Legal aid as a place for development of legal skills and experience

Some time ago, I was invited to address young lawyers at a conference organized by the International Bar Association (IBA) in Singapore on the topic “Strategy for a Successful Legal Career Planning: Pro Bono and Governmental Entities”. I have tidied up the text to reflect as much as possible what I wanted to say and what I actually said. I hope you enjoy it as much as I had delivering it.

Strategy for a Successful Legal Career Planning: Pro Bono and Governmental Entities

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

I hope you have been enjoying your attended sessions of this conference. I know I am supposed to speak to you about pro bono and governmental entities as part of a strategy for successful legal career planning; however, framing it that way gives it too much of a bottom line and capitalistic approach.

What is more, I don’t want to give the impression that if you did A, B and C you would have successfully planned a successful legal career. I believe each legal career is different. Each of us has our own gauge for success. And there is no one correct formula to being a successful lawyer. So I want to take a more humble approach and limit myself to telling you why I think involving yourself with pro bono work and governmental entities could help you develop your legal experience, skill and style. For ease of reference, I shall refer to working with both pro bono and government entities as legal aid.

Often when I mention the word legal aid, it tends to be the cue for the attendants to use their time more fruitfully by going to the toilet, or helping themselves to the nearby buffet and eating away quite blissfully, or to go out for a fag, thereby leaving me with a mere handful and having to reshape my presentation to one of stand up comedy. So to all you who remain seated and at attention, I am immensely grateful!

Whenever most lawyers (whether young and old) think of legal aid, they often think: waste of time. They think this because firstly, time spent on legal aid does not generate funds for the firm or results in an immediate increase of their pay. Secondly, that ‘wasted’ time could have been spent generating income. In this paradigm, the practise of law is all about the bottom line. Since time is money, there is the usual knee-jerk reaction at the mention of legal aid.

Whilst I disagree with this ‘law as merely a means to an end’ approach to legal practise, I think that legal aid has a great deal to offer even those possessing such an approach to practise. As a young lawyer, whatever your field, what is it you usually do not get enough of? Experience. And when I speak of experience I do not simply mean simply going through the motions. What I mean by experience is taking responsibility for whatever it is that you do and decide. It is the quality of experience where the buck stops with you.

The quicker, wider and more deeply you are able to experience legal cases, issues and situations, in this manner the better will be the quality of your legal experience and hence the legal expertise or service that you are able to deliver.

And that is what legal aid can offer the young lawyer: priceless legal experience and a chance to develop their own individual style of practise. What I mean by this can be better illustrated with an example, rooted in the Malaysian context. I offer my experience not as exemplary but as mere illustration.

Before I was called to the Bar I did an attachment at a local firm. One thing stood out in my observance of the litigation practise: there was little in the way of trial work. Most of the action tended to be in the form of hearings with straightforward debt claims won at summary judgment hearings, interlocutory applications, and case managements. Trials were few and far in between, a few times a year at best. Even then, few of them went on because of the generosity with which adjournments were allowed. And even when they did go on, either the partners or senior associates would do the trial.

Having spoken to some young lawyers at reputable law firms at the time about their experiences, it became clear that they would not be given a trial to conduct on their own until their 3rd or 4th year in practise. I thought it was a little late by then. I did not want to be a four-year old lawyer thrashed by a Judge in open court for breaching elementary trial etiquette and rules in front of my client.

To avoid this, after I was called to the Bar, one of the first things I did was to trot down to the Bar Council Legal Aid Centre in Kuala Lumpur to look for cases to take up. [Digression: Summary of Legal Aid Programs in Malaysia: Bar Council Legal Aid Centres or Biro Bantuan Guaman (Legal Aid Bureau) which is government run; BCLAC is unique because it entirely funded by lawyers; BBG is effectively useless because they usually take straightforward matters both in civil and criminal such as tenancy matters and defences of certain claims and uncontested family matters for the former and mitigations or juvenile offences for the latter. So it is down to the BCLAC to do most of the significant and meaningful work on a budget of something amounting to just over a million a year.]

Anyway, I managed to come away with a civil suit where I represented the Defendant who was being sued for some factored debts and a juvenile criminal case for stealing and/or unlawfully stealing a motorcycle.

Though these cases sound minor and presumably run-of-the mill to me now, to a greenhorn with no trial experience whatsoever, it was a vast potential minefield full of unexploded horrors waiting to happen. And no amount of reading about the law and its practise, whether from the legal journals, textbooks or biographies of famous lawyers or judges, will ever fully prepare you for the experience of standing up by yourself and conducting a trial or dealing with your client and surviving on your wits. Moots partly convey the experience. I say ‘partly’ because it is only your personal or team pride at stake – not somebody’s life, liberty and happiness. I will spare you the details of what happened in both cases which would also spare my blushes too, save to say that both cases thankfully ended in my clients’ favour.

But the wins were actually not important, and I would argue (if required) that they matter the least in practise; what was of greater import was what I got out of it, namely my first taste of actual client interviewing and handling. In my experience, junior lawyers are rarely given the opportunity to directly interview the client, especially the more important ones, who usually don’t even want to be talking to you in the first place. This will often be done by the senior with their presence or sometimes, all the information is just dumped on you later.

During the trial I alone had to evaluate the evidence and my client’s case, decide on its admissibility, examine witnesses, and stand up to submit every now and again without a prepared script, in short I learned and dealt with issues about the basics of conducting a trial. After the trial, despite a great deal of scolding from the bench, my confidence got a much needed boost because I had done it all myself. It was not perfect. But the beauty about practise is no matter how long and well you do it, it will never be perfect. There’s always some aspect that could be improved. And I realized something: my fear of trials was directly rooted in my ignorance. The more I knew and the more prepared I was, the less there was to fear. The less I feared the more creative and keen I became to conducting a case. This lead to greater confidence because I began to gradually understand what was important and what was not.

Of course, I consulted my boss on some technical issues, but those with even the barest of experience in a court room know that sitting next to somebody who stands up is an altogether different ball game from being the guy standing up to speak. And there is nothing like doing a matter yourself to fully understand all the relevant issues and appreciate the nuances. More importantly, this freedom to handle a case myself allowed me the chance to develop my own style of practise. By style, I mean methodology, approach and even the type of ego personality that takes over. I think finding one’s style is important because to practise in one’s own style is to do so optimally according to one’s unique personality. And one can also always continue refining, reshaping and expanding one’s style the more one experiences and learns.

With those two cases under my belt, I soon applied for more trial cases and within three or four years, I dare say I was ahead in terms of experience compared to some of my peers. I do not point this out to boast about myself but to point out the sad state of practise in Malaysia that my ‘training’ took place. I am fully aware of the abilities of some of my contemporaries and close friends who possess trial skills that far exceed mine.

Experience is the raw material from which we develop ourselves and skills. So if time is money, experience is the rate of your interest. That is why I cannot emphasize enough the need to get it, and as quickly as possible. One can also build on experience by honestly reflecting and meditating on it.

And this brings me to my next point: there are possibilities for specialization with legal aid. No doubt the area for specialization are confined to more social issues, but in Malaysia one could specialize in immigration issues, various criminal areas (rape, drugs, theft, habeas corpus applications), human rights issues (freedom of religion which is a hot topic in Malaysia now). I have a friend, who though he was doing corporate and civil litigation, enjoyed criminal practise so much that he eventually became famed for his criminal expertise despite that being merely his side interest. This friend of mine also had another interest. He was actively involved in doing refugee and migrant workers work and became so known in that field that his firm got a paying brief from UNHCR.

So it was not only him that benefited from the experience – his firm did as well. Because of his good work, they could offer their services for criminal, refugee and migrant worker cases. On top of that they also had a seasoned litigator they could count on because of his good trial experience.

I believe that if more partners in law firms realized just how useful doing legal aid was in training their lawyers, they would encourage them to do so. To put it in business terms, legal aid is one way to outsource training at almost no cost. What’s more firms that do so enjoy the additional benefit of contributing to society and then having the privilege of boasting about it and including it in their shiny pamphlets for clients.

Aside from avenues for reaping experience and specializing, one is also exposed to people that we do not often encounter in our usual circle of friends and work, namely people from the marginalized areas of society. For example, I don’t think I would ever actually sit down and interact in a meaningful fashion with a 60 year old lady who was too poor to afford the RM 2.00 bus ride from Klang to Kuala Lumpur (about 20km bus ride) if it were not for legal aid. It is not that I do not want to but the make up of my life as it is right now just does not give this opportunity to me regularly. This exposure to the different levels of society I think encourages a greater sense of awareness and a better and broader appreciation in considering current and national issues not just as a lawyer but as a human being.

So as you can see, there are very important and precious benefits to being involved with legal aid. And I think that it is in such endeavours that we truly realize our worth as lawyers both personally and in the context of society – because we help others in helping ourselves. The bottom liners would describe it, and I have come to abhors this phrase, as a ‘win-win’ situation.

But that is not the best part to involving one’s self with legal aid. The best part is after it is all over and your client comes over to you and instead of squabbling with you about your bill, s/he offers you one of the most sincerest thanks you will ever have occasion to receive. For myself, I can tell you that it is a great feeling to be thanked with heartfelt sincerity – it is a bit like being kissed by a loved one. And sometimes that’s all we as lawyers look for at the end of a long and hard matter/case – not gratitude but sincere appreciation.

I hope with that you will perhaps consider legal aid be it privately or under the government more favourably and in time come to do it more for the pleasure it brings then the benefits you reap.

Thank you for your time and attention.


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Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 11 December 2008. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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4 Responses to Legal aid as a place for development of legal skills and experience

  1. Pingback: The Lessons from Legal Aid Series (LLA) | LoyarBurok

  2. Pingback: The Possibilities of a Law Degree | LoyarBurok

  3. Pingback: Peguam Pro Bono | LoyarBurok

  4. Will Fung

    Why it took you so long to publish your very highly regarded presentation? heeeeee …. a sign of humility i guess!