Reflections of a final semester law student on the state of our legal education and the role it plays in shaping how law is practised in Malaysia.
A Walk in the Park
I am a student in a public university which is never shy of being the centre of political battles, training law in my final semester. Since the time of my inception to the programme I have always read and heard of the cry to make the Malaysian legal education more people-related, instead of just profession-centric. For the past four-and-a-half years, I struggled to understand why such a plea is being petitioned, until I sat in my first day of classes for the final semester. The courses for that day were Non-Contentious Legal Matters for Corporate, Civil Trial and Advocacy and Ethics. All courses were taught by learned lecturers, who have vast experience in the legal profession.
With deep sorrow in my heart, I must state that I was disappointed by them.
I have heard of them before and in times, developed my admiration and respect for them. However, what transpired that day really changed my opinion of them. My perspective was altered and before I knew it, I began to realise the significance of the call made against the Malaysian legal education and the importance of heeding that call.
I may or may not have any problem with the first-mentioned subject. Notwithstanding that, for the record, I always treat laws relating to corporate matters with suspicion, if not with distrust. On a personal level, I’ve developed the perception that success in the corporate sector is measured by the pecuniary fortune one gets and makes, and as such, to my mind, the laws relating to the sector has lost touch with the common people on the ground who are only earning sufficient wages to make ends meet.
The nexus between the two ideas may be remotely interlinked and many may not agree with me. But my observation is premised on the basis that, in the corporate sector, time is appreciated through the glass of dollars and cents and that such standards of appreciation are highly cruel and degrading to those who are not able to convert passing time into expected profits.
Nevertheless, I reckon that my own lower-middle-class background might have played an important role in shaping my perception.
Leaving my perception to be disagreed by any, or rebutted even if anyone so wishes, I observe that a great load of students choose to train in law because they see law or the practice of law as a vehicle to reap as much financial benefit as possible. My view is not without any qualification; I am never against anyone who wants to make money from the practice of law. In fact, I can safely say that I am happy if anyone can make a living, a luxurious one even, from the practice of law.
I, however, have a lot of rants and complaints against anyone who puts the generation of financial benefit as the primary objective of practising law. This sort of objective offers the idea that the law operates only for the rich. The inability of people from the lower financial caste of the society to retain any advocate or solicitor to advise them properly in law further denies the ordinary man on the street from the rights and protection conferred by law to every person, regardless of financial and social status. How can they enjoy the benefits given by law when no legal practitioner is willing to fight for their cause with reasonably minimal amount of fees as compared to that which the lawyers can extort from the financially-fortunate?
It is even more frustrating to see that in almost all career talks, most lecturers and invited legal practitioners would inevitably speak about the enjoyment of cumulating financial fortune through the profession, instead of narrating the satisfaction that one can get from performing one’s duty as court officials to uphold and serve justice, even if it means to sacrifice one’s opportunity for personal financial gain.
Pit stop on the hilly garden
Law is a complex subject which requires the exercise of critical thinking almost all the time.
Therefore, discussions and the issuance of opinions are two exercises which are very dear to the learning of law. If freedom of speech and expression were to be fully embraced and appreciated, the students and teachers of law should be the ones to do it. However, I am sad that this freedom is not very much appreciated by many law lecturers. I have my own share of experiences on this matter.
On one occasion, my Civil Trial and Advocacy lecturer, who happened to be a former senior member of the Bar ordered us to re-arrange our seating into an arrangement that he preferred. Thinking that an alternative arrangement was viable, I went to him and suggested a different arrangement. To my surprise, he quickly dismissed my opinion and even told me not to argue with him on that matter, which I was not even doing. It may seem like an insignificant act, but to me it simply suggested the fact that the learned senior lecturer was not open to ideas, nevermind to deliberate on it and provided a ground for dismissing the opinion given.
If such a culture of suppression were to prevail in legal education, perhaps we can start and aptly justified to imagine the worst of quality produced by our own law schools. It is sorrowful to see that the brains of our law students are directed to think the wrong objective of being involved in legal practice, instead of being used to think critically for the purpose of intellectual development.
A view by the lakeside
I am prepared to say that I do not have any problem with the observation of certain code of conduct, as well as statute-dictated ethics among the legal practitioners. However, I do have an issue when physical appearance is given meticulous scrutiny instead of substantive arguments. I am struggling to understand why a simple blemish on a legal practitioner’s physical appearance should cost him an audience before the court. Is it not sufficient if lawyers merely put up proper attire, even if the colours donned are a tad cheerful?
From time immemorial, I’ve struggled to find the interconnection between sober colour and sound argument and I still cannot see any interconnectivity of the two. Perhaps I should state my complete agreement with the advice given by Lord Bobo, which was published in the Ask Lord Bobo column of the Selangor Times Issue 6, 31 December 2010 — 2 January 2011:
Good lawyers usually have wonderfully colourful yet nuanced personalities, unlike the lousy ones that tend towards a murky light brown to a dirty manure-like dark brown. Since judges tend to envy the freedom of such colourful lawyers to hang out with whom they like, eat wherever they like and frequent whichever spa or karaoke joints without fear of scandal, they imposed black and white attire in the futile hope of stifling their beauty, brightness and creativity. The judges claim that conservative attire is needed so it would not distract from the arguments put forward. But it does not take a lemur to point out that if a judge can be distracted like a guppy from the arguments because a lawyer’s tie is brightly coloured or he/she is decked out in full Mexican regalia inclusive of poncho and sombrero, that judge has no business sitting in judgment over others.
A judge that can so easily be distracted by a multitude of colours except black and white, instead of argument, should be in a fish tank, not a courtroom. After all, the courtroom is a place for serious argument and stylish dressing, not stylish arguments and serious dressing!
To home where a cup of coffee waits
In conclusion, judging from the above observation, a pessimistic yet realistic assessment spouts from the ground: it is almost impossible to expect our law students to behave and think maturely, when some judges, if not a substantial number of them, could be easily distracted from discharging their constitutional duties by petty distractions, which reasonably speaking should not be displeasing to the eye.
Ruzaini hails from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and having resided in various places within 17 years of his life (within Sabah only, of course), he has a problem identifying any specific place to be called his hometown. Instead, he borrows a phrase from Dr. Farish Noor’s “The Nomad Prayer” in his book “Qur’an and Cricket” — “God take me home. And let my home be everywhere.” He is a self-proclaimed perfectionist yet laid-back and fairly poor in spelling. Currently in his final semester of reading law, Ruzaini likes to go deep into issues and topics that interest him. He thinks it is more interesting to explore the “why” than the “what.” If one settles only on the “what,” one will only have superficial knowledge. Having said that, Ruzaini more often than not ends up having a monologue when it comes to understanding the “why”. He wonders why.