Lest I Forget: An Intern’s Story

Sometimes deep within us we feel that we are born to achieve a particular ambition. Then, with a little bit of luck or what have you, the opportunity to achieve that ambition presents itself. Grabbing it however does not guarantee that everything would fall into place. Sometimes we forget why we even dared to dream the dream. For moments like that, a little reminder is appreciated.

Six weeks of mandatory internship in fulfillment of the conditions required for a law degree in the University of Malaya. Initially, I thought it was a waste of time as I had spoken to people who did their internships and they told me that they basically sat around and did nothing. The most they did was to transcribe notes and bundle documents. Up until the 2nd of July 2012, that was my idea of an internship.

I started my internship at the firm on the 2nd. I chose the firm as I saw that they involved themselves in wide areas of the law and I wanted the opportunity to experience it all.

First day started slow. I was brought around the firm and introduced to the partners, associates, pupils-in-chambers and staff. Then at around 11am I was brought to see an associate who worked with a partner who was to supervise me for the next six weeks. She handed me a criminal case regarding a charge under the Firearms (Increased Penalty) Act 1971. The punishment is death by hanging. She went into the details of the case then asked me to assist in the research of several points of law for the appeal. Research then took a drastic turn to became ‘draft an outline submission’ after my supervisor met me at around 4.30pm.

Though I was surprised, I tried my best to exude confidence as the words of my lecturers echoed at the back of my mind: Jangan bagi malu Universiti Malaya.

Naturally as well, I am relatively competitive and do have a rather large ego that would never allow me to say that I can’t. I took up the challenge of drafting the submission and anything else that came with it.

As part of the internship, I was also tasked to assist @PusatRakyatLB and UndiMsia! On the 6th of July, I joined Lim Ka Ea at Hulu Langat to gauge the people’s knowledge of their elected representatives vide #LaporanRakyat. Being on the ground and amongst members of civil society who are not practising law helped shed a different light on the issues that currently surround the nation. They look at matters not purely from an academic point of view but from a bottom-of-the-heart-feeling that something is wrong which must be corrected. It is from here I learnt no matter what creed or religion one adopts, human beings are the same and yearn for the same things such as security and freedom. It was a challenge however to get responses from the people as most of them could not believe that we are a non-partisan movement. You are either with the ruling coalition or the Opposition, we were told. If you call yourself ‘independent’, you are also supporting the Opposition – with that, I do not agree.

On the 7th of July, I participated in yet another law-based activity that uses the Court to address problems in society: a ‘Strategic Litigation Workshop’. The workshop was a brilliant idea. It admits of the notion that while sometimes there are perception problems with the Judiciary and the law does not help especially on matters that concern human rights, strategic litigation – complementing action on the streets in demonstrations – figures a way round the system to use the system against itself by sparking attention and discourse. I think it’s brilliant.

The second week of attachment was filled with research for the submission. I also met a client with my supervisor. One would think that it is easy to meet clients – they are just people like you and me – how hard can it be? But they are different. First, they are not your friends. Second, they are not random strangers. They are people who need your services and depending on the type of cases they are coming to see you for, they would require you to take on different modes of communication. And yes, there is more than one way to communicate.

The most basic would be your body language. I have a habit of folding my arms when I meet new people. I knew I was doing it, I knew that I should stop but what I knew was not doing a very good job to make me stop. He took the liberty to address the matter. “Patricia”, he said on the ride back, “try not to fold your arms … if you go to prison to visit clients, they’ll be so scared to open up to you”. No idea where the prison bit came from but having someone else point out my shortcoming was exactly what I needed: a tinge of embarrassment to stop a bad habit. I am always on the look out for ways to improve myself so I do welcome constructive criticism. After that day and when I meet someone new, his voice would be at the back of my head going: “Your prison clients would be scared of you”.

On the third week, he asked me to do research on defamation law. His client wanted to sue but it was unclear on which legal ground hence research had to start from scratch. There was also a bit of investigative work to be done which required me to dig for more information from various internet sources. I had also finished the first draft of my submission but unfortunately, the format was wrong and I had misconstrued the Petition of Appeal. Fortunately, the core of my research was correct.

The fourth week was the first time I went back at 1.30am. Before that, the latest I had ever gone home was 10pm. Week four was when everything started to pick up speed as he would have back-to-back trials everyday: bundling authorities, transcribing videos in a human rights trial and preparing cross-examination questions. My Saturday and Sunday would be taken up to prepare for the coming week.

Week five was the most challenging week for me. First, there was the human rights case and then the death penalty appeal. It was trial from Monday to Friday and the best part of it was – to say in retrospect – that he involved me so much in the preparations of those cases that I felt part of the actual process.

Post-trial on every one of those days we had what is known as a ‘re-group session’ where we would analyse what happened in Court. I also had to review my video transcription three times over. Though at that particular time it was tiring – looking back – I am thankful for his perfectionist attitude. The process has definitely made me more meticulous. Thursday was then the hearing of the death penalty case.

The death penalty case got to me more than I expected it to. Hearing of the appeal took place at 2.30pm and lasted for about 2 hours. He stood his ground with passion and vigour. Hearing him lay out the grounds which I contributed to was exciting as if I too was part of the hearing. Helping to draft the submission also helped me follow the arguments better and when the judges raised their questions I instantly knew what they were trying to get at.

When the appeal was on-going the client looked around the Court room, probably seeking out a family member. Our eyes accidentally met and for what seemed like five seconds or so, I held his gaze. Something which I later came to regret or at least somewhat regret. After arguments, the Court took time to deliberate and then re-convened. The Court held that it found no injustice in the case and that the client was fully aware of his actions when committing the offence. Appeal dismissed.

At that moment I didn’t feel anything. My fellow interns around me were already gasping and shaking their heads. I was still emotionless. As I drove from Putrajaya back to the office, the full impact of the decision finally hit me. The dude was going to be hanged. At that moment all of the questions posed by the judges during the hearing came flashing back and I could not come to terms with how they came to their decision. I got back to the office at about 5pm, did what I needed to do for the human rights trial, packed and headed back. I was depressed. That day was the earliest I went home. I did not feel like talking to anyone. I felt disappointed and felt as though I let the team down. Usually after a traumatic incident, people ask: how can you sleep? For me, sleeping was not the problem. Waking up was. Being awake allowed various thoughts to enter my brain and repeatedly ask: did I do enough?

When week five ended, it felt as though the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders, for a while at least. Week six – the final week. And like every single week of my internship, it too had a surprise. Over lunch, the team was suddenly instructed to file an urgent mandatory injunction. By week six, there were already quite a number of interns. The six of us divided the work amongst ourselves. I drafted the outline written submission on the legal test to pass for an injunction.

On the very last day of my internship, I handed over all I could do including the cross-examination questions for the other case. After all that was settled, I took some time to thank the founder of the firm for giving me the opportunity to intern there, and talking to him was an experience in itself!

When my friends and I first stepped into University of Malaya as first year law students, we were asked by our lecturers and seniors why we chose to read law. Most of my friends would answer: “To be rich”. Mine was different. I chose to read law because growing up, I used to listen to those around me speak of unscrupulous land grabs from the Orang Asal, scholarships being denied though the qualifications were met and jobs favouring a particular ethnic or religious group. I did not know much about anything or how true the allegations were. All I knew was what my eyes saw and what my ears heard. And I was not happy. I chose to read law because I saw it as a tool to offer fairness to the marginalised and liberate the oppressed. Somewhere along the line however, I lost sight of this sentiment and jumped on the bandwagon of wanting to be rich.

The firm brought me back to my original intent though I am not so sure if we share the same goal. At the main entrance of the firm, a huge portrait of a famous Chinese Judge majestically hangs and with it the sentiments that now make up section 42(a) of the Legal Profession Act: ‘To uphold the cause of justice without fear or favour’.

“How do you not get caught up in the materialistic world?” I asked. “Hang on to your faith”, the founder answered. And that just hit me, spot on.

Before doing my attachment I was having a personal dilemma. Somewhere after my second year in law school and before I started my attachment, I was quite fed up with people around me. To cut the long story short, I ended up not trusting those around me and I felt that it was easier not to care. This would diminish expectations, reduce disappointments and result in greater happiness.

The work that he gave me had helped me grow as a law student. To approach the problems practically, to learn to be more meticulous, to accept nothing short of perfection and to persevere to find an answer even if the odds are against you. There would always be the selfish, the kind and the eccentric. The trick is not to over-think matters but appreciate those who were kind for they had a choice to ignore you and treat you like an insignificant other; but they chose to acknowledge and welcome you into their life. For the kind, I would continue to fulfill what my future profession asks of me.

On the 10th of August 2012 I finished my internship. I have no regrets.

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I view writing as a means of therapy. Nothing is more beautiful than when an idea is articulated into the most simplest of sentences and then conveyed to another intelligent being with micro precision capable of brushing every strand of human emotions.

Posted on 16 November 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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3 Responses to Lest I Forget: An Intern’s Story

  1. Sara Lau

    Hi Pat – One of the best things of the internship was knowing you. Hope to see you around in the Courts one day. You were made for litigation. :) Supervisor would agree. :)

  2. Nicholas

    Great to see a law student take a real, proper, human interest in the subject :)

  3. Pepper Lim

    Nice!