While hanging about the Jalan Raja criminal magistrates in the afternoon in my second year of practice, a friend introduced me to a senior-looking lawyer. He was a Malay man in his late 50s or early 60s.
He was a former prosecuting officer (PO) who now swung for the defence. He was not a deputy public prosecutor (DPP). Back then, police officers with the rank of Inspector could and would carry out prosecutions in the criminal magistrates’ courts. A PO, however, could not appear in any higher court. They are now rare because the DPP took over them in the magistrates’ court.
The former PO was short and stocky. He was tan and had pockmarked cheeks, thick curly black hair and shifty eyes. When put together with his other features, he had a hard, rough-looking face that looked like it had seen, surrendered and succumbed to the corruption around him.
Back then, whenever I went to court I brought along with me at least a non-fiction book with a notebook together with the Rules of the High Court or Subordinate Court Rules. So stocked, I was never bored in court when I had to wait in court. And I waited a lot in court. A major part of my time in court was spent waiting for something to happen. When I started out I used to joke I was a waiter instead of a lawyer.
But the point about that incident was at one point during his declamations, the senior lawyer noticed me clutching my slim collection of reading and writing material. I never forgot what he said to me.
‘Wah. You carry so many books with you, young man! You like to read is it?’
‘Yes. It is something to do while I wait in court.’
‘I am more of the talking type of lawyer. I use my brain and my mouth to win cases. I am not the reading type. I don’t like to read. It’s very boring. But if you like to read, that is good for you. But for me, that’s not my style.’ This was a time when written submissions were not yet de rigueur in the lower courts.
My mind stopped processing everything else after that. The senior carried on talking but I was not listening. My mind was buzzing.’Not my style’? How do you practice law without reading? How do we know the law, keep up with it and discover decisions that have a bearing on our cases if we did not read, know and understand?
I know he practised criminal matters in the magistrates’ court only, but that was no excuse. I was a frequent patron of that establishment as well as the sessions court for my legal aid work. I could not get by without reading. I made sure to read the Criminal Procedure Code, statutes, law reports, and textbooks to make sure I knew what I was doing and doing it as it should be done.
That was twenty-plus years ago. Maybe such lawyers could get away with it back then. I don’t think ‘the talking type of lawyer’ can cut it in this present text-heavy document medium digital age. They are a relic of the past. And deservedly so.
Any lawyer that does not make a habit of reading should not be in the practice of law. It is a prerequisite. A lawyer that does not read the case documents and relevant law and dares to give serious professional advice or provide representation is a danger to the public and himself.