A young lawyer reflects on her first year of practice, and on the journey of learning.
“Learn well when young. When old, you will not have a second chance.”
This was the parting advice given to me by my former employer when I left his firm. I was only freshly called to the Bar at that time. That line encapsulates the importance of learning for junior members of the Bar like myself. For what we learn in these “formation years” would become the building blocks for our practice in years to come.
What then are the foundations that we need to build for ourselves as young lawyers?
There are the “hard” skills — the legal skills like drafting, research, advocacy, knowledge of the law — and the “soft” skills — including how to handle clients, and how to work in a team.
What would be the ideal ingredients for learning well?
At the forefront is attitude.
To learn well, a young lawyer needs to be industrious, be keen to learn and improve, and have humility and perseverance. Attitude does indeed determine altitude — how high you can go in the field.
Linked to humility and perseverance is the ability to take pains. Among others, the pain of being reprimanded when we commit errors — often, especially in the case of litigation lawyers, this involves more than a mere comment or telling-off. There may be profanities involved, you may come out feeling like a useless mortal, you may question whether you’re suited to the profession. But there is credit to this form of training. After all, not all judges are nice and pleasant folk. And if you can’t defend your work and ideas before your senior and take blows from him/her, would you be able to defend your case in open Court and take similar blows before a Judge?
This form of training may be harsh and may not be pleasant. But then again, there are advantages to being told off on the spot of your misgivings. To me at least, one of the ingredients to learning well, is timely and direct feedback. For one, I prefer seniors to tell me off straight to my face when I commit an error so that I know exactly what went wrong and can instantly learn from my mistake. I shun general comments which do not pinpoint instances of shortcomings, especially those given a considerable amount of time down the line. But that’s just me. Maybe I’m too dim for innuendos.
So the young lawyer him/herself plays a pivotal role in his/her learning process. But so too does the environment in which he/she practices, to some extent.
Does he/she have access to the necessary tools to aid his/her learning?
For example, does the firm have a decent library? I think a good library would be necessary to hone one’s research skills. With the advent of online research, we’re supposed to be able to get answers at the click of a mouse. But do we? What if the online search casts too wide a net and returns too many hits? Surely it isn’t time-efficient to go through countless irrelevant cases.
And what if, as a new kid on the block, I’m so clueless about that area of the law that I don’t even know what are the right keywords to enter?
Does the firm have the relevant textbook for my preliminary reading or Halsbury’s Laws of Malaysia? I for one advocate starting off most research tasks with hard-copy research to familiarise oneself with the area of law. Good textbooks would also have categorised the subject matter into convenient chapters so you may even be able to quickly find your answer from there. Failing which, now having a better “feel” of the subject matter, you know what keywords to enter into the online search engine to find your answer from there. Having more knowledge of the subject matter, you are also more able to filter off the irrelevant material from the relevant and more quickly and efficiently find your answer.
Also key to conducive learning is the culture of the firm at which one practices.
Does the firm have a culture of training its people? How important is training to the firm?
How does the firm view its young lawyers? Are they merely tools to get the work done? Or are they human assets which the seniors seek to groom and nurture into decent lawyers in their own names and hopefully, one day, their fellow partners or successors? The firm’s approach would determine the form and amount of guidance provided to its young lawyers, how (and if any) feedback is given and what tools and support (human and otherwise) they provide to their young lawyers to assist in their work. This would in turn hugely influence the young lawyer’s learning curve and method of learning — be it learning by example and observation or largely trial and error.
That said, one’s environment only affects one’s learning to a certain degree. The young lawyer’s own attitude, perseverance and resourcefulness would be the chief determinants, although a good environment would lend the young lawyer marked advantage over his/her peers.
My first year in practice has been a roller-coaster ride, and I have learned considerably.
Yet there is still so so much to learn.
I wish the best of luck to my fellow young lawyers.
To the senior lawyers who have taken the time to read this article, and perhaps even given it some thought, I thank you.
Mun Wei has just stepped into her second year in practice as a litigation lawyer at a KL-based firm. She’s currently seeking out the elusive concept of work-life balance whilst working on being good at what she does.