Lim Wei Jiet‘s must-read for those embarking on a legal career.
As fate would have it, you were offered a spot. You have heard the cliché horror stories from seniors, ranging from satanic masters to zombie-like working hours. Generic tips like “keep an open mind”, “don’t give up” and “stay humble” get thrown about. But when it comes to the crunch, how would these nebulous concepts fit into a work ethic to achieve nothing less than a meaningful pupillage?
What do I mean by a “meaningful pupillage”? Either one of two things:
My experience spans a measly 7 months into my pupillage journey, but I humbly believe that the 7 tips I have picked along the way would prove useful for people who have similar goals as myself. The only caveat here is that these tips mostly stem from my experience at a small firm practicing civil litigation, although I don’t see why it cannot be applicable generally.
(1) Master the art of research
Let’s face it — the crux of what is expected of a pupil is to scour the entire stretch of the universe for cases to support your boss’ legal arguments, which can range from the extremely specific to the erm… wildly imaginative. Often, this endeavour can be both confusing and frustrating. Your firm might lack sufficient library materials or maybe LexisNexis just seems like communicating in Dothraki for you.
A robot can do transcribing and translation — it is the quality of your research that is the most valuable skill your law firm takes cognisance of. Many people assume what is taught in law school is enough. I was one of those individuals who employed the most caveman methods of research, until a survey of my colleagues revealed how foolish I was.
The truth is that a comprehensive and effective legal research is both a science and an art that must be continuously honed.
It is a science because the connectors used in online legal research can make a huge difference. How can terms like “W/25”, “NOT W/seg” or “defam!” refine your research in LexisNexis? It is an art because you have to plan your strategy in employing the correct search phrases, yet creative enough to replace them once you hit a roadblock with proper synonyms.
Never hesitate to ask around for research tips from your colleagues. Google on how LexisNexis and Westlaw can utilised to its maximum potential. A good book on this topic is Malaysian Litigation Practice Guide by Gopal Sreenevasan and Nahendran Navaratnam.
Once you execute the right tools, legal research no longer becomes a chore. In fact, it can be a highly fulfilling experience to hunt for jewels among a sea of irrelevant data and a great way to display your resourcefulness.
Don fancy suits and a posh British accent for all you like, but no employer would hire anyone who has poor technical competency.
(2) Present your work in a professional manner
So you get all pumped up — you found the exact cases asked for on contract law. As you amble into the room, the partner sidetracks and asks you an unexpected question on a bankruptcy file. You fumble because you haven’t really worked on that yet. Flustered with embarrassment, you then try to brief the partner on the contract cases but stammer badly as you try to figure out your own handwriting. Halfway, your partner says he gets your point, then shifts his eyes back to the computer. You walk out, partially contemplating whether to jump out of the window.
The reality of modern law firm partners is that they simply don’t get to interact with pupils as often as you would like. These daily 3-5 minutes whereby the pupil orally briefs the partner on whatever task assigned are decisive moments for to judge your clarity of thought, speaking abilities and even character.
First, always write down or type clearly what you have collated. Make a table if necessary for easy reference. Bold or highlight the key takeaway phrases for easy detection.
Second, structure in your head beforehand how you are best going to explain your findings. Should you explain the cases on skinny-labelling for drugs in the UK in chronological order, or would the recent position suffice? Have you formulated a conclusion on child custody in family law, or are you only going to annoy your boss with such indecisiveness later?
The same goes for your written work. While law firms have templates for almost every document, your supervisor is always looking out for that spark of writing maturity — the ability to present complex legal theories into a comprehensible, structured and persuasive manner. There is no other way than to practice, practice, and practice.
The ability to present your thoughts clearly and persuasively is a skill that sets you apart from others. Partners need to be confident that you can represent the good name of the firm and be an impactful advocate befitting your master’s reputation in the future.
Remember — in law, as in life, manner is as important as matter.
(3) Practice the “3 steps ahead” rule
“Remember to fill up the Minutes of the Case Management just now”. “Have you sent out the Notice to the AG’s Chambers?”. “Oh, you didn’t write down the names of the lawyers from the other side?”.
Law school focuses a lot on the substantive aspect of the law, but the same cannot be said in manoeuvring the labyrinth of procedures in legal practice. Most of the time, pupils will only budge in tandem with the instructions given by associates and partners. This may be understandable in the beginning, but there will come a point where you honestly do not want to be portrayed as a person who needs constant baby-sitting and micro-managing.
I find it beneficial to try taking the bull by the horns. Ascertain what needs to be done 3 steps ahead. For instance, before you hand in your draft for an affidavit in support of a judicial review, simply find out what you should do at least 3 steps ahead. Hence, the immediate step would be to translate it into Bahasa Malaysia. This is followed by drafting a Statement and an Application. After that, everything needs to be served to the Court. Even if the partner does not require you to execute the above steps, at least you won’t get caught with that clueless greenhorn expression.
The go-to persons for this are the Legal Associates and secretaries of the firm — most would gladly help a pupil out. For litigation, always refer back to the Rules of Court 2012 which lays down in detail the necessary court procedures. If you are unsure, call the Court officials, Land Office or relevant public bodies for guidance.
You are no longer a sheep. Be proactive and take ownership. Prove that you exhibit traits of a lawyer whom the partner can trust to handle his own files.
Show that you can function independently.
(4) Always, always go the extra mile in learning
Even the most senior practitioners will testify that they never fail to learn something new every day of their working lives. You would, in all probability, not be on par with your bosses yet in terms of knowledge. But what you can impress upon is the desire to acquire knowledge.
If you belong to BigLaw, you would have the advantage of attending numerous internal workshops or reading updates from firm newsletters. If you are from small or medium sized firms, you just have to be a little more creative when it comes to exposure.
For one, never shy away from requesting to attend meetings, negotiations or court hearings — the fact that your boss doesn’t ask you does not mean he would prefer you not to be there, it might just be a slip of the mind. There is no harm to ask if you can come along; even if you do get rejected, people will always take a mental note of your eagerness and enthusiasm.
In litigation, I find it helpful to continue sitting in after a court hearing whenever there is an interesting case scheduled later or where other senior counsel are about to be in action. It is always a learning curve to observe how lawyers interact with each other in court, the different styles of advocacy or even the subtle inclinations of judges when presiding a case.
Further, the Bar Council conducts continuing professional development courses on multiple areas of law throughout the year. Also, if you are practicing corporate law, do yourself a favour by tuning in to stations like BFM 89.9 instead of listening to annoying prank calls on your way to work.
Do not get sunk in the abyss of a repetitive and mundane work pace. Keep your eyes on the bigger picture. This is reciprocated by the basic human psychology to develop a liking towards a person who is eager and who constantly strives to improve.
Prove that you can grow into someone your boss can look up to in the next 5 years.
(5) Keep yourself organised!
Trust me, all the above cannot be carried out effectively if you don’t keep track of what needs to be done in the firm.
A typical litigation firm has multifarious deadlines cross-cutting from a variety of files that need to be complied with. In the first few months of pupillage, I tend to forget certain tasks that need completion. Sometimes, I underestimated my workload in promising to research an important appeal matter when I was supposed to finish three different reports concurrently.
First, get yourself a decent diary. Better, have an online diary which you can access anywhere and can also be shared among your colleagues. Google Calendar is a good place to start.
Second, whenever a partner or associate requests a task to be done, write it down. By writing it down, I mean writing what needs to be done in totality and comprehensively, not indecipherable scribbles which you think you can extrapolate but regrettably won’t later on. Again, it helps to put everything online via platforms like Dropbox or Google Docs.
Are cases at risk of getting thrown out on a missed deadline if the partner puts you in charge? Will he hand over a major client’s file when you seem to lose composure every time during the peak period of the year?
The question you need to ask at the end of the day — can they trust you?
(6) Build a connection with your bosses and fellow friends at the Bar
In the wee hours of one morning, a partner and I were in his car for a case down South. Naturally, it was a little awkward and me being sort of an introvert did not help. But I mustered the courage and well, started communicating. It turned out to be one of the best rides ever — what his kids wanted to study, why he left one area of practice to another, etc. These snippets of life stories that gets sieved out from experienced practitioners can be such valuable nuggets of wisdom to apply in practice.
Communication cannot be a one-way street — be smart enough to respond with your own opinions and stories. Read up on the latest development of the law, politics and society as these facts serve as the foundation for maturity of thought among the legal community. Having said that, don’t be one-dimensional — never hesitate to dwell into pop-culture, movies, sports and the like. I swear that even the most senior of lawyers are not alien (in fact, many are die-hard fans) to Game of Thrones, Avengers or Selena Gomez.
Strip the high-flying robes aside, and your bosses and colleagues are just as human as you are. They like a good laugh over coffee, they like to talk about that YouTube video they watched last night and they would want to know where you fit in into the kaleidoscope of society.
Connect to make them realise that you are much more than just another subordinate.
(7) Find your passion
There will be times when you’re stuck at 11.00 pm alone in the office cursing at an inanimate object (the printer) because you never handled an A3 paper before in your life. Or maybe you’ll have to skip a Sunday getaway with your friends which was planned long ago because you had to be Igor to your Frankensteinish partner for a case on Monday morning.
These unsexy realities which dismantle the Suits and Boston Legal facade of the legal profession will make you question: “What in goddamn seven hells am I doing here? Is it worth committing to this line of work for the next 3, 5, 10 years?”
Dig deeper, and the main question you should ask is — what drives you?
Is it the thrill of a crossing wits and ingenious strategies in courtroom? Or does submerging into the depths of legal research give you that irreplaceable intellectual orgasm? Maybe the profound fact that you are actually making a difference in someone’s life?
Request your law firm to rotate you into different departments. Mingle with other pupils to know what options you are missing out on. Never back down on asking what makes legal practitioners tick.
And you know what — it is okay if you don’t know what your passion is yet at the end of nine months. It is okay if you hate waiting in court for hours, or detest due diligence — by all means, quit legal practice. That’s the whole point of pupillage. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be bold in exploring the different dimensions of what the legal profession can offer first.
In a profession as demanding as law, one can never over-emphasise how paramount passion is. If anything, the search for what area of law one is passionate about and has the stamina to pursue in the long-term should be the main goal of pupillage.
Because at the end of it all, it is no longer your superiors but you yourself that needs the convincing to conclude whether your pupillage has had any significance at this phase of life.
I truly believe these nine months are nothing short of transformative to a person’s life — hopefully my experience narrated here, potentially infused with an overdose of naivety, would nonetheless prove useful navigation for some of the many fresh graduates out there.