Speech by Brendan Navin Siva at the Ethics and Professional Standards Course Luncheon that took place on 16 June 2011

Make your dreams happen. | Source: flickr.com/cdevers

The last time I gave a talk at the Ethics luncheon was exactly one year ago — I delivered the June 2010 luncheon talk. A transcript of that speech was published in LoyarBurok in June 2010 and in Praxis in the first quarter of 2011. Google the words “Of Sunscreen, Blackberries and Successful Lawyers” and you will find it on the internet.

Most of what I said then is still applicable now. So please try to get it and see whether there is anything useful there for you. Back then, I spoke about 10 specific things that I believed you ought to work on to make yourselves a good lawyer. But nothing I said there should be taken as absolute truths and nothing I say today should be taken as absolute truths – they are just my views and my perspective – it may be useful to you or it may not – that is entirely up to you.

Today I want to speak more generally about success and successful lawyers.

Throughout my very short career as a lawyer, I have witnessed and observed many lawyers come and go. Some excel, some don’t.

Some excel from the very beginning while others take a bit of time to get on their feet. I have seen some pupils come in on the first day as accomplished individuals with the right attitude and I have seen some pupils take 9 months to gradually learn how to be an accomplished lawyer.

I have also seen individuals who spend 1 or 2 years floundering and wandering aimlessly until one day a spark lights up in them and they suddenly transform into accomplished lawyers.

Sadly, I have also seen many who never actually make it at all. Many leave the profession too early before they hit their stride or before they have had the opportunity to become good lawyers.

Why do some people start off as accomplished lawyers and others take time? Why is it that some people suddenly blossom into good lawyers? There is no clear answer to these questions. And there isn’t one single piece of advice I can give you today that will trigger an inner awakening in you and transform you into an accomplished and successful lawyer.

It is all about you.

Success in law is yours for the taking. But YOU must want to succeed. And you must first realize that success doesn’t come to the guy by the side of the road waiting for something to happen. It comes to the guy who is out there looking for it. Success does not come knocking on your door and waits for you to answer. It comes to the guy who is first in line at the door.

The trigger point is when you realize and accept that what YOU become in life and how successful YOU become is mainly dependent on what YOU do and how much work and time YOU are prepared to put into achieving success. Are YOU willing to do what the average person is not willing to do? Are YOU willing to put in the excruciatingly long hours to gain the knowledge and experience required to succeed in law? Are YOU willing to put in the extra hours to learn more about a particular area of law than any other lawyer? Are YOU willing to put in the time to learn how to market yourself professionally? Are YOU willing to put in the extra effort to speak eloquently and write well?

When you are ready to say yes to those questions, then I believe you are on the right track.

These are not just questions for a young lawyer or pupil. I still ask myself these questions. Every lawyer must keep asking himself or herself these questions. The most successful lawyers in this country and in the world are not relaxing at home on the weekends – they are working hard. I know the top 5 litigators and the top 5 corporate lawyers in Malaysia – they have worked very hard to get where they are today and they continue to work hard every day.

Some of you have already asked yourselves this question. That is why you are already on the right track. What is the right track?

From my perspective, when I see a pupil spend hours on a piece of research and is able to come back to me with an answer and is able to defend that answer and argue with me on the merits of that answer, he or she is on the right track.

When a lawyer can speak to me or to a judicial officer or to a client in a manner and in a tone that exudes confidence and assures me that he or she knows the law and can persuade me that her solution or understanding of the law is the correct one, he or she is on the right track.

When a young lawyer is able to follow me for meetings with clients and is able thereafter to deal with the client and answer the client’s queries, he or she is on the right track.

When a lawyer can come up to me and tell me she would like to attend this conference or that seminar or that she would like the firm to buy this book or that book because it will enhance her knowledge in a particular area of law and this would benefit the law firm, that person is on the right track.

In short, you are on the right track if you conduct yourself as a LAWYER and not as an employee. What do I mean by this?

In your first few years, most of you will probably be an employee – a legal assistant – someone who assists the partner or senior lawyer to generate fees for the law firm. But eventually you will have to be the FEE EARNER – the person who the client comes to and gives a brief to and is prepared to pay fees to do his brief. Accept this fact as reality – a successful lawyer is a FEE EARNER – someone that clients WANT to engage to do their work – not because of the name of the law firm or the name of some other person in your law firm. They want to engage YOU.

You must work out from Day One what needs to be done to become a FEE EARNER – again, I repeat – someone that clients WANT to engage – What differentiates you from any other lawyer? What level of service can you provide that the person sitting next to you now cannot provide? Focus on this. Focus on being a FEE Earner – a good lawyer that clients want to engage.

Don’t focus on your bonus for this year or why your room is so small or why that other lawyer in your firm is doing less work than you but earning more than you or why you have to do more mentions than that other lawyer.

Don’t complain about how much the firm is using you, focus on how much you can use the firm as a platform for you to become a fee earner.

A person on the right track will equip themselves with the knowledge and the ability to be a strong FEE Earner. A strong Fee Earner can go out on his own and start his own legal practice or join another law firm and be a successful lawyer. He is not beholden or dependent on the law firm. The law firm is dependent on him or her. The law firm will want to make you a partner.

When you are on the right track, I assure you that there will be many many different options and opportunities that will come your way, all of which promise, and carry the potential for, success. But first you must ask yourself at this point in time – as you are just about to embark on your career – Are YOU prepared to INVEST in yourself?

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

4 replies on “Success In Law: Yours For The Taking”

  1. i agree with you. i am now at my final month of chambering in kuching. and the most important thing that i learnt i that YOU YOURSELF has to have the initiative to learn. willing to do anything.. from photocopying, doing bundles, driving to court to do file search, willing to go and do filings, prepare SIC, affidavits, witness statements..

    if ur master dont ask u to do it.. you go and offer yourself to go and do it.. a lazy man can never be successful.. it is about the initiative, the will and the PASSION for what you are doing.. and i tell you.. I LOVE BEING A LAWYER

  2. Dear Brendan, excellent talk. Please give more of them so we can publish it. This is what alot of lawyers need to understand.

  3. It's starts with YOU! in anything you do =)

    Too often we all cruise control thru life…..!

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