My Legal Baptism

In my twenty-three’ish year career at the Bar, there were two times I wanted to quit legal practice.

The first time was after my legal baptism.

And no, it wasn’t my call to the Bar. Calls are the formal legal baptisms. They are tame, sterile and at best, daintily pleasant affairs. It is a boat on a placid lake.

The real legal baptism is when a lawyer goes through an experience or ordeal so harrowing they seriously question whether they saw a future for themselves in legal practice. That one is a boat in a tsunami.

Mine happened sometime between my second and third years of legal practice. It happened at an appeal in an outstation High Court located at a state south of the Klang Valley. The appeal was against a Sessions Court’s dismissal of our client’s summary judgment application (‘SJ application’).

An SJ application filed by the plaintiff invites the court to enter judgment against a defendant on the grounds that the claim is clear and conclusive and the defendant has no defence to it. A defendant can defeat the application by disputing the facts of the claim or raising a defence to it.

Our client’s SJ application was to enter judgment only on liability against a firm of solicitors for negligence with damages to be assessed. What that means is we were asking the court to determine first whether the solicitors were at fault or not. The amount of compensation would be dealt with separately and later.

The reason for that was the facts of the case.

One day, to his surprise, our client was personally served a bankruptcy notice at his office. He headed one out of the many subsidiaries of a public listed company. Bankruptcy meant losing his job. The notice claimed he failed to pay in accordance with a court consent judgment he allegedly entered into several years previously.

A court file search later showed there was in fact such a consent judgment entered in the Magistrates Court. The judgment showed that our client along with the other defendants were represented by a firm of solicitors. Essentially one firm represented all the four or five defendants.

We wrote to the solicitors. We attached the judgment and asked them to confirm our client’s appointment of them. They wrote back candidly confirming our client did not appoint them directly. They claimed one of the defendants had appointed them to enter judgment on behalf of all the defendants. The solicitors said they did so because said defendant claimed he acted for our client and the other defendants.

We wrote back to ask for the letter from our client authorizing said defendant. They responded to say there was none. So our client sued them, the said defendant and the plaintiff company. He sued the plaintiff company to set aside the consent judgment against himself. He sued the firm of solicitors for negligence.

Seeing as how the solicitors had admitted their gross negligence by their own hand, I thought liability was an open-and-shut matter. All I had to do was chuck the judgment in, add the exchange of letters, and affirm the magic words (see O 14 r 2(1) with Form 13 of the Rules of Court 2012) et c’est voila! – a court-winning SJ application, liability only.

I now know, that when I start thinking that way, things are likely to go downhill from then on.

And so it did.

I attended court several times before the Sessions Court eventually dismissed the application. During one of my visits, I met an acquaintance there. When I told him the firm I was suing, he felt sorry for me. He told me the firm was an established one. The proprietor of the firm was well known in the state and did work for the customary government political parties. You are unlikely to win in this state, he told me ominously.

Our client appealed the dismissal of his SJ application to the High Court.

On the first hearing date for the appeal, I went down with my boss for the hearing. On the morning of the hearing, I met up with my boss at the office at seven in the morning and drove down together. I think I was between my first and second year of practice then. We arrived an hour earlier as my boss was the sort that liked to be at court at least an hour before it rose.

After breakfast nearby the courts, we went over just before 9am to wait for it to open. 9am came and went. The door remained locked. No other lawyers came or passed by the court. We seemed to be the only ones waiting outside court for the court to be opened.

After half an hour of waiting and wondering, we went to the court registration counter to find out what happened with our case. We met with a clerk. She told us the judge was not around because he was in Shah Alam hearing an old part-heard case. I was incensed at the situation.

Why weren’t we given notice about this? The court had ample time to inform us our hearing was adjourned. That would have saved us a trip down! I complained to the clerk. The clerk sarcastically replied that since our hearing was taken off, my boss and I should take the opportunity to ‘cuti-cuti Malaysia’. Then she turned and left.

Still unaccustomed to how legal practice was in Malaysia, I grew more incensed at the insolent response. I ranted all the way back to my boss who listened to my naivete about what Malaysian legal practice should be. How could the court not inform lawyers beforehand it was taking the hearing off? How can the court demand courtesy and respect but not respond with it? Doesn’t the court know that clients end up wasting fees and legal costs like that?

But that did not assuage the rage. When we got back to the firm, I headed straight and burst into my father’s room to complain about the treatment we received. He listened to my more refined complaint. After doing so, he suggested I write a letter of complaint to the judge about the matter and seek an apology.

I left straightaway to write the letter and had it sent out the next day. A week or so later, whilst I was in the office, the receptionist calls me over and says a judge’s secretary wishes to speak to me. I picked up the phone and heard a lady tell me that the judge had read my complaint and extends his apology for not informing us that our hearing was taken off. I thanked her and thought how very civilized Malaysian legal practice was!

Because of the court schedule, the hearing was postponed a few times and finally re-fixed more than a year later after the original hearing date. By then my boss had pretty much left the case in my care entirely.

And that set me up for my legal baptism.

On the morning of the appeal hearing, I felt confident about it. I felt the facts and law were with me despite the novelty of applying for summary judgment on a claim of negligence. I had long forgotten about my letter of complaint.

When the court was first in session, the judge was in a good mood. He confirmed the attendance of the lawyers for the respective parties on the cause list that morning. There were a few applications, one appeal (mine) and two trials. He announced he needed a bit more time to go through the case files to work out which matter he would hear first.

Those of us in court fell back to our usual banter amongst each other or returned to our previous respective preoccupations. Suddenly, after less than an hour, we heard the judge walk in. The court police officer clumsily announced his entrance even as he moved steadily to his seat. He moved purposively. His face bore a foul mood. If his previous face reflected sunshine and calm, his current one bore thunder, lightning and lashing rain.

The interpreter called up my case. I leapt to my feet. I introduced myself and my opponent. The judge immediately started with his questions and launched one after another immediately after I answered.

“Which university did you do your law?”

“Bristol University, my lord.”

“That’s a good university. Did you do the Bar or the CLP?”

“CLP, my lord.”

“How many years have you been in practice?”

“Finished two, my lord. I am in my third year.”

“Have you been practicing law in those three years?”

It was at this point that I wondered where exactly we were going with this line of questioning although I had a vague premonition it would not end well.

“Uh… my lord? Practice?”

“Yes. You know. Drafting cause papers. Preparing submissions. Doing legal research. Knowing the law!”

“Yes, of course, my lord.”

“Did you draft these cause papers?”

“Yes, my lord. I am in charge of this matter.”

“So you are the stupid idiot that filed the summary judgment application for a claim of negligence against a firm of solicitors!” he shouted. Mind you, mine was the first matter called. All the lawyers were present in court. The gallery was full of witnesses, litigants, their friends and family members. My head suddenly felt light and hot.

“Uh… my lord?”

“Which idiot files a summary judgment for a claim of negligence? There will always be a dispute of facts in a negligence claim! This is elementary, Encik… what’s your name again?”

“Fahri Az..”

“Look here Fazri, in all my years in practice and on the bench I have never seen a summary judgment for a claim of negligence. You think you just want to cut short the trial is it? You think you are a cowboy is it?”

“No, my lord! If …”

“The courts are clogged up because of stupid lawyers like you filing stupid applications like these. You should have taken the hint when the sessions dismissed your application. You young fellas think you can just come and simply file all kinds of applications? Now you clog up my list with this stupid appeal. Just go for trial! I know people from Bristol University, Fazri. They don’t behave like this. You are a disgrace to your university! You are a disgrace to legal practice!”

Those were the last words I remember. The judge went on with his barrage for another ten minutes. Although I heard him, I wasn’t listening anymore. None of it was good, more of the same. I let the words wash over me. My body absorbed the heat of his words and felt hotter and hotter. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out.

“So Fazri, are you going to withdraw your appeal?”

I seemed to regain my focus at the precise moment of that question.

“I am sorry, my lord. I need instructions for that. I don’t have them this morning. May I humbly seek a short adjournment to seek my client’s instructions?”

“You tell your client if you withdraw the appeal, I am open to not ordering costs. But if you proceed and lose, I have to order costs. I do that for frivolous appeals. You understand?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Give him a date,” he said to the interpreter.

I left the court as soon as possible avoiding eye contact with anyone. Between the time I left the court and reached my car, I grew hotter and hotter. I felt like an exploding supernova that could not explode. There was a powerful heady mix of humiliation, shame frustration, anger, confusion, disappointment and outrage all bottled up in me. The hour drive back to the office was unbearable. I was burning the whole way back. My world was on fire. Everything seemed on fire.

On the way back, the incident replayed itself in my mind over and over again, each time deepening the shame and humiliation I felt.

If this was what legal practice was like, I was done with it. I didn’t need this disrespect and humiliation in carrying out my work. If my application was stupid then dismiss the damn thing, whack me with costs and be done with it. But there was no need to break my head over it. At the end of the day, that’s what the client wanted. I resolved to tell my father I was quitting practice when I got back to the office. This was it.

I burst into my father’s room right as soon as I arrived at the office.

“Dad! I am quitting practice. I am done. This practice thing is bullshit! I am so disgusted with practice. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Whoa, whoa, there. What happened?”

“The judge humiliated me in court this morning. He shouted at me in front of a full gallery, Dad! Everyone was there. Everybody saw and heard everything. They will all think I am a horrible lawyer! I can’t step into court again after this.”

“Okay, okay. hang on. Hang on.”

My father buzzed the intercom on his phone.

“Izzat? What are you doing? Ah. Fahri had a bit of an issue in court today. Can you come over for a short while? Ah, thanks.”

My boss came in almost immediately. His room was next to my father’s.

“Ah, come Izzat. Have a seat. Fahri here had a bad day in court. Okay, Fahri, why don’t you tell us what happened that has you feeling this way?”

I related the entire incident to them as they listened patiently without interruption.

“That sounds like a very bad day in court, Fahri. Right, Izzat?”

“Yah.”

“I know you are very upset about it. But do you know what, Fahri? Truth is, we’ve all had those kinds of days in court. Me, Izzat, Uncle Chua, Uncle Gurdial, all of us. Do you know what happened to Izzat when he was in his first year?”

“No.”

“Well, Izzat was rudely told by the judge to shut up midway while he was submitting and accused him of talking rubbish. He also got a scolding like you did. And me? I also was told by a judge once that I was stupid and not making sense. I got a scolding from him in open court. You see, Fahri, you will have very good days and you will have very bad days, with most of them falling in between. Today was a very bad day for you. But it’s not the end of the world. Nobody will remember today.”

“I do.”

“Okay, okay, you do. Fine. But nobody else in that courtroom will. They won’t remember you or your name. They have other things to worry about. Maybe you were provided some entertainment for them this morning but that’s it. They will forget you. So don’t be too hasty about quitting practice.”

“Yah, Fahri. Practice is like that. After a while, you get used to it. You get a thicker skin. My skin is thick now because of all the scoldings and bashing I used to get. You will get better. Now you know how to better deal with the situation next time. You will get over it. Just forget about it. It’s over. Move on. Don’t look back.”

I took my father and boss’s words to heart. Not immediately, of course. I struggled to apply their advice for about a month or so before I finally could let the incident go. It was only about a month after the incident the fiery blaze in me subsided. It was only after that I could shrug off the heat of humiliation and shame.

And when I finally cooled, I discovered my skin had become a little thicker and my resolve to practice a little stronger. I was going to get better at this thing called legal practice. I resolved I was not going to give up.

A few months later I felt revitalized and refreshed. I was hungrier than ever to practice and stay in practice.

That was my legal baptism; as painful and unpleasant as it may have been, I am grateful for it.

1 thought on “My Legal Baptism”

  1. Thank you, Fahri, for sharing that! Those are some wise words from your dad and boss. I hope you have a fulfilling career! 😀

    Reply

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