had been carried out in a brothel in Geylang. I went home that night and wrote out some questions which I wanted counsel to address us on. And I remember when we came to court the next morning, I handed this list down to the clerk or secretary and said, ‘Please hand it to counsel.’ Justice Sinnathuray was gobsmacked, astounded. Never had he come across a judge who did that. And I saw Sant and Subhas look at each other as if to say, ‘This is the end of us. These guys are going to be convicted.’”

And while lawyers who were not prepared would have irritated him, he had a soft spot for the litigants in person who he would “bend over backwards to help.” On the days when he sat as a bankruptcy judge, Joe recalled dealing with dozens of bankruptcy petitions and people applying for discharge from bankruptcy. “My experience as a practitioner had been that they were just dealt with as a matter of course; two minutes and discharge granted. I remember elderly people coming before me and saying they’ve paid 10% and could they have a discharge. And I made a point of congratulating them, saying, ‘Well done, yes, you can have your discharge.’ And that gave me a certain amount of pleasure.”

“Joe never treated people differently depending on who they were. So whether you were on his side or you were on the other side, he was always courteous. And his letters were polite and written in the best traditions of the Bar,” said Davinder. “And when Joe passed away, people were talking about his life during his memorial. Everyone knew he was the best but the legacy that people remembered him most for was the fact that he was a gentleman at the Bar and that says something. I wish I could be like Joe, but I am not.”

The same sentiment is echoed by Hri Kumar, “In my almost 30 years of practice, I have never heard anyone say an unkind word of him – that is an unbelievable achievement for a successful litigator.”

Outside the courtroom

Those who knew Joe also speak of a man who was extraordinarily polished, warm, charming and with a sense of humour. “He was not a typical senior lawyer, said JA Chong. “In my first week in the office, I followed Joe to court for a hearing… in his sports car. I believe it was a Renault Fuego. He struck me as a really cool lawyer, very suave.” Joe was like a father figure and Indranee remembered that he often joined the firm’s events and celebrations. “Outside work, we would often talk about movies.  I remember a particularly interesting discussion on Trainspotting,” recalled Hri Kumar.

Joe was also a keen sportsman. One of the enduring memories that Indranee had was of Joe at the Cricket Club clad in his cricket whites. He played rugby for Cambridge University but did not get to compete against Oxford which would have qualified him to get a blue. Years later, Joe would tell us, “I think that I would almost have preferred to get a blue than get First Class Honours because it was such a privilege to be a blue.”

Hri Kumar had a first-hand encounter in testing Joe’s sporting capabilities much to his embarrassment. “On a firm trip to Thailand in (or about) 1998, I was lounging by the hotel pool when Mr Grimberg asked me if I was up for a game of squash. He was literally twice my age and I was working out in my head how I could beat him respectfully.  I should not have bothered – it was not even close. He beat me three games to nothing.  And typical of the gentleman he was, he never ever brought the subject up.”

In 1997, Joe was among 12 lawyers who were appointed Senior Counsel when the scheme was introduced to recognise the best in the profession. Among those on the list were his former pupils Davinder and Kenneth Tan, men who were half his age and experience. When asked how he felt about this, Joe said that he always had the highest regard for both of them. “They were all excellent lawyers… all eminently suitable for the appointment, whatever their ages might have been at that time. I may have taught them something about the ethics of the profession, something about advocacy, something about preparation, but they taught me the law.

“I always regarded the institution of pupillage as being a two-way thing. The mentor fed off the pupil and the pupil fed off the mentor. Now I think I fed off Davinder as much as he fed off me. We would sit down and talk about the case and he would tell me his views and I would tell him mine. He would feed me with the law and I would point out issues of fact. It was a joint venture. And I think the institution of pupillage is immensely important.”

Advice to young lawyers

Joe left an immense legacy and when asked what advice he would give to young lawyers he said, “They have to choose the field in which they intend to specialise, find a suitable firm where that is the main area of expertise, work very, very hard and hope for a decent measure of luck.”

In his memory, SAL and Drew & Napier instituted the Joseph Grimberg Outstanding Young Advocate Award to recognise young lawyers who demonstrate professional excellence and high ethical standards – the attributes that distinguished Joe from just being a brilliant litigator. The award is administered by SAL’s Professional Affairs Committee chaired by JA Chong.

“After his passing, Drew & Napier had offered to sponsor an award to honour Joe’s contributions to the law,” said JA Chong. “Given that Joe in his lifetime was a champion for developing young talent, I suggested that it would be fitting that Joe’s passion should endure even after his passing. The idea was warmly embraced by Drew and Napier and the inaugural award was made in 2018.”


He emphasised the overwhelming need to be hardworking, honest and courteous. That last trait eludes me from time to time when I am in Court.” Hri Kumar Nair SC

“He was a father figure to us – very paternal and protective. I can’t begin to describe what that meant to a young lawyer like me. The lawyer that I am today was largely due to Joe’s mentorship and generous advice over the years. Joe made me feel wanted. He always did.” JA Steven Chong

“From someone who had no interest in the law and who just got by year after year to then have this golden opportunity to meet this man who immediately inspired me just by the way he talked, by the way he carried himself, by the way he thought through issues, it was transformational. I wanted to be the next Joe Grimberg. And that changed my life.” Davinder Singh SC

“What I learnt from Mr Grimberg was the true meaning of being a professional. To have deep substance, to always keep the ethical line but to also do it with graciousness and a certain style, a hallmark that is inimitably your own.” Indranee Rajah SC

Photo of the Senior Counsel at Drew & Napier taken just before Minister Indranee left the firm to join the Government in 2012. She first met Joe when he was a Judicial Commissioner, hearing her first contested application. When she left the firm, Joe presented her with a framed copy of that order of court which he made in her favour. It now hangs in pride of place in her office.