“After five years of practice, I don’t want to do anymore lower court work, man. It will be High Court and above only,” said my friend when we hung out in the court corridors of the Kuala Lumpur courts when they were located at Jalan Raja. He was in a well known corporate litigation set. I was in my father’s firm doing debt collection. We were second year lawyers.
“I only want to do big money matters.” he said. “I don’t want to waste time with the small stuff.”
I nodded along. “I can see the appeal of that. Pun intended.”
After all, weren’t those the ambitions of an ambitious lawyer – onwards and upwards, bigger money, more important cases, rich and famous clients? It seemed as if it was the aspiration of most lawyers then, and the only aspiration worth having. It still seems to be. It explains to me why lawyers (both junior and senior) take particular care to type out the disputed amount or humble brag how close they were to an important legal decision/moment/opportunity on their social media, or wherever they can really. My sense of it is the presence of a lot of money or an important decision has a “halo effect” on lawyers. It makes it seem as if the work is complex, sophisticated and big money, and the lawyers working on it hard working, intelligent, etc. And if you can associate yourself with it on social media there’s every chance of you reflecting some of that halo glow.
Whilst I understood his sentiment, the fullness of that ambition sat uneasily and awkwardly with me. Back then, I wasn’t fussy. I was happy and keen to take on any kind of work. I gave myself at least five years to try anything that came my way, whether I liked it or not. Not that I had a choice. If the boss instructed it, I had to get it done. It was not my place to complain or be choosy even though my father was the senior partner. Work was work and that also meant respect to my immediate boss, Izzat. That was fine since I wanted to experience the breadth of practice, before deciding on depth; at least, at the time.
My friend’s ambition for me meant not taking on subordinate court work i.e., Magistrates and Sessions court work be it civil or criminal, and other inferior tribunal work. But as someone curious about most areas of law, who enjoys the mechanics of practice of law itself, and yearned to practice at all court levels and other tribunals, such as the industrial courts and the syariah courts, this exclusive practice in the superior-courts-appearances-only didn’t take with me.
My father’s firm was not set up for exclusivity. It was a generalist firm, your typical litigation/corporate-conveyancing firm model. So the litigation was also general, which I enjoyed and preferred. I did not have it in me for an exclusive practice. I had no desire to devote myself to a specific area of law or a section of the courts then or even now.
The reason was simple – I enjoyed whatever was assigned to me, no matter how mundane, how inane and how fruitless; even the boring bits I could appreciate as an irredeemable part of the whole. I saw it all as experience and I wanted as much experience as I could get. Back then everything in law and about the law was covered in dew and g-strings for me.
More importantly, I cultivated the ability to find something to take pleasure in whatever was assigned to me even though I didn’t like it at first. Before reading the case for understanding I would read it to find something that would interest me personally. That, for me, was the hook. Once I found the hook of interest, there was less resistance against me ‘entering’ the case. Disinterest creates resistance.
I treated every assignment mundane or minor as opportunities for experience and wanted as much of it as I could get. It did not matter how simple or complex the case was, how significant or insignificant the client was, or how much money was involved; the most important question was: Was there something interesting in this case to me? If there was, then on a personal level I had my own parallel motivation towards the case.
If there is something factually or legally interesting to me, then I am interested. I can enjoy taking my time cross-examinig a witness as I can quickly getting them out of the way one after the other. I enjoy the long battles as much as I do the short skirmishes. But despite all this fighting talk, I really think of cases in terms of food.
The contested High Court ones are like having to prepare and sit through a seven course dinner for one person. Such a dinner is inevitably elaborate, lengthy (usually because of a lot of side dishes), laborious, and if it goes on for too long, tedious. High Court cases are challenging, difficult, and draw upon the full strength of our experience, learning and efforts. If you have friends in the same room serving dinner with us, the experience becomes plesant, enjoyable even. There is usually an-overcoming-a-steep-hill kind of satisfaction to concluding a contested High Court trial. They are pleasurable in that way.
Appeals In the Court of Appeal or Federal Court are like serving a three course dinner at a three Michelin star restaurant. Each course must be excellent. Well we can fudge one course but the one that follows had better make up for it! We cannot be without the vital ingredients of errors in finding of fact or misdirection of law by the court below. We cannot be repetitive; if we served le naseh lemake for the starter, we best avoid the nasi lemak for the mains. Unlike a Michelin starred restaurant, we have to serve each course Mamak-shop-serving-drinks quick. Because of that much is pre-made but ready to be tweaked on the fly. There is just no time to cook each course on the spot.
For the Sessions Court and the Magistrates court the servings are anywhere between a nasi lemak bungkus to a full on Friday afternoon banana leaf with friends. The former is meant to refer to those straight straightforward where the trial can be and often is concluded in a day if all the witnesses turn up. The latter refers to those cases which can get complicated and turn into a bit of a circus if the judge doesn’t keep a tight reign on proceedings. I enjoy the quick and straightforward cases. I get that hit of accomplishment from finishing a case quicker doing subordinate court cases than I would a High Court case.
The syariah courts are like the gerai (stall) that serve the same fare as the subordinate courts but with a smaller menu, smaller, less discerning clientele and the food is prepared out of the kitchen abandoned by the subordinate and superior courts two decades ago. At least the latter are commendable in their valiant effort to digitize the kitchen. That allows for greater output and quality of cuisine and remote cooking. The syariah courts needs to consider a kitchen upgrade to keep up with the times. The industrial courts upgraded their kitchens when it moved the courts to the Wisma PERKESO in Kuala Lumpur.
If gerai food and a three Michelin star restaurant bookended the spectrum of food, I’d enjoy everything in between if I could, or learn to. And so it is with the courts too. At this point of my career, I can appreciate each of their respective uniqueness. To exclude the subordinate courts and other tribunals would significantly reduce my opportunities for the pleasure of doing legal work and collecting anecdotes.
Whatever the case, the nice thing about practising in Malaysia is after the win or loss, I have a teh tarik to nurse me through my loss or a sirap bandung to celebrate my win.