First-year lawyer Elaine Chin shares some of the things she has learnt in her brief legal career.
Pitter patter, pitter patter; the sound of the raindrops against my window. It’s rather rare to have that moment when you have the chance to sit down and just listen to sounds surrounding you — three-quarters of our time is spent running from one place to another, chasing deadlines, our noses no longer buried in just books, but also buried in our electronic devices.
Having the chance to sit down and listen to the sound of the rain and think about life is indeed a great blessing. It is during one of these rare moments of calmness and serenity that my mind drifted, and I realised that in less than a week it would be six months since the day I was admitted to the High Court of Malaya as an Advocate and Solicitor.
Anyone who says that a legal career is easy has obviously never had a day in practice; their perception of legal practice is probably based on what they’ve seen when they plop their feet up on the sofa, turn on the television and enjoy another episode of Ally McBeal — or Suits for the younger generation, and perhaps some even grew up idolising Elle Woods of Legally Blonde! Well, well, well, the party is over kids, and it’s time for a reality check.
Practice as a young lawyer is nowhere near what Hollywood portrays it to be; it’s a pretty scary world out there.
As I sat there listening to the raindrops, I thought about some practical things I wish I knew before I started practice:
1. What you learn in law school is rubbish.
WAIT, WHAT?! Are you telling me that whatever I learned in law school is not going to make me Harvey Specter one day?! And all those hours I spent locked in my room doing assignments, trying to eat up my law textbooks just before exams, and those hours sitting through lectures like European Law won’t be useful in practice as a young lawyer?! I could have spent those hours sleeping, shopping, and for all those late nights I spent burning the midnight oil, I could have gone out and partied every single night?!
Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little — not everything you learn in law school is rubbish.
We clearly went through law school with the expectation that once we graduated, we would start practice, and we would apply what we learned in those three or four years.
However, in the past 15 months (nine months of pupillage and six months of being a fully-fledged lawyer), I have learned that law school (I obtained my degree from a UK university, and did the Bar Professional Training Course in the UK as well) clearly didn’t teach me very much about things I needed to know to be prepared for life as a lawyer.
I have come to realise that your actual learning curve starts on your first day at work. For the past 15 months — and perhaps mostly in the most recent six months following pupillage — I have learned something new every day, and I am very confident that I will continue learning throughout my years in practice.
2. Client management skills are crucial to life as a lawyer.
I wish we had a module called “How to deal with difficult clients” in law school, but sadly we didn’t. Truth be told there are a lot — I repeat, A LOT — of weird and difficult people out there in the world, but there are also the extremely nice ones whom you would go the extra mile to help.
Let’s be honest, without clients us lawyers would be jobless, and probably selling DVDs in Petaling Street (then again, those guys probably earn more than a first year Associate!).
I will always remember the first time I had to deal with a client. It was my first week as a lawyer (having completed my pupillage), the phone rings and oh boy, someone was clearly not happy. In short, I got shouted at for some unjustifiable reason. Normal reaction — shout back la! Well that could probably have resulted in me sitting in front of the disciplinary board in Wisma MARAN. Back to this screaming client of mine, I took advantage of me being a girl in that situation. In a very sweet and calm voice, I managed to make him cool down and explained to him what was going on. Clearly it worked because not only did he calm down, but it made our dealings with him so much easier. We faced some sticky situations during the course of his transaction, but because I had built a trusting relationship from the very beginning, we managed to smooth over any problems with the minimum fuss. This client actually told me that he is not someone who trusts people — “But Elaine because it’s you; I trust that you will be able to solve this problem for me” — imagine how happy I was to hear that!
Don’t take my point about me using the fact that I am girl to my advantage in a wrong way. Obviously, you should never compromise your moral values when dealing with clients just so you can close the deal or something along those lines. What I am trying to say is that a lawyer should always build a trusting relationship with the client from the very beginning. Be nice to them, hear them out, talk to them and help them, but of course you also have to be firm with them sometimes when they demand too much.
Treat your clients with respect and if they like you, they’ll recommend you to their friends and that’s how you build your client network which is one of the key essentials of your career as a lawyer.
After having to deal directly with clients of various personality types in the past six months, I now realise that law school did not teach me anything about client management skills, which are so important in legal practice. Perhaps these skills are not something that law school can teach, rather it’s a skill that you have to learn on your own. I do wish that someone had told me that being a lawyer meant having to regularly deal with crazy people (not just clients, but other lawyers too)!
3. A modern lawyer has to understand business and commerce, not just the law.
I wish someone had told me while I was still in law school that diligently waking up for an 8.00 a.m. Contract Lecture, 9.00 a.m. Company Law lecture, or walking about 5 km to some unknown part of campus for Revenue Law lectures would not make me commercially sound when I started legal practice.
If I had known this back then, I wouldn’t have dragged myself out of bed for that 9.00 a.m. Company Law lecture one particular Monday morning, drawing super thick eyeliner so that no one would notice how swollen my eyes were because I had just spent the previous night crying my eyes out watching PS I Love You. I remember waking up that morning and dragging myself to that lecture because I thought that it would be of use to me one day when I started practice. DID I JUST WASTE ALL OF THAT TIME AGAIN?!
I wish someone had told me to tune in to The Breakfast Grille on BFM instead of listening to gotcha calls every morning.
I wish someone had told me to read The Edge from time to time instead of spending my summer in third year reading the Fifty Shades trilogy.
I’m not saying that if I had done the above, I would have been an excellent corporate lawyer when I started practice, but I would certainly have been better prepared. If I listened to BFM or read The Edge instead of the Daily Mail once in a while, I definitely would not have been as clueless as I was when bombarded with all those commercial terms when I started practice. I am not saying that just because you’re in law school you have to be a nerd but really, I think I would have benefited more from watching the BBC than Keeping up with the Kardashians!
4. Really think it through before choosing a firm to do your pupillage, or to start your career as a lawyer.
(i) Choosing a firm to do your pupillage.
Most law graduates have this perception that, if we do our pupillage in a big well-renowned firm, we would be exposed to bigger transactions, bigger clients, and it would look good on our resumes. Well, who I am to judge, because I fell into that same trap myself. I did my pupillage at the biggest firm in the country.
If I could turn back time, I would definitely pick a small firm.
It’s true that big firms handle big transactions and big clients. But the reality is that, as a pupil in a big firm, you firstly have to fight to be on the team dealing with those big transactions, and even then all you usually get to do is extract information for a due diligence exercise (basically, data entry) and maybe some minor research.
At the conclusion of my nine-month pupillage in a big firm, sure, I could say that I was involved in some big transactions — and of course, I have had some experiences which have helped me along the way in practice — but really at the end of the day, my exposure and experience was very minimal compared to those who had the foresight and long-term career vision to choose to spend their pupillage in a small or medium-sized firm.
(ii) Choosing a firm to kick-start your legal career.
The nine-month pupillage is one thing — starting life as a fully-fledged lawyer is when your existence and identity as a lawyer really starts.
I am going to be brutally honest and admit that when my pupillage was over, and I was choosing a firm to start life as a lawyer, the main factors that I looked at was the remuneration package and the size of the firm. Looking back now, it really seemed like I still hadn’t learnt my lesson, having spent nine months in a big law firm. So I started my existence as a lawyer in yet another one of the biggest firms in Malaysia.
Fortunately, I did finally learn my lesson that at the end of the day, working in a big firm was not for me. There is only so far that the prestige of working in a big firm could take me.
I now realise that there is no point in getting a big fat pay cheque every month if you have zero job satisfaction. What’s the point of earning a lot of money, but at the end of the day, you’re not growing in your career and as a person, and job satisfaction seems to be an alien concept?
I wish someone would have advised me when I was choosing a firm that I should take the time to research the firm and the partners, speak to my peers who are or have been in the firm, and ideally do an internship with the firm while I was still a law student.
I wish someone had told me that the biggest law firms aren’t always the places which offer the best training and exposure during pupillage, and that putting money and prestige at the top of my list was very short-sighted.
Your work environment can really make you or break you — but that perhaps is a story for another article.
5. Support staff are just as important as partners and lawyers.
During my pupillage, a fellow pupil said something that really struck me. He was new at that time, and it had become a tradition for us to talk to the newbies and give them a heads up on the people in the firm. We told him that it was important to not only build a good rapport with his pupil-master, but also with the firm’s staff and most importantly your pupil-master’s secretary. His response shocked me. He said, “but she’s only the secretary, why should I bother?”
One of the things I have learned since starting my career is that the firm’s support staff are as important as the partners and associates. They are the ones who run the show behind the scenes. They are much more experienced than us junior lawyers.
Law graduates should be careful not to think we are high and mighty just because we have gone through law school and possess the title “lawyer” — remember that the firm’s staff have more experience than you, and you should respect them the way you respect your superiors. There is potentially so much for us to learn from the support staff, and it wouldn’t kill you to be nice to them.
Elaine wishes to expressly state that these are solely her views, and obviously everyone goes through different experiences in their career. Elaine now works in a small law firm, having decided to leave the second big law firm she joined.