Brendan Navin Siva’s speech at the Ethics and Professional Standards Course Lunch that took place on 15 July 2010.

Ladies & gentlemen,

15 minutes is hardly enough time to speak on any topic let alone to give a talk to pupils on how to be an excellent, ethical and successful lawyer and the challenges ahead in the profession.

By giving this talk, I am by no means proclaiming myself to be an excellent or successful lawyer. And by no means are you to blindly accept everything I say to you today as being correct or similarly applicable to you. “Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it.” These are words from The Sunscreen Song.

Who does not know The Sunscreen Song? It is a song made up of someone’s rambling advice about random things in life.

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

I will dispense this advice now.

reflection foot airport

Look at yourself and work out what YOU want to do in life. Have a plan. Do not meander through life not knowing what you want. Wanting to be rich or wanting to make money is not a plan. It is the end result of a good plan but it is not itself a plan.

Work hard. Many people would have told you the same thing the last 9 months but it is true. There is just so much that you need to learn in the next 3 years – how to draft, how to speak, how to handle clients, how to handle judges, how to think, how to solve problems and, over and above all this, to acquire the knowledge of law in many areas of law. Put your head down for the first 3 years and set yourself a good foundation for your future whether or not you continue to be a lawyer thereafter.

Present yourself well. Dress sharp. Invest in good clothes. Always be well groomed. What you think looks cool or suave to your friends may not be the right image that the real world expects of a lawyer.

Deal with stress. Do not try to run away from it. Stress is a part of the life of any successful professional – whether you are a lawyer, doctor, engineer or accountant. Understand that stress is relative – whatever you find stressful today, I can assure you will not be stressful for you in 3 years time. And what is stressful for you in 3 years time will not cause you much stress when you are a senior lawyer of 10 years or more. But there will always be stress at all levels. It is part of the job. Find your own way to deal with stress. But never use stress as an excuse to give up pursuing something. Never use stress as an excuse for failing to do something. And never blame stress for producing sub-standard work.

Learn how to deal with people. You will be dealing with people a lot in your career. There are many different types of people. Some are nice. Some are not so nice. More often than not, you will not deal with nice people. The people you deal with will be demanding, irritating, annoying, deceitful and demanding in many different ways and forms. The key to success is learning how to deal with them all.

Never ever be beholden to any client. Never put yourself in a situation to be totally dependent on any client financially. Always be in a position where, if your client asks you to do something that you know is not lawful or ethical, you can stand up and politely excuse yourself and walk out of the room without compromising your integrity and morality.

Speak and write English well. There is no way out of this one. English is the language of commerce and it is the language of the common law. Our courts will not abandon English any time soon. Our clients – local and international – will judge you as a lawyer on how well you speak and how well you draft – in English.

Take steps to improve your English, regardless of whether you think your English is good or bad. In particular, you must acquire the ability to say or write something in a concise and comprehensive manner. To do this, read English newspapers online (most of them are still free), read magazines (Newsweek, Economist, The Far Eastern Economic Review), watch CNN or BBC at least an hour a day. See and learn how they package and present large amounts of content into a concise and compelling 5 minute newsreel or one page article.

Embrace technology. Blackberries are not evil. They are not your enemy. They save time. They save a lot of time. When you are waiting in court, when you are waiting for a meeting to start, when you are stuck in a traffic jam, when you are waiting for friends for dinner, when you are watching TV and the advertisements come on – emails can be checked and responded to – this is time that you do not otherwise have to spend in the office answering emails. Embrace Change. A lawyer is nowadays only one part of a transaction. If the clients are all on blackberries, you do not have the luxury of saying “It is 6pm. I am out of the office and I cannot answer your queries.”

Set aside 1 week in the first half of the year and one week in the second half of the year for a holiday. Book these dates well in advance so your boss cannot say he did not know about it. Better yet, book tickets to fly somewhere so your boss cannot expect you to reschedule your plans (without feeling guilty). Downtime is very important. The more senior you get, the more difficult it will be to take scheduled time off.

Travel. See the world. See what is out there. It gives you perspective and it opens your eyes to things you never would normally think about. It matures you.

Find a network of friends who are similar as you in thinking, in ambition and in character. There is nothing unhealthy about a group of lawyers socialising together on the weekend or after work. There is nothing wrong with a group of lawyers talking about law all the time. You will grow together and you will become better lawyers together.

Lastly, do not blindly accept everything you are told by someone more senior and supposedly better than you. We are not better than you. We have just been here a little bit longer than you. Challenge the logic of what we say. If it does not make sense to you, don’t accept it.

Thank you.

Brendan Navin Siva is presently the Chairman of the Kuala Lumpur Bar and a member of the Bar Council. He tweets at @brendansiva.

9 replies on “Of Sunscreen, Blackberries, and Successful Lawyers”

  1. this article inspires me! i love the way Brendan wrote it! thumbs up! and thank you for showing me a way to become a better person… =)

  2. Thank you Brendan for the article. Sound advice and I shall make a mental note to revisit it when the going gets tough..

  3. Well written, especially on the part of stress, Brendan. Was anticipating that you would end your speech with:-

    "Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.

    But trust me on the sunscreen."

  4. Bullsit is bullshit even if it coming from the PM. Dont be afraid to tell others when you smell it.

  5. a good piece of advice. I can hardly find any illogical arguments here. thank you for such words of wisdom.

  6. I am no lawyer just a school drop out yet I find this article very refreshing and provide a very good advice for everyone. Well written.

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