Legal practice may seem intimidating, but it is is one of the most honourable professions that one can embark upon in Malaysia.
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Entering the legal profession is the culmination of a lot of hard work. The path to professional practice in Malaysia is beset with constant challenges and seemingly endless study tasks. However, it often comes as a rude shock to young chambering students and lawyers that there are a whole lot of new skills and knowledge that they must acquire to become at least a competent legal practitioner. Those matters occupy books and books. At the same time, the psychological pressure that young practitioners feel can be intense. Hence, a practitioner must make the effort to adjust to practice as best they can while honing their skills, protecting their clients’ rights and trying not to make any costly errors.
So, how can a youngster adapt while all this is happening? In what ways can a practitioner reduce the stress of their new profession? The purpose of this article is to address a number of the common issues young practitioners will face and provide practical means with which they can adjust to their new career and deal with the uncertainties and anxieties in a professional way.
II. WORK LATE AND WORK HARD
This is the most important advice. Ever noticed how your friends doing moots gave up their semester breaks to devote themselves entirely to their moot problems? This is because the only way to do well in law is to do whatever that is necessary, and do it to the best of your ability, be it research, drafting, negotiation, advocacy and so on. Stay back late, get up early, work on weekends - whatever suits you - but make sure you get the work done to meet all your deadlines. This is not to say that you should work seven days per week every week. However, when you are snowed under with work make sure that you get it done, and get it done properly. This may even include staying up till the wee hours, with the assistance of tea or coffee. Remember study breaks? Cramming the night before the exam? Well, you have entered a career where this sort of effort will be required on a semi regular basis, particularly in litigation or in a big firm.
III. DO NOT LEAVE DIFFICULT FILES
There will always be a few files that you inherit when you start working that you would rather not think about. An obscure enforcement application to make, a credit dispute with a financial institution involving turgid regulations, or a family law case with an aggressive client on the other side. Often these have been given to you deliberately because they will “test your mettle”, or even worse, because a colleague has had enough and wants to pass on the time bomb to someone else. The short and obvious advice for these matters is simply “don’t leave them”. Attend to them as a priority. Read the entire file, look up any necessary law or procedural rules to help frame your understanding, and discuss with colleagues, particularly those more senior than you.
IV. KEEP THE CLIENT INFORMED
One of the most common reasons for client dissatisfaction with lawyers is poor communication. Most clients will be confused by what is going on, troubled by frequent delays and complications, and annoyed by your legal fees, particularly if you have not advised them of likely cost or have not given an adequate or realistic explanation of likely fees. The only solution to all of this is to keep your client regularly informed of the progress, or even lack of progress, in their matter. How often this need be you should work out with your client. Each one is different, and each file is different, so make a decision, and then diarise each matter to be reviewed at appropriate intervals.
V. OCCASIONALLY BE PREPARED TO BEAT A PATH DOWN TO YOUR SENIOR ASSOCIATE OR PARTNER
Your senior associate, supervisor or partner is your ultimate lifeline as a young lawyer. At times, you will be completely lost on a matter, or there may be an urgent reason for action, for instance, when your client gets arrested, and your supervisor is too busy. You need to be able to act decisively and assertively to seek their guidance before your deadline expires. Obviously, you should use your discretion, as your supervisor will very quickly become very annoyed with you frequently interrupting their new client consultations because you are too lazy to read the rules of court or did not think to ask the experienced legal clerk in the office. However, interrupting your supervisor when there is a genuine emergency on one of your files shows that you are able to recognise an urgent situation, act decisively, and know how to professionally interrupt a colleague in an appropriate situation.
VI. LITIGATION: KNOW THE COURT RULES WELL
If you plan to be a litigator, one of the first things you should do is buy a hard copy of the rules of court, take it home and read it cover-to-cover, highlighting important bits as you go. Obviously, you do not need to read line-by-line, rule-by-rule and order-by-order, but you must have a good working knowledge of the contents, particularly important procedures and applications available so that you can vigorously assert and defend your client’s rights using all and any legal means possible within the court system. As a supplement too, make sure you are familiar with court practice directions affecting specific matters, as they are very useful and essential to good litigious practice.
VII. KEEP AND DEVELOP GOOD PRECEDENTS
Good drafting is one of the hardest things to learn in your early years of practice. You will keep developing better drafting skills throughout your whole career. One of the essentials in the early years is to accumulate, maintain and develop a good set of precedents. In addition to providing quick drafting guidance for you in a moment, your knowledge of law and legal issues will expand rapidly.
VIII. DEVELOP NETWORKS
Closely related to developing good precedents is to develop good networks of legal contacts within and beyond your law firm. Many of your precedents will be given or handed down by colleagues or generous contacts. And if you have a case that no one in your firm has done before, it is then that perhaps an outside contact may be able to tell you what you need to know or do to solve that case for your client.
IX. WHEB FILES TURN SOUR
Sometimes a file will go bad; perhaps a client realised they will be out of pocket way more than expected, an unexpected writ was served, or they lose a seemingly unlosable case. You may be in shock, but imagine how much worse your client may be feeling? At this time, it is important to make a full analysis of the situation in which the client finds themself as to why things went bad (if possible) and options that the client may now have (if any). It is probably necessary for the client to have an appointment, with a partner in your firm and/or for your firm to write a detailed letter of explanation to the client. At such times it is most important to account to the client for the state of affairs, lest they, in their confusion, sheet home the blame to your firm for their woes.
X. DIFFICULT CLIENTS
Do not take it personally, everyone has them: constantly ringing you, giving contradictory instructions, prone to temper or abuse, having unrealistic expectations and so on. Keeping these clients regularly informed can become intensely important to prevent accusations that you do not communicate with them, or that you make decisions without seeking their instructions, or have not advised them of possible or likely outcomes for their matter. It is often easier to send written letters to such clients than communicate in a meeting or over the phone, however, this will have to be moderated according to the client and file. One trick for a client that regularly contacts with you with what turns out to be petty issues: perhaps they may think twice if you send out an interim bill to charge for their frequent phone calls.
XI. OUTSIDE THE OFFICE
There are things you can do outside practice to hone your skills and help your psychological approach to practice. Here is a short selection, however there may be many other ways you can find to improve your lawyerly technique.
A. Read Books of Famous Lawyers
One of the most pleasurable ways to hone your legal acumen is to read up on how the best did it. Choose from any common law jurisdiction and pick books that are entertaining, factual and informative, and reveal how the some of the best lawyers were able to crack their most difficult cases, such as Karpal Singh, Alan Dershowitz or Geoffrey Robertson to name a few.
B. Teach Law
There are many opportunities to teach law nowadays in Malaysia, from high school and pre-law to college and university. Teaching is one of the best ways to reinforce and revise on the legal principles taught in a law degree, especially for foundational subjects like Criminal Law, Tort and Contract. Whilst you are young and energetic it is possible to take a part-time job after work or on the weekend whilst practicing full-time.
C. Read Newspapers, AseanLII, or Law Journals
To be a professional and competent lawyer you must get into the habit of keeping abreast of the legal news on a daily basis by reading appropriate publications and subscribing to leading law journals.
D. Do You Need to Improve your English, Malay or Chinese Language?
Whether to improve your advocacy submissions, interview technique and instruction-taking, or gathering witness statements, you practice in a multilingual nation and need to be able to communicate well in a wide variety of scenarios. A once-a-week class in a language that you use regularly in practice may improve your confidence and effectiveness more than anything else.
XII. OUTSIDE THE LAW
In this final section I suggest matters to explore peripheral to your vocation as a way to better yourself overall to meet your daily demands. Legal practice is intellectually and emotionally taxing. Litigation is even more onerous given the court appearance work that can also be physically exhausting. It is therefore important that you look after yourself and manage your lifestyle to avoid the possibility of succumbing to a physical or emotional illness or crisis.
A. Worship, Meditation or Yoga
Legal practice can make emotional demands on you in your private or social life. As a way of destressing, regular worship, meditation or yoga can have a tremendous emotional healing effect on the mind and body. If you have fallen out of regular attendance with your friends and family at a place of worship, you might find regular visits more rewarding now that you have embarked on a law career. Meditation and yoga have been proven to have power effects on the mind and body.
B. Debrief with Friends, Mentor or Partner
One of the great side benefits of a legal career is the wonderful people you meet and colleagues with whom you work. Especially in your early days, it is very helpful to get together with other practitioners in a social setting and let off a bit of steam about what happens in the office or in court. Often better friendships are forged, and you realise that others are experiencing the same challenges and problems as you . And sometimes you can discover solutions to those seemingly intractable legal problems just by meeting with a colleague in Starbucks. Having a mentor can provide similar benefits, or even a partner or family member who is patient enough to listen to your work issues on a regular basis. (Such a family member or partner is probably worth their weight in gold too.)
C. Do Exercise
Scientists have proven to us that intellectual, emotional and physical performance is incredibly related to the level of fitness a person sustains. It goes without saying that your ability to thrive and survive in such a competitive profession will be greatly assisted by regular physical exercise. It will help your ability to recover after difficult, long days and cases as well. And if you play social sports, you can enhance your social life at the same time.
XIII. BEGINNER ADVOCACY
Most advocacy done in your first few years of practice will be for interlocutory or pre-trial mentions of the client’s matter. There are things of which you should be painstakingly aware to make your first forays into advocacy more pleasant and to allow you to protect your client’s rights more effectively.
A. Know the File
It may seem that you have been sent down to court by the senior associate for a small appearance on only a procedural matter pertaining to the file. However, litigation is always a surprising process, and you never know what can happen even when the appearance seems straightforward and routine as you walk into court. For example, your opponents may wish to make an application on the day about which they have not forewarned you, or there may be a settlement offer put on the table, or even comments from the presiding judge about the merits of the respective parties’ cases, or questions about further preparation of the case. Even if you have only been given the file at the last minute, making an effort to read and understand the pleadings, witnesses, evidentiary and legal issues will enable you to conduct yourself a lot more confidently and deal with any unexpected occurrences with aplomb.
B. Check All the Applicable Rules of Court and Practice Directions
For every court appearance there will be some court rule and possibly some court practice direction which governs the process. It is crucial to be fully aware of all the relevant rules applicable. It will not only enable you to protect your client’s rights effectively, but it is the absolute minimum that would be expected by the presiding judge on the day. If your opponent indicates some matter that may be in breach of the rules, it would allow you to deal with that and oppose effectively.
C. Write Out Your Speech
For the first few times that you make an appearance in court, you will probably be intensely nervous, so of course it will at least ease your tension a little if you write out exactly what you wish to say in court. This will be very helpful if you are taken by surprise or feel overwhelmed, and you will be able to refer back to your “speech” and regain your bearings. Similarly, if it is expected to be a longer appearance you should probably practice your speech the night before in front of the bathroom mirror, or with your family patiently listening in the living room.
D. Seek Advice from Your Seniors
This probably goes without saying. But, the trickier part is perhaps when your supervisor is not available to help you. What can you do then? This is when you need to think strategically. Have you any contacts in another firm who may know about the particular legal issue or relevant procedure involved? Did you meet someone recently when you were networking who may have expertise in the type of matter about which you need to appear? Send them an email or a WhatsApp message, and you may get a gem of advice that ends up saving you on the day.
E. Always Arrive at Court Early
This gives you plenty of time to meet with the client, gather your last-minute arguments for the appearance, and if something bad happens, for instance you forgot to bring a pen, or even worse forgot to bring the file (at least one of these has happened to the author), then you will have extra time to sort things out.
F. Comply with Court Deadlines
Have you, your firm and/or your client complied with all the court deadlines? This can be crucial, as one of the easiest ways to raise the displeasure and frustration of most judicial officers is turning up to court not having met all your sides responsibilities within the applicable pre-trial procedure. If you have not, best have a good explanation, and you may have to provide documentary evidence to support your assertions from the bar table, such as medical information, business records and letters. You should make a copy of any documentation upon which you rely for your opponent too. If not, be ready to cop a spray.
G. Own Up to Any Shortcomings
If the lawyer in the previous matter just got scolded for not properly complying with the court rules, and you realise you are in the same situation, it is better to start your appearance by stating this immediately. You can add something along the lines of “I have heard Yang Arif indicated in the previous matter that it is not acceptable to have filed the documents late, and I am afraid that your comments could apply equally to my firm.” This indicates several things to the bench. First, you have been taking note of their attitude towards the court process and compliance with the court rules; second, you are being honest and frank, and taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and third, you have effectively indicated that you will make sure that it is fixed up as soon as possible. If you are lucky, the bench may save their energy and refrain from giving you, too, a spray.
H. Find Out about the Judge
If you do not know anything about the bench hearing your matter that day, it is always wise to ask someone more experienced about their style of adjudication. Judges and Magistrates vary as much as your lecturers do, so it may give you a bit of necessary insight that may help you fine-tune your strategy for the day. For example, if you find out the judge is strict on the types of driving offences of which your client is charged, you may want to try to engineer an adjournment of the case. It will also buffer you from any rude shock if the bench takes a surprising approach to the matter. Better still, if there are matters before yours being heard, sit in court and listen to how the bench deals with the other lawyers and litigants to observe yourself their modus operandi.
I. Introduce Yourself to Your Opponent
Before the case commences it is not only common courtesy but essential to talk with your opponent. You can discuss what each party is aiming to achieve on the day, identify and discuss the issues your side has with your opponent’s case, and even engage in negotiation.
J. Dealing with the Client
Talk to the client and get necessary instructions for the day on the facts or strategies. Give them a brief plain layman’s guide to the mention or application that is listed for that day. Avoid as much as you can the legal jargon and terms of art with which lawyers and law students are familiar. Where you must use jargon, always give a simple plain language explanation of what it means. Of course, this may not be necessary if your client is an insurance agent who has been litigating matters since before you were born, so use your discretion and judgment. Most importantly, if they have to give evidence, discuss with them the general nature of the evidence that they are expected to give, and possible areas for cross-examination. Make sure you know all their answers to your questions, if not, find out to avoid any nasty surprises.
Follow the relevant ethical rules conscientiously. As a junior, peers, opponents and judges are often curious about your performance and way of working. They will not be expecting polish and confidence, so do not worry about making a few mistakes. Instead, they will be interested in your character and reliability. Do not disappoint in those areas, as lawyers do talk, and news of any impoliteness or unethical conduct can filter back to your boss by the time you have driven back to the office.
Legal practice is one of the most honourable professions that one can embark upon in Malaysia. Especially with the recent political changes, the future for the profession looks very positive. Although it can seem overwhelming when starting, please persist. I am regularly amazed and impressed when I talk to young practitioners about how quickly they gain the necessary skills of legal representation and advocacy. You have been given all the basic legal rules and skill sets in your degree to set you on the right path, so as long as you are diligent you will learn quickly too. Keep at it and good luck.
Written by Mr Simon Alexander Wood. Mr Simon is a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria, a Solicitor and Attorney of the High Court of Australia, and a dedicated lecturer and moot coach in the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya. Prior to teaching law in both Australia and Malaysia, he was in 12 years of practice in public law in Australia. His legal professional work included areas of criminal trials, legal aid, public interest law, immigration law and general practice.
Edited by Corina Robert Mangharam.