Invaluable tips from Lee Shih, a loyal minion of Lord Bobo, and one of the hottest lawyers in Malaysia.
As I slowly inch towards the 10-year mark of my practice in law, I wanted to share the 10 things I wish I’d known earlier as a young lawyer. Some of them are lessons imparted on to me, but which I may not have fully realised how useful they would be at that time. Others are drawn from best practices I have observed from others.
1. Importance of Good English
The practice of law will require a good command of English. English is the global language of commerce and forms the bedrock of contracts and business.
Very much like how the carpenter must have his box of essential tools, English is the essential tool that every lawyer must have.
For those of you who feel that you need to brush up and strengthen your English, you must persevere in reading and working on your English. But even for those who feel that you are strong in English, there is always room for improving and honing
I still continue to hone my tool of my trade — my command of English. For example, I source out books on how to write more effectively in the practice of law. Whether it is using simple but more effective drafting language in contracts, or in writing and structuring more persuasive written submissions, there is always room to improve.
2. Read Widely
You must read as widely as possible. I make it a habit to read the weekly or bi-weekly issues of all MLJ, AMR and CLJ issues as they come out, whether electronically or in the hard copy format. At the very least, I scan through the contents page and then read through all the headnotes and summary of the ratio decidendi of all the cases. Where cases are directly relevant to my practice area, I then read the entire case.
I also supplement it by reading the Weekly Law Review, the Singapore Law Reports, as well as the Law Quarterly Review. I read through online legal resources like other law firm newsletters (they provide good summaries of latest developments) and legal blogs.
By reading widely, I find that it helps me maintain a grasp on how the law is developing, not just in Malaysia, but in other jurisdictions. It keeps my finger on the pulse of legal developments. I may not be able to do in-depth reading of every single case but I have an overall picture of where the cases are going, especially in areas which I am interested in. Academic articles help to summarise where the law is and to argue where the law should head towards.
This was said to me when I started out practice and this has proven true, time and time again: Everything that you learn and read will never go to waste in your legal practice. It may not be directly applicable to any of your ongoing cases but sometime down the line, there will be a brief or an opinion you have to work on where you will draw on that knowledge of that obscure case you happened to have flipped through in the library months or years ago.
3. Store Your Knowledge
What do you do with all this constant information you are (hopefully) absorbing? Your memory has its limits. You should devise an electronic system to file away and store away everything you are reading and coming across.
I distill and store away all the cases, the relevant submissions, sample cause papers, academic articles and news reports into what I title my ‘Precedent Folder.’ This is an invaluable collection of information and is often my first-stop whenever I have a new brief or I need to do research. I give as much detail in the name of the file and the name of my sub-folders so that at a glance, I will know what the case, sample precedent or submission is about without having to actually open that file on the computer.
4. Embrace Technology
With email communications and the smartphone being permanent fixtures in the corporate world, lawyers will have to meet the demands of their corporate clients by being ready to answer these emails at any time, if necessary. So for example, if you are not willing to be a lawyer who can be contacted by your client through email for urgent matters outside working hours, then there will be several others lawyers willing to provide that level of service to the client.
Aside from just smartphones, lawyers will have to then do their best to harness and embrace technology.
Here is just a taster of the things I do in my every day practice. I use the outdated but still useful Google Desktop search engine to search through my Precedent Folder to access my treasure trove of information. I then sync my Precedent Folder using Dropbox so that I have immediate access to it on my iPhone and iPad. I use Feedly as my cloud RSS reader so that I can also pull together more reading material from legal blogs and legal websites to read regularly.
I try to condition myself to work off electronic copies of documents as far as possible and I scan every letter, document, submission and case zealously, so that I have an electronic copy.
5. Gaining Commercial Knowledge
Another lesson imparted on to me quite early on in practice was the importance of gaining commercial knowledge.
If you practice in any area with a corporate or commercial element, you must be able to have an understanding of the overall corporate environment. You are ultimately a service provider to your client and you must be able to understand the business or business environment of your client. We cannot advise on the law on just mere legal principles without taking into account the client’s commercial considerations.
Start off with regularly reading the business sections of the mainstream newspapers. Start cultivating the habit of reading The Edge cover-to-cover. I still find that a bit heavy going but I still persevere. Tune in regularly to BFM and listen in to their interviews. Read the Bursa Company Announcements, especially if your work relates to any public-listed entities. Instead of tuning in Hitz.fm on your morning drive, listen off and on to BFM’s Breakfast Grille instead.
Let me highlight a story. I was driving to a client lunch and there would be many representatives from different companies. I happened to listen to BFM and there was an interesting interview featuring IBM Malaysia. Once I arrived at my table for the lunch, I happened to be seated next to two IBM executives. I immediately had a topic to break the ice with and I brought up the BFM interview I just heard and we then got to speak more about IBM Malaysia’s business direction.
6. Do the Write Thing
Try to write and to write regularly. By that I mean by contributing articles to publications such as your firm’s newsletter, your local Bar publication or Malaysian Bar’s Praxis.
LoyarBurok is an excellent platform to put your views across. Or start up your own blog and put up your articles (Editor’s Note: It should be pointed out that starting up your own blog is greatly frowned upon and will probably result in irreversible ill-fortune — unless of course you also publish those articles on this most awesome blawg).
It helps to build up your profile and helps to build your reputation of being well-versed in an area.
7. Be Prepared to Work Hard
In your first few years of practice, be prepared to work hard. Treat those long hours and potentially longer days as an investment for the rest of your legal career. Everything that you are learning, the hours spent honing your skills, is like filling up a reservoir. You will then be able to draw on all the knowledge in this reservoir during the later years of your legal career.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers spoke about the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gladwell claimed that one of the keys to success in any field is, to a large extent, the need to practice a specific task for a total of 10,000 hours. He used the examples of the Beatles and Bill Gates. The Beatles had performed more than 1,000 times in Germany, amassing 10,000 hours of playing time, before they exploded on the global scene with their music. In an age where there were hardly any mainstream computers, Bill Gates had access to a high school computer and where he used it every day to practice his programming, spending thousands of hours on it.
In a simplified form, that is what all of us are doing by working hard at the start of our practice. We are investing and spending a significant amount of time to better hone the talent that we have. For me, I am still filling up my 10,000-hour reservoir, hour by hour, day by day.
8. Work Hard, Play Hard
It is important to find time outside of just practicing law. Pursue your interests, be involved in organisations, play sports and travel the world.
I juggle my legal career with paddling with the KL Barbarians dragon boat team. They are like my family and in my team mates, I have made life-long friends.
It is a discipline to manage your time at work in order to have time to do these things outside of work. So even taking holidays requires the discipline for you to block off the dates well in advance and ensuring your work schedule will allow for it.
9. Find Your Passion
At the 50th reunion of the Harvard Business School’s Class of 1963, the class members were asked to share their advice to future generations. In speaking about their advice on careers, the frequent message that kept cropping up was the importance of finding your passion.
A legal career will be demanding and will require long hours and hard work. All of that becomes that much more bearable if you enjoy the practice of law.
10. The Significance of the Malaysian Bar
It is unfortunate that the true significance of being a member of the Malaysian Bar only dawned on me after several years of practice. The Malaysian Bar has duties, similar to the duties of Bar organisations from other countries, to take steps such as to improve the standards of the legal profession in Malaysia or to protect and assist the public.
But our legal profession is in a way quite unique. Section 42(1)(a) of the Legal Profession Act 1976 imposes a specific duty on the Malaysian Bar as a whole, and on to each member, to uphold the cause of justice, without regard to its own interest or that of its members, uninfluenced by fear or favour. I view this is one of the most important, if not the most important, duty imposed on each of us as a member of the Malaysian Bar.
The Malaysian Bar has time and time again shouldered this onerous duty to continue to speak out against injustice. During the Walk for Justice for example, it was the lawyers who marched to speak out against the video clip which appeared to show a senior lawyer brokering the appointment and promotion of judges. This was in the face of the inaction by the relevant authorities to investigate the video clip. Even as we forge ahead with our legal career, we must look back on the many achievements and traditions of the Malaysian Bar.
I hope that the above 10 things help to shape your legal career and to start you off on the right track. I end with a list of recommended further reading.
- Highly recommended books by Bryan Garner: The Winning Brief and Making Your Case (and all of his other books as well).
- Kenneth Adams’ A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting.
- Kehakiman website for the latest unreported Malaysian appellate authorities.
- UK Supreme Court for recent Supreme Court decisions and the useful Press Summaries.
- LoyarBurok for legal-related posts and current affairs.
- Modern Advocacy Perspectives from Singapore — an excellent book. Each chapter is written by a Senior Counsel to shed their thoughts and tips on the litigation process.
- Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury: Greatest Closing Arguments in Modern Law — in particular, the closing argument for the Nuremberg trial is awe-inspiring.
- The Practice of Law — a Singapore book but I would recommend this to all law students and young lawyers out there for an insight into the different areas of law in practice.
- Foong Cheng Leong’s All Lawyers Should Have an iPad.
- Jason Kay’s Firing Up Your Legal Practice with the iPad.
- Inbox Zero — to manage your overflowing inbox.
Gaining Commercial Knowledge
- The Edge Malaysia.
- Jane Lazar’s Accounting and Finance for Non-Accountants — how I taught myself to read a balance sheet.
- Andrew Ross’ Too Big to Fail — a fascinating blow-by-blow account on the global financial crisis.
Significance of the Malaysian Bar
Other recommended reading
- Brendan Siva’s Of Sunscreen, Blackberries and Successful Lawyers.