Some hard truths about legal practice

In October this year, I accepted an invitation by Mr. Harcharan Singh to give a talk to the university’s law students at an event called Taylor’s Dialogues on the Law. Mr. Harcharan left practice after 29 years at the bar to teach law. He is now a senior lecturer at Taylor’s University. He got in touch after he read Answer yes or no only, understand?

The purpose of Dialogues on the Law is to expose law students to ‘experts about their thoughts on particular legal issues and to start dialogues about those issues’. I was given a free hand on the topic. I chose the title: Some hard truths about legal practice. I had half to three-quarters of an hour to speak about the topic followed by a question and answer session.

I chose that topic because I noticed a trend amongst the lawyers coming into practice over these last few years. Many harbour untempered expectations and attitudes about legal practice and some do not deal well with the vicissitudes of legal practice.

In my assessment, they expect too much too soon or felt entitled too soon, or both. That kind of expectation or attitude is a slippery slope that easily slides down the path of frustration and disappointment with legal practice. The aim of the talk was to lower the law students’ expectations at what they might find at the end of that legal education rainbow. To explain that a better approach to begin one’s practice is to carry few expectations instead of many.

One does not begin a career with one’s jug of expectations filled to the brim because we will spend the rest of our career emptying it. It is far less emotionally and psychologically daunting to begin with a slightly filled jug and spend the rest of our career filling it up, if at all, we feel the need to.

The talk, according to Mr. Harcharan, was well received by the law students. There were no burnt effigies of me found the day after on the university grounds. I did not receive ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ posters on my social media. These absences satisfyingly corroborate Mr. Harcharan’s assessment of their feedback.

Naturally, I wanted to share the talk here. But, quite naturally too, I forgot where I put the piece of paper I hurriedly scrawled my speaking points after I was done with my talk. After failing to find the damn thing these last two weeks, I decided to rewrite the talk I gave and hope it comes as close to what I imparted that morning.

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Good morning to all of you.

Today, I intend to tell you four hard truths about legal practice. There are more, but these will do this morning.

I use the word, Hard, because it may be difficult to hear or take given our conditioning.

I do this not to dissuade you from it. I do this so you understand and join the legal profession or working life with an appropriate expectation and attitude. This is important to avoid ending up disappointed and jaded too quickly or intensely. It is also important to ensure we continue to develop and grow into the best version of ourselves as lawyers. The right mentality sets us up optimally to deal with adversities; the wrong mentality damns us to eventual misery and mediocrity.

The first truth is that your suffering is not unique or special.

I know you studied hard to get to where you are. I know you worked hard to get to a good law school, cultivated the right teachers, and hit the grades you wanted. I know of your many sleepless nights to finish those assignments to the standard you intended. I know of fun moments sacrificed because you prioritized your studies and grades. I know you gave your best and more. I know all about your trials and tribulations.

But these are hardships and trials and tribulations students that came before you suffered too. It is not unique. It is not special. In fact, it is so common, it is really not worth mentioning. All of us had to go through our respective hardships and trials and tribulations to get through high school, college, and university. I did. My parents did. Your parents too. Many that came before us and many that will come after us will suffer some degree of stress over the state of their education.

If you think your education was tough, listen to the next generation.

Your experience of hardship and suffering for your education makes you as common as you are unique. Your suffering may not make you unique, but it gives you something better – an opportunity to empathise with those that came before you and that will come after you. It is a reminder we are part of this great family of humanity that has gone through the same experience but in different ways.

Be respectful of those that came before you as those after you – they may have suffered more than you ever did in getting to the same place. Be moderate and temperate in celebrating your achievements, particularly your public ones.

The second truth is that nobody cares about your degree or what your grades are.

In the working world, we are judged and measured by what we can actually do and do well, rather than what grades we got. In the working world, our paper is akin to a foot in the door; it chinks it open and could possibly even hold it open for a little while, but it won’t send us through. Our paper was issued by an academic institution. It certifies how well we know what they teach us. It does not certify what we can do with that knowledge.

In truth, all our grades say about us is how well we were at passing the exams our university teachers or educational organizations have set for us. That we responded with the correct answers or the answers our teachers expected of us. From that, they infer our learning ability and intelligence.

We are graded because we cannot measure our intelligence or learning ability directly. There is no test available to tell us that. So we rely on proxy (indirect) indicators to infer the quality we want. Our educational grades are therefore really a proxy indicator of our intelligence. Now because it is a proxy indicator, although it is useful, it is only accurate, thorough, or sound on a balance of probabilities.

People in the working world intuitively know this. That is why employers do not rely on our degrees but want us to be interviewed, tested, and checked before we are hired. They want to find out whether we can actually do the work. Do we have what it takes? They are not looking simply for book intelligence. They want other qualities too, which are just as if not more important.

They want initiative, creativity, emotional intelligence, psychological resilience, street smarts, honesty, trust, etc. Our degree gives no insight into any of these things.

I got into a good law school at the time. Bristol University. Completed the law degree with a decent second upper. I chose to study my Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP) Course at University Malaya (UM) instead of some private institution because I felt it had more prestige to it. At the time, I thought these things were important. I thought it would impress the clients.

But you know how many cared I was from Bristol University? None. You know how many clients asked me what I scored for my law degree? Zero. And nobody cared that I went to UM for my CLP. Nobody cared to hear my trials and tribulations in getting my law degree or passing the CLP on the first go. The furthest it goes with me is, So you study your law where again? Australia? No, sir. England. I see, England good for law yah? Yes, sir. Were you in London? No, sir. I was in Bristol. It’s a town in the south-east of England, about 2 hours by bus. Oh, I see. I haven’t heard of Bristol. That’s alright, sir.

We know talk is cheap but these days paper is cheaper. With the multitude of universities offering law these days, those papers grow more expensive even as they lose their utility. In the working world, it is no longer about paper. Clients only are interested in you because of what you can do for them, not what you are. It is about realizable deployable skills that people need to rely on to get the job done. If you cannot realize and deploy those skills then we are useless to our clients and hence the firm.

The third truth is that you are not a unique precious snowflake yet.

I know within the company of your family and friends, you are a unique precious snowflake.

But outside of it, you are not. When you start working, you are just another resume, just another applicant, just another categorized statistic. Outside in the working world, you are competition; competition amongst your friends, acquaintances, and strangers for jobs, opportunities, advancement, fame, and glory. Outside the family, you begin your career as a nobody. It is up to you that you do not remain that way.

I feel pretty confident in saying that for my peers, my seniors, and I, we thought of ourselves as nobodies when we started practice. We took the scolding and abuse we were subjected to because we understood that although it was strictly not part of the teaching, it came with the curriculum. And whatever didn’t kill us, made us stronger. We took it in that spirit.

As pupils, as young lawyers, we did not think ourselves in a position to demand or be entitled to anything. We were grateful for what we got even as we felt we deserved more and were prepared to sweat, bleed and work for it. The mentality we had was, I know I start from the bottom, but I am going to work hard to finish on top. I may know nothing now, but I will know much more later. I may not be good now, but I will be great later.

A long career is like a marathon. The moment we enter the working world, be it the legal profession or otherwise, we begin at the starting line jostling with everyone else for an advantageous position. Once the gun goes, we’re off. Each of us will run with our respective innate abilities, learned abilities, motivations, psychology, etc. Each of us will run at our own pace. The longer we run, the more apparent our qualities will be. It is only deep into that run that we distinguish ourselves from others, for better or for worse.

The longer you stay in your craft and continue to hone it, refine it and enjoy it, the better you will be able to positively distinguish yourself from others. Once you do that you will be out of the competition. You don’t have to compete with anybody anymore because the clients want you for you. In distinguishing yourself positively from others you become a unique precious snowflake everyone wants, well subject to your fee quote, of course.

The fourth truth is your expectations can harm you.

Be careful how high, how tightly, and how many expectations you hold in coming to legal practice. The more you hold, the higher you hold them and the tighter you cling to those expectations, the greater you will be made miserable by them. This much I can promise you.

I compare holding expectations with running fast. The more you hold, the faster you run. The tighter and higher you hold them, the more fiercely you commit to the run. The problem comes when you hit a wall. The problem is, in life, there are many walls. Many pop up without a soundtrack. It is a painful thing to run into walls; real ones and even the ones in our minds.

I know because I came to legal practice with many planet-sized ideals and expectations held by an iron grip. I ran fast and crashed through many walls with my expectations. I hurt myself a lot and often. That made me a young frustrated angry man for a while because I failed to understand that the world – situations, people – did not conform to my ideals and expectations. It won’t.

I’d like to think I do not harbour such delusions anymore. The problem with us is when we know little we tend to think we know a lot, and think we know little after learning a lot. And expectations although they cost nothing to conjure and claim, they exercise a significant influence on us.

What is to say your expectations that were disappointed were reasonable in the first place? Did you ever stop to ask yourself asked how reasonable it is for you to hold those expectations given what you know and experience? And if those expectations are met, then what?

So it is important for you to temper and manage your expectations about legal practice and your place in it. If you calibrate it right, keep it small, keep it few, keep it light, you are going to learn more and enjoy it too. You are going to give yourself many opportunities for delight.

Make your legal practice oriented for discovery, not expectation. Avoid converting your legal experience simply as something to be measured against to see whether it meets your expectations or not. That is a sure way to kill any love and enjoyment for legal practice. That is a sure way to prevent you from learning much more than you would.

And with that, I have concluded my talk. I am now happy to take any questions you have.

Thank you.

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